Course Exam – Engl 384 – Writing Creative Non-Fiction

Dr. Angie Abdou, the tutor and course coordinator of English 384, provides us a look at what’s involved in English 384, and the type of people who succeed at it.

What is the course English 384: Writing Creative Non-fiction about?
In English 384, students learn the theory and craft of Creative Nonfiction (CNF). CNF is a genre that has increased in popularity in recent years. Most simply, CNF is “true stories well told.” In CNF, writers use techniques often associated with fiction to bring life and emotional impact to their nonfiction stories.

When was the last update of the course? Of the learning materials?
I updated the course and learning materials this year, in response to the main text going out of print. The change in text was a good opportunity for me to add some Canadian CNF writers I admire. I’m happier with the new content of the course.

What do the books and supplementary materials for the course focus on about creative writing?
We study both the theory of CNF and exemplary essays from the genre. The students draw on both of these types of readings to write their own CNF essays. The course materials also provide writing prompts and exercises.

About how many students take this course, on average?
Last year, 24 students took English 384.

What kind of learning style is it? For instance, is it very open ended or does it give fairly detailed instructions?
The assignments are fairly open-ended. Each unit focuses on a specific aspect of CNF, and then the students write an essay with that particular focus. However, the content of the essays can be almost anything. The students are free to apply the skills learned in each unit to whatever material most interests them. The course material suggests a certain pace and order at which students might progress, but students can go at a different pace or, in some cases, even do they assignments in a different order, if they like. ENGL 384 is quite a flexible course. Students can approach it in different ways depending on their preferred learning style.

If this course isn’t a requirement of their program, why should students take it as an elective?
English 384 is a fun course for students who like to explore their own experience and think deeply about the world around them. Any student who enjoys writing should enjoy this course. Some students take ENGL 384 because they want to record family history for future generations or because they have had a great trip they’d like to write about. Many students take ENGL 384 for personal development or, simply, for fun.

What part or concept in the course have they seen students have the most trouble with?
Sometimes students find that their writing is a little rustier than they thought. Even though the course doesn’t focus on grammar, submissions still need to be well-written. Occasionally, students take the first few assignments to brush up on basic grammar and formatting rules.

What’s a good way for students to deal with the more troublesome parts?
Students who have taken ENGL 353 (Intermediate Composition) fairly recently don’t tend to struggle with the basic writing part. For the students who have maybe forgotten about major sentence errors or how to use apostrophes, I send links to help them review. That works. Students don’t tend to struggle with the content ? the feedback I get in that regard is that ENGL 384 is a truly enjoyable course.

Are the assignments fairly similar in the amount of work required, or are some of them much larger? (and, if so, which ones.)
There is no exam in ENGL 384. Students do six assignments. Some are not very big, like the first assignment in which they simply write a short fragment or the final assignment which is a peer evaluation of someone else’s work. Each of those is worth 10%. The middle four assignments are more even (ranging from 15% to 25% of the course’s final grade).

Do students from non-English majors tend to succeed at the creative nonfiction course?
Yes, definitely. Not only do we get non-English majors in this course, but we also get people who are not even doing a degree of any kind, people who simply want to learn how to write their stories effectively. I recently taught a graduate course in Creative Nonfiction (MAIS 617) and it also attracted a wide range of students, including ones who were not doing a degree at all but simply wanted to learn how to tell their stories effectively.

The course consists of six assignments. What are the assignments like and how do students typically perform on the assignments?
Most assignments are short creative nonfiction essays. Students have an opportunity to write about people and places they know. Because students who take ENGL 384 tend to be quite motivated and interested, the course average is quite high.

What sets apart the best creative nonfiction writing students from the best?
The same thing that sets apart all good writing students: a willingness to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Wring is a process. My son came home from school the other day and said: “Today our teacher told us about all the steps of writing. One step is where you re-read what you wrote because you can never get it right the first time. I told him that part takes a *long* time and my mom has been doing that part for two years. I also told him: that part is way (WAY!) harder than most people think and the reason I can tell is because my mom is always shouting at her computer.”

It’s true. Writing well takes time. Students who rush will not do as well.

What kind of personality type or talent is required to succeed at this course?
I wouldn’t say any personality type is required. Some people, though, do like to write, while others do not. Some people are drawn to writing or even compelled to write. Those people will likely be more successful in ENGL 384. It will be a very challenging course for people who do not like to express themselves in writing ? though those people could certainly learn to like it.

Does this course qualify for any certificates or diplomas or degrees?
Yes, this course should transfer towards English or Creative Writing degrees at most institutions.

Should students taking this course have prior experience with writing nonfiction books?
No. Students attempting this kind of writing for the first time are fully welcome in ENGL 384. It is an introduction to Creative Nonfiction.

What type of students do poorly in the course? What type of students succeed?
To be honest, I haven’t had any students do poorly in this course. Students who take ENGL 384 tend to take it because of personal interest. they’re motivated and enthusiastic. They usually like to write. Those are the three characteristics students need to succeed. A competent writer who is motivated and enthusiastic can succeed in (and enjoy) this course.

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