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Constraints: A Beneficial Writing Hack

I have plenty of time yet. I would like something to eat, but what? I open the fridge door. Carrots and celery, cheese, hard boiled eggs, banana pickles. I close the door and shuffle to the pantry cupboard. Graham crackers, gummy worms, pretzels? But nope, I go sit on the couch, still distracted. I pick up my phone. Disenchanted after several taps, I lay it down. Nothing grabs my focus and motivates me. I should just get to work. I glance at the clock. It teases me. I’m wasting time. I decide I have fifteen minutes before I must write my blog post. Grabbing a tea mug, I heat water and find a tea bag of Earl Gray. I slice some cheese and lay it beside some pretzels and fresh fruit on a vintage plate. I light a candle. Fifteen minutes of bliss from a simple time constraint.

Similarly, I’ve stared at the blank page. I want to write. I know I want to write. Everything has already been written and what’s my voice among thousands? I could write any story or poem or essay. I believe in my writing abilities, but what do I write? At first glance, constraints in writing can feel counterintuitive, but restrictions actually bring focus and clarity to the project.


Constraint: a limitation or constraint, being bound by some condition.


Giving your students constraints takes time, effort, and mental energy. Teachers are tempted to go the easy route and let the student figure things out on their own. It’s easy for them to tell students, “Today let’s write a story”. Somehow the results are wrinkle-up-your-nose-too-common. Teachers sigh over the cliché, incomplete, and messy plot lines that get handed in. Students felt paralyzed by the blank page and their focus remains fragmented. This all can be avoided if the teacher is willing to dig in and offer constraints.


What does a constraint in a composition class look like?


Constraints can be small methods educators employ to help students focus on the task at hand. It can include setting the timer, giving a specific word count, not allowing being verbs, or writing something down that nobody else in the class would think of. These little hacks help students enhance their creativity.

Require a specific story. The teacher could tell a story from his childhood when the cows got out, showing the fear and responsibility he felt as they ran away. He could remember the dialogue he had with his dad when dad got home from work. Then he could ask the students to verbalize their stories of when an animal or pet got away from them. After students verbalize it, he could ask them to write a three paragraph story on how it happened, and to include some dialogue. Suddenly students know exactly what to write and will be more eager to get started. With constraints, students write fresher pieces instead of clichés. Constraints enhance creativity.

Do your students a favor by narrowing the topics for their English or Literature assignments. Perhaps your student is supposed to write a lesson from a Bible character. Give your student two or three options to choose from instead of twenty. For a poem they need to write, give them particular Bible verse to base it on. For essays, select a topic for them that you believe they will do well in. Bingo! The focus is narrowed down enough for students to think through what they want to write. Some students will even be relieved to have you do the selecting for them and others will gain confidence knowing that you believe they have the mastery needed for that topic.


Here are some examples of assignments we have offered our students. Notice how this first list not only gives the character but also the attribute of the character to focus on.

· Faith of Noah

· Courage of Esther

· Brashness of Jephtha

· Mission of the boy who gave his lunch

Base your poem on a Bible verse:

· If my people will humble themselves…

· Sing unto the Lord…

· In the beginning God created…

For persuasive essays:

· A nutritious school lunch (How & Why)…

· The best classroom pet…

· Why study in the age of google…

· Why singing in the shower is common and why it’s good for you…

· The best way to eat pie…

· What your classroom argues over and what it shows about them…

For paragraph ideas use denominational idiosyncrasies (of conservative churches):

· How we speed to church so we don’t look bad getting to church late…

· How we mob fast food restaurants after events and think they should like it...

· How we think our denomination is the most balanced one…

· How we think people are weird who think we are weird…


By giving the students a relevant topic, a position on which to express themselves, the actual writing process isn’t as difficult. Be sure to pick something that is on par with the student’s level. Again, it’ll take time to come up with good story pitches, poem starters, and speech ideas, but I guarantee you’ll reap rewards. Don’t settle for less!


Here are some ideas for teachers on how to get to know students and then be able to assign excellent speech or writing ideas to them. It may seem difficult to come up with appropriate speech and essay topics, but tune into your students and get to know them. Jot down ideas as you think of them.

· Get to know student’s likes and dislikes

· Pay attention to what they write in free writing exercises

· Listen to lunch time and recess conversations

· Learn to know their families/aunts/uncles

· Ask about their pets

· Talk about the home chores they are in charge of

· Remember family trips they’ve taken

· Notice what books they are reading or what school subject they shine in

· Think about their dad’s business or their families side hustle


This really does work. Here are some examples of speech ideas we gathered by using the methods above:

· How to trim a cat

· What I keep in my pocket

· Three things to remember when pouring concrete

· The history of the river behind my house

· Playing a joke on my favorite uncle

· How to do calligraphy

· How my dad came to join the Mennonites


Our creative writing curriculum includes quite a few lessons that impose boundaries and constraints on a student’s writing. Whether or not you use our curriculum, I hope you can find ways to help your students get excited about the writing process. Constraints always enhance our creativity.


I’m off to finish drinking my tea. ;-)

~ Jennifer Yoder

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