These are handouts that I’ve created for various college-level writing courses.  Please use and adapt them as you see fit. I’ve put them here, needless to say, because I’ve found that they help the cause.

Some of these materials are from creative writing courses (fiction and non-fiction), some from courses on writing idea-based essays.  Some could apply in either context.

A note on navigation: The list of items in this category is too long for the drop-down menu to accommodate. The complete list is in the table of contents below. The title of each item is a link taking you to that page.


1. Ways to Critique Writing

Lays the groundwork for in-class discussion of student writing, the #1 priority in any writing course of mine. This handout is about both the rationale for having such discussions and specific ways of giving feedback.

2. Thoughts on Revising

This is not about how to improve sentences, it’s about the thought process underlying the act of revision. It’s about the mindset from which you revise. A student of mine once said, “Revision is an attitude toward writing.” This handout is trying to be about that.

3. Better Writing by This Time Tomorrow

Ten pages of nutritious, whole-wheat advice about revising and improving writing on the sentence or single word level.

4. Scene and Summary (and Gap)

Crucial concepts for writing narrative: what a scene is, the difference between scene and summary, the idea that a narrative is an orchestration of scene, summary, and gaps. This handout was written for a creative non-fiction class, but only slight modification is necessary for a fiction class.

5. Believing and Doubting

An in-class exercise, invented by the Bard Institute on Writing & Thinking, whose purpose is to help a writer strengthen the content and argument of an idea-based paper.

6. A two-person dialogue

Assignment from a fiction writing class, with some thoughts on dialogue technique.

7. Thoughts on Writing Dialogue

More on technique, including the basics of how to put dialogue on the page.

8. How to Think Story

Handout from a beginning fiction class, about “the thinking that goes on underneath the story. The invisible part of the story, the underwater part of the iceberg, the hull of the ship below the waterline, the action backstage.”

9. The Four Elements

Also from a beginning fiction class. A one-page form that encourages students to ponder what I think of as the four elements that must be present for a story to begin: a character, a situation, a place, and a narrative voice. I use this when they’ve just begun a story, to help them consolidate their sense of what they’re doing in it.

10. Form of the Short Story

I use this as the starting point in my beginning fiction class because a grasp of form is a powerful tool. Form in art is not a dead thing, not a stenciled outline to be colored in. Rather, form is a thought that has evolved over a long time, in a particular culture, about what works – in this case, what works as a satisfying shape of a story for readers in our culture.

11. Writing Problem: Beginning

The things I call “writing problems” are intended to raise students’ awareness of issues of technique. This one consists of the beginnings of six short stories, chosen to support a discussion of what gets accomplished at the beginning of a story. Especially in the case of a story the students haven’t read, I like to ask, “So what do you know about the story, just from this?” and get them to pull all the meaning they can out of the beginning. Often a group of attentive readers will be able to tell you a lot of what the story’s about, and some of what happens in it. This comes as a pleasant surprise and, I think, a valuable lesson to a beginning student of fiction writing.

12. Conventions of Academic Papers

This originated when a student in my first-year writing class wrote a very idiosyncratic (and intelligent) piece about the book we were reading, creatively framed as a letter from one character to another.  Having finished that piece, she wrote me a note which said “I would like to know how to make this into a ‘real’ paper.”  I therefore created this handout.

13. Peer Review of Student Writing

I often have students give each other critiques in class by working in pairs. This item includes several forms I hand out to students to guide them, first in reflecting on their own piece, then in giving feedback to someone else.

Making peer review genuinely useful is essential to dealing with a writing teacher’s workload. In the insightful words of Barbara Walvoord, the goal is to use class time to get the students to produce comments of the kind the teacher would be writing on their papers outside of class.

14. Proofreading and Copy-Editing

This handout represents my way of getting my students to proofread their papers. Essentially, I point out that certain kinds of errors occur in certain lines of their piece, but I leave it up to them to find the error(s) in a given line. I’m hoping that this active searching leads to some eventual  ability to catch mistakes without this kind of prompting.

15. Knowing Ignorance Is Strength

Some questions to ask oneself while writing a story, mostly about things that aren’t known and perhaps cannot be written.

16. Thoughts on Form: Memoir and its Neighbors

“The power of form, which appears in countless manifestations in the human world, is that it enables congruence, mind to mind.”

A definition of memoir and ways to distinguish it from the forms it rubs elbows with, personal essay and personal narrative.

17. What to Write?

A handout from a creative non-fiction writing class. Eighteen starters to help people find a subject to write about.

18. Writing Problem: Endingness

Like the item on beginnings (#11), this is intended to foreground technique.In this one I want my students to work from empirical data — the endings of real pieces of writing — and try to define aspects of a hypothetical quality called “endingness.” There is no need to have read the pieces from which these endings came, and it may even help not to have read them because the ending is then more of an abstract artifact, an archaeological find through which one can try to glimpse a larger culture.

I’ve used this with many classes, and it has reliably produced interesting, perceptive and I believe learningful discussions.

19. Thoughts on Time and Endings

Ideas that came out of discussions of endingness. Different kinds of time that come to an end (or don’t) in an ending; some ways time may work within the ending itself; things that an ending might “make it seem”; the need to let go of the reader by allowing the reader to find the “right” way out of a piece.