How To Create More Authentic Writing Assignments For Students

What Is An Authentic Writing Assignment?

An ‘authentic’ writing assignment is one designed to have an actual purpose or goal (usually to an external audience outside of the classroom). A useful way to understand authentic writing assignments is in contrast to academic writing assignments whose purpose is to meet academic criteria (usually to an internal audience within the classroom).

So how can you create authentic writing assignments for students? It has to do with audience and purpose. As background, let’s look more broadly at content with a few premises:

I. Writing should communicate something: an experience, an idea, a reflection, information, etc.

II. The underlying assumption of any writing that is intended to be published–that is, made public–is that the content is something others (i.e., the ‘public’) might want or need to know. (Otherwise, what’s the point of making it public?)

III. Published writing also has the added responsibility of being either useful or compelling–ideally both. Publishable writing, then, is writing that is something others might want or need to know that is useful and/or compelling.

IV. There is an added burden of ‘publishability’ in digital contexts: competition for attention. There’s a functionally infinite number of media and media forms and, for better or for worse, those wanting their writing to be read are ‘competing’ to be read.

With that in mind, let’s consider a student writing a short essay on climate change. Generally, the ‘audience’ of an essay like this is the teacher and the goal is to meet quality criteria communicated by the teacher–often in the form of a rubric or scoring guide of some kind.

In this case, the ‘audience’ (i.e., the teacher) has a strong inherent interest in the quality of the writing but a reduced interest in the content of the writing.

If the student was, instead, writing to a more authentic ‘external’ audience of some kind–a local business with a weak or strong record of polluting local creeks, rivers, and watersheds–the reader would likely care less about the quality (though obviously quality matters) and more about the purpose and content (and tone) of the essay.

Since students often write with the teacher and/or peers as their audience, the audience in these cases is compulsory and the feedback loop de-emphasizes content and emphasizes ‘quality’ (as dictated by academic standards, the teacher, etc.) Over time, students can be conditioned to believe that someone wants to read what they write–which can make as much sense as a politician campaigning under the assumption that everyone already wants to vote for them.

In that way, all writing has at least some persuasive elements to it: writers are attempting to convince the reader to accept their thesis, or to suspend disbelief while reading their fiction, and so on.

The easiest way to add authenticity to any writing assignment is to start with an authentic (to the student) audience and purpose. That is, help the writer develop a specific purpose with a specific audience. Spend a lot of time here as a kind of pre-writing. Brainstorm. Consider other compelling writing and backward-engineer it. Ask students, ‘Who are you writing to and why? What do you hope the writing ‘does’?’ And if you and the student together can’t come up with a precise and compelling answer, go back to the drawing board.

Is it possible that a reader will finish reading the writing and shrug, thinking, ‘So what?’ or even ‘Okay, now what?’

Start with something simple like a text message to a parent or friend. Who is the audience and what’s the purpose? Now get a little more complex–a nursery rhyme or YouTube video, maybe. Who’s the audience and what’s the purpose? What about Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’? The American Declaration of Independence? The Pali Canon?

In How David Foster Wallace Taught Students To Respond To One Another’s Writing, I quoted David Foster Wallace”

“Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”

Of course, this is a less urgent burden for a 1st-grader than a professional writer like Wallace. The point is that as humans, we constantly affect the world. We change it through interactions, work, art, and so on. And writing is a microcosm of that. In the ‘real world,’ we write to communicate–to inform or persuade, for example. Informing is simpler than persuading but both take real work to be ‘successful.’

An example that may not be familiar to most, in boxing or grappling, one of the most useful teachers is a willful, resisting opponent–someone who is trying to avoid and counter everything you’re trying to do. This sharpens both practitioners. A sparring partner who just stood there letting you punch them would give you a false sense of confidence and, worse, keep you from developing any real skill.

Writing is the same way. Authentic writing must be written with a ‘resistant’ reader in mind (in the same way that a good lesson must be written by teachers with ‘resistant’ students in mind).

The easiest way to create authentic writing assignments is to start with a clear and authentic audience and purpose and work backward from there.

More Tips For Creating Authentic Writing Assignments For Students

1. Ask students for ideas. (They almost always have good ideas and when they don’t, that can be informative as well.)

2. Use real-world ‘writing’ as models and examples. Think of books, songs, video game narratives and dialogue, screenplays, etc.

3. Experiment with media forms. You can start with text and have them convert it to a podcast or short video. Or start with a song or motivational video and turn it into text.

4. Look for problems to solve–ideally problems ‘native’ and authentic to each student individually.

5. Keep a writing portfolio. This alone won’t necessarily make an assignment ‘authentic’ but it will make it more enduring (in the classroom) and seem to have a point beyond being graded and forgotten.

6. Use anonymous pre and post-assignment polling to see how many readers have been persuaded to change their stance on an issue, for example. (This is the approach Oxford-style debates take.)