October 6th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

Teaching Creative Writing: Syllabus as Story, Story as Scaffolding

A syllabus tells a story.  The story I work to make mine tell is, It all fits together.

When I teach an introductory creative writing course, I try to make every one of the course’s components “belong together.”  I try to design and arrange these components so that they’re engaged in “conversation”—so that they not only usefully complement one another, but lead to and precede from each other in ways that model process.  I’d like, above all, for my students to become consciously and unconsciously aware of how these components are “aware” of their fellow components.

By “course components,” I mean first-day activities, readings, close reading, freewrites, exercises, workshop/peer review, annotations, presentations, conversations, student-teacher conferences, grading rubrics, teaching persona, and the like—anything a teacher builds, administers, moderates, and is responsible for.

But course components that “belong together,” that “converse,” that are “aware”?  You might be thinking, “Joe, that’s vague.”  Or, “Duh.”

To ground these metaphors, I’d like to offer a term employed by pedagogical scholars, a term you might already be familiar with: scaffolding.

You’re “scaffolding” your assignments when you break bigger projects (such as the creation of a complete short story) into “a series of shorter, discrete writing tasks that slowly build in cognitive complexity.”  In other words, your course components lock and snap together like the scaffolding erected at construction sites.  The components stack upward and outward.  They accumulate height, width, and depth.  They maintain stability through connection.  And they begin to contain space.

In that space is something that isn’t scaffolding.

When the scaffolding is removed, this something—if all goes according to plan—stands on its own.

(In the most ideal situations this is not only true for the student, who with the scaffolding’s assistance has created a work that can stand on its own, but is also true for the teacher, who with the scaffolding’s assistance has created the kind of learning experience that can stand on its own.)

I hasten to add that a teacher doesn’t need to have heard of this term to employ this technique!  When a thoughtful teacher carefully designs courses, he/she a.) creates elegant scaffolding without thinking of it as such, and/or b.) through different means achieves the same results: students who arrive at an understanding that stands on its own.

So I can only speak for myself: when I first asked myself, Self, why do you assign the assignments you assign, and why do you assign them in the order you assign them? I listened to myself give myself the lamest of answers: Because.

Because that’s how it’s done.

When I finally rejected this empty explanation—when I revised the story my syllabus tells from Because to It all fits together, when I actively scaffolded all course components—I felt like I’d cast a spell: my students, it seemed, learned more quickly, more deeply, and with more excitement, the excitement stemming from their greater awareness of their learning.

These are pedagogy basics.  But what I needed, and needed badly (and continue to need), were these basics.

What follows are examples of scaffolding from an introductory fiction course I taught last summer.  We used two texts:  The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell (an immensely useful, graceful, and ingenious craft book that I can’t recommend highly enough) and The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and RS Gwynn.  We also read many pieces from literary magazines, story collections, and literary blogs.  The course was divided into two phases.  In the first, the students read a bunch and wrote exercises.  In the second, we workshopped their fiction.

The five exercises summarized below are a.) rooted in the above readings b.) part of phase one c.) sequenced to lead to the workshop phase:

Exercise #1 – Headlights in the Dark: The students freewrite answers to an “alternate character questionnaire” from The Half-Known World.  They take these answers home.  They copy-paste the one they’re most excited about into a new document.  This is now their opening passage.  They write forward from there, resisting the urge to stop and plan, to outline.  Boswell: “You do not know what the character wants, but you may have enough that you can begin exploring the character in a narrative, and you may eventually discover it.”

Exercise #2 – Sounding it Out: The students write a language-driven passage, using one or more techniques taken from readings—“Don DeLillo on the Raw Materials of a Story,” “Michael Kimball On Working With Acoustics” (big thanks to Matt Bell), and Ursula K. LeGuin on sound (excerpted from Steering the Craft).

Exercise #3 – Paradigm Shift: The students follow a very prescriptive five-scene structure where a character experiences a “paradigm shift” as described in The Half-Known World.

Exercise #4 – Radical Revision: After encountering magical realism (“Fatso” by Etgar Keret) and an “unreliable” narrator (“Why I Live at the PO” by Eudora Welty), the students radically revise something they’ve produced for this course (a previous exercise, a freewrite, etc.) so that it a.) thoroughly embraces the magical realist mode or b.) is thoroughly shaped by an “unreliable” narrator.

Exercise #5 – Narrative Spandrels: As in Exercise #4, the students return to something they’ve written for this class.  They read the piece with a pen in hand, searching for “narrative spandrels” as described in The Half-Known World.  After discovering these spandrels, the students revise the piece, creating new scenes and a new ending.

I tried to give these five exercises an arc—they move from process-based  composition techniques for creating incomplete drafts (#1 and #2), to prescriptive techniques for creating complete drafts (#3), to revision strategies (#4 and #5).  This arc is supported by in-class discussion, compositional and reflective freewrites, imitation exercises, and as much pedagogical transparency as possible.

In no way am I suggesting that this is the “best” or “right” way to teach creative writing.  The more I chew on pedagogical matters, the more I taste how much there is to learn.  It’s humbling, how much I’ve yet to learn, but it also makes me hungry.


Joseph Scapellato teaches English and Creative Writing as an adjunct professor at Susquehanna University and Bucknell University. His fiction appears/is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Post Road, The Collagist, Artifice, Unsaid, and others. He’s currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.


  1. deadgod


      Also, synergy is a word that deserves rescuing from accumulation apologists.

  2. Coatlicue

      I’ve been struggling with the redesign of my creative writing course and well, just my thanks for the inspiration and model!

  3. JScap

      deadgod — funny that you mention “synergy”: I’d included it in an earlier draft of this post.  Then cut it.  Tastes too product-focus-groupy for me.  Like you, I await that word’s salvation!

      Coatlicue — glad to hear this might help!

  4. gunter voelker

      I love this, and I love The Half-Known World.  And I love Robert Boswell.  I have lots of love to give.