Authentic Writing: What It Means and How to Do It

authentic writing

In our ever-evolving world, I can’t help but notice profound changes rippling through our everyday lives. My students and I often discuss the significant shifts we’ve witnessed, even within mundane aspects of our existence. We contemplate how our relationship with food has deepened and grown more mindful. The discussions of seasonal menus, locally sourced produce, and the virtues of organic farming are more prevalent than ever. We chat about the transformation in our fitness routines, driven by the pragmatic routines of CrossFit and the mindfulness brought by yoga. Even our leisure hours have seen a revolution, with the appeal of reality TV waning and the allure of intricate, thought-provoking dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad taking center stage.

It’s as though we’re caught in a compelling tide, pulling us towards experiences that are more authentic, more substantial.

Intriguingly, amidst this sea of transformation, a rigid relic from the past persists in many classrooms – the omnipresent five-paragraph essay.

As an educator, I strongly believe that this need not be the sole form of expression for our students. The written word can be a conduit for experiences as diverse, meaningful, and purposeful as the ones we live daily.

I’m fortunate to be part of a dynamic community of teachers who have successfully navigated these changing currents. Nine of my colleagues, each armed with their unique take on authentic writing, have generously agreed to share their approach. They’ll discuss how they inspire their students to engage with writing in a functional, intimate manner, cherishing and nurturing the individual spirit of each young writer along the journey.

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.

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 can exercise their 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 center 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 voices, to speak directly to the audience, to use narrative if they feel it’s appropriate to the topic, and 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.

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 wholeheartedly. Many of them got thank-you notes back from the younger students, which made their day.

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 before filming which includes evidence from multiple sources supporting a clear claim.

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

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 can 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 narratives and share them with family or friends to receive feedback on their 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.

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 the NSA’s storage of metadata gathered from private phones and the extent of the 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 by their discoveries. We didn’t limit the research to politics; 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.

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 thoughts, voice. Authentic writing applies to the writer’s life and extends beyond the classroom.

An Authentic Assignment: My students complete a passion project. The project intends to build upon the skills acquired throughout high school, allowing them 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 “lifeline”?

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 for a person that is connected to passion (parent, grandparent, sibling, extended family, friend, teacher, professional, celebrity). This piece will discuss the significance of a 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?

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 @thisjennwolfe in her post from AP Lit Help. After crafting their responses to literature, students get together and cut up their essays, recombining the pieces into a new essay. They must make choices about what needs to be 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.

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, and 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 for other students in the class.  Read through the guidelines for Publications and any calls for manuscripts.  Then they adapt a writing (from a class assignment or a 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 work to include in a resume.  Every year several students are published.