Authentic Writing: What It Means and How to Do It

* This is a follow-up to last week’s post Let’s Bury the Five Paragraph Essay

We are driven to meaningful, purposeful experiences. Seismic shifts are happening all around us. Our relationship with food has become more intimate. We now think seasonally, purchase locally, and eat organically. The way we exercise has been transformed by the functionality of CrossFit and the spirituality of yoga. Television viewers have spurned the toxic stew of reality television in favor of hyper-realistic dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

The gravitational pull for more authentic experiences surrounds us.

Yet some teachers still assign a steady diet of five-paragraph essays.

It need not be the only way students write. We can create meaningful, purposeful experiences through the written word.

Nine teachers share their idea of authentic writing and provide the way in which they invite their students to write functionally and with greater intimacy, honoring each writer’s spirit along the way.

Untitled design (14)Roy F. Smith

Currently Teaching – AP English Literature (four sections) and Dual-Credit British Literature (one section), also Department Chair.

Location: Round Rock, Texas

Authentic Writing:  It occurs when students compose with a voice that is uniquely theirs; therefore, it does not follow a formulaic pattern but grows organically from the writer’s sense of purpose and intellectual honesty.      

An Authentic Assignment: My AP Literature students write their “reader’s autobiography” as their first writing exercise of the year. Students chronicle their reading journey from their earliest memories to the first days of their senior year.  I hear their unique voices shouting out their frustrations at forced reading assignments in middle and high school, to their joy of discovering the world of Harry Potter and a Diary of a Wimpy Kid in elementary school. This assignment allows students to authentically share their unique journeys with the books of their youth and adolescent reading lives without the restrictions normally associated with advanced level writing. Learning my students’ stories allows me a glimpse into their reading worlds in an authentic way that paves the way for growth based on their life-long journey with the written word.

Follow Him: @English_Roy

Untitled design (13)Ruth Arseneault

Currently Teaching: English 11 and 12

Location: Riverview, New Brunswick, Canada

Authentic Writing: Any type of writing that students genuinely want to engage in. Usually, that means they have a choice of topic and they are able to exercise their own voices.

An Authentic Assignment: Inquiry essays. Students choose a research area based on a potential career or course of study. They develop inquiry questions about the topic and conduct research for a month, during which they take dialogic notes. These involve quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing from the sources, but also processing the source information by connecting it to what they have learned and by free-writing about what they find intriguing.

Students centre their essays around their central inquiry questions. The main purpose of the writing is to explore their thinking about the topic, to delve deeply into their hypothetical answers to the inquiry questions and how they arrived at those responses. I encourage them to write in their own voices, to speak directly to the audience, to use narrative if they feel it’s appropriate to the topic, to explore various organizational patterns that appeal to them.

Students have written about everything from the impact of dollhouses on traumatized children to genomes to acting.

Check out Ruth’s Essential Process Item Research Paper and her Dialogic Notemaking

Follow Her: @Drama_Chick

Untitled design (12)Bethany Whinnem

Currently Teaching: AP Literature and Composition & Junior American Literature

Location: Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Authentic Writing: Authentic writing goes beyond the student and the teacher. It asks students to apply their reasoning, reading, and writing skills to a task that transcends the classroom and reaches a real-world audience.

An Authentic Assignment: Last year, in my Junior American Literature course, we were studying Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Students were asked to choose an aphorism and explicate it through a children’s book. They used iPads and Storybook Creator to write, design, and illustrate books teaching their aphorism in an easily accessible story. They recorded their voices to go along with the pages and they were sent to one of the kindergarten classrooms in the district. My students took such pride in their work because they knew that the kids would be seeing them. Even students who are normally uninterested in creative assignments jumped in whole-heartedly. Many of them got thank you notes back from the younger students, which made their day.


Untitled design (17)Josh Stock

Currently Teaching: 6th grade Language Arts and 6th grade Reading Seminar

Location: Olathe, KS

Authentic writing: It is all about purpose and audience.  Who is going to read this and what impact will the writing have on the world outside of the classroom?  Without those two things, students lose a lot of their motivation and don’t see the applications of classroom content outside of school.  They often see their assignments as things that only apply to the Language Arts classroom.

An Authentic Assignment: One of my favorite authentic writing assignments is the Public Service Announcement script.  After reading “My Wonder Horse” by Sabine R. Ulibarri and several news articles about the pros and cons of owning exotic animals as pets, the students are divided into film crews and given the task of recording a public service announcement in response to the question: should exotic animals be owned as pets?  The students are required to write a script prior to filming which includes evidence from multiple sources supporting a clear claim.

The students love the opportunity to create their own videos and don’t realize the amount of writing they are actually doing to prepare.  We also take time to analyze sample PSA’s from This helps the students work on strategies for developing a persuasive argument and allows the students opportunities to inject voice into their writing.

The videos are then uploaded to YouTube for others to see. Here are two sample videos:

Follow Him: @teachlikeaninja

Untitled design (16)Susan Barber

Currently Teaching: AP Literature and British Literature

Location: Newnan, GA

Authentic Writing: I believe authentic writing has to do with the student expressing or finding his or her voice – the purpose is secondary.

An Authentic Assignment: My lower level students need to understand that authentic writing is not writing a formulaic essay on a topic they don’t understand for a teacher they may or may not like; authentic writing is something students care about, take pride in, and want to share with others. Personal narratives offer the means to do this because students are able to draw from their own experiences breaking down barriers to writing often encountered with unfamiliar content and teaching voice. We rely on mentor texts such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A Christmas Memory by Capote, or an essay from a local journalist to begin the conversation and study style and writing. Students then write their narrative and share with family or friends to receive feedback on their personal style. This introduction paves the way for more academic writing with the topics of style, voice, and feedback being addressed in a student-friendly platform.

Follow Her: @susanclaireb

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Peggy Corbett

Currently Teaching: AP Lit and Honors World Lit

Location: Canton, GA

Authentic Writing: Authentic writing at its most basic is writing for an audience beyond the classroom. Those assignments that require students to apply scholastic skills to timely issues and concerns that have meaning in their lives and for which they may feel some passion tend to result in authentic writing. Most people are happy to do that which matters.

An Authentic Assignment: When the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed charges against Edward Snowden in 2013 for violation of the Espionage Act and theft, a media firestorm erupted. Among the information he released was NSA’s storage of metadata gathered from private phones and the extent of NSA’s access to tech company information. These revelations prompted a discussion of an individual’s right to privacy vs. a nation’s need to protect its citizens. At that time students were reading 1984. I shifted the research paper topic to reflect what was happening in the world, using 1984 as the anchor text. The response was overwhelmingly positive. As my students read and researched the current policies and practices they were overwhelmed at their discoveries. We didn’t limit the research to political; they also looked at technology’s myriad ways of accessing private lives through media use, realizing their privacy wasn’t always stolen; very often they gave it away.

Follow Her: @PeggyCorbett8

Check out Peggy’s Honors World Literature Research Paper

Untitled design (11)Helen Kunick

Currently Teaching: AP Lit & Comp, American Literature & Composition 10, Essentials of College Writing

Location: Grafton, WI

Authentic Writing: It occurs when students feel empowered by their own thoughts, voice. Authentic writing is applicable to the writer’s life, and extends beyond the classroom.

An Authentic Assignment: My students complete a passion project. The project’s intentions are to build upon the skills acquired throughout high school, giving them the opportunity to share their passion with the class and community-at-large. With this assignment they write for a variety of purposes, audiences, and foster life-long learning.

Here are the Requirements

6-word passion poems

past, present, future


Describe a time when you “got your hands dirty” doing your passion.

Explain what your life would be like without your passion.

How is your passion your “life line”?

How is your passion going to be a lifelong experience?

Describe your perfect passion moment—how would you reveal/show that in a Communication Arts class, the community, your friends & family?

Why should I care about your passion?

Convince me to be passionate about your passion too.

I have omnipotent powers, convince me to not do away with your passion.

How would you explain your passion to a 5 year old?

“Tweets”/ “Status Updates”

Tell the internet community about your passion!

Tribute essay

This “essay” will be to a person that is connected to passion (parent, grandparent, sibling, extended family, friend, teacher, professional, celebrity). This piece will discuss the significance of person: what are the first words that come to mind when you think of your person? what qualities stand out? what’s your attitude toward him/her? how do they make you feel? what have they taught you?

Follow Her: @HMKunick

Untitled design (18)Matt Brown

Currently Teaching: Honors Intro to Lit and AP Lit

Location: Santa Clarita, CA

Authentic Writing: recognizes that there are many different genres of writing and that in today’s world all writing (even academic writing) blends many of those genres depending on the purpose the writer defines. This is sophisticated writing and our students need experience (and support) as they play with this kind of writing experience.

An Authentic Assignment: To get at this kind of writing, I often have my students blend their writing in group essays as inspired by  in her post from AP Lit Help. After crafting their own responses to literature, students get together and literally cut up their essays, recombining the pieces into a new essay. They must make choices about what needs to kept in, what needs to be taken out, and what might need to be added. Since “voice” in writing is often unique to the writer, they must adapt the writing in the new combined essay to have a more unified voice. What’s most important in this exercise are the conversations that students must have about the writing they are creating. It can be so rich, and I as a teacher can have more meaningful teaching moments with my students as I become a part of those conversations.

Follow Him: @ibMrB

Untitled design (19)Mary K. Tedrow

Currently Teaching: Transitional English, English 12, AP Literature and Composition

Location: Winchester, VA

Authentic Writing: is when students are allowed to choose some or all of the following: the topic, the audience, the purpose.  Students experience the opportunity to write to “express not impress.”  (As Dixie Dellinger always said.)
An Authentic Assignment:  I used this with students in Creative Writing and Language & Composition:  Students search for viable publications and collect a list as a resource to other students in the class.  Read through the Guidlines for Publications and any calls for manuscripts.  Then they adapt a writing (from a class assignment or from student choice assignment) for the publication.  Send it in—required of all students.  If it is published: Celebrate!  Then learn how to create an MLA citation for your own work to include in a resume.  Every year several students are published.

Follow Her: @mtedrow

3 thoughts on “Authentic Writing: What It Means and How to Do It

  1. I really like these posts, but I believe for any writing assignment to be “authentic,” it must have an audience outside the classroom whose response to the assignment is a major (if not THE major) part of the grade. An important part of authentic writing is that the role of the teacher shifts dramatically from grader to coach.

    • I agree. Blogs have helped add audience, but we’ve added a consent form to our comp class to make explicit when our writing will be public. We’ve written story exchanges, biography rather than autobiography, to emphasize the responsibility of carrying/representing a story and then sharing it publicly, and with our interviews/journalism work , the consent process alerts the writer and subject of the public audience- and again the responsibility/ethics of writing. Our arguments for social justice of contemporary issues will air on our announcements and a school-set TED-like event to show again show how we have to be diligent with our facts and tend to the marginalzed vices without exploiting their situations. Audience and consent add authenticity- reality.

  2. That’s useful info, thanks. Wish I’ve seen this page earlier, when I had some troubles writing my research paper. Still, there is a solution at , these guys really helped me out during my so called creative crisis. Actually, with all the info you gave here, I’ll start writing by myself, but still it never hurts to have a qualified help from professionals and definitely get an A+ :)

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