75% of a Poem

Notebook and pencil

Keith Gray is currently on the Scottish Friendly Children's Book tour enthusing pupils across Lincolnshire on reading and writing for pleasure. In this blog piece, Keith explores the current approach to creative writing in schools. Should we be testing pupils on creative writing? Or is there an alternative? 

How does a student react when they receive 75% for a Maths test? I’m guessing they probably believe they got 25% of the answers wrong and, if they study harder, revise harder, learn more, they should achieve a higher mark next time around. But what does a student take away if they receive 75% for a piece of creative writing - maybe a poem? What are they meant to do to attain a higher grade? Should the poem have been a quarter longer? Should they use an extra metaphor or two? Or is their imagination only three-quarters good enough? Does their brain not contain the required amount of creativity?

A percentage grade for a poem or a story implies that somewhere out there in the known universe is a story or a poem that is worthy of 100%, and that a human being is capable of creating it. Yet that’s patently false. We are telling the students an outright lie. Of course we have writers, books, poems we admire and respect, but they’re often personal favourites. Have you ever read something worthy of 100%? Perfection! And how many would agree with your choice?

I went looking for advice online. What if I were a student in the middle of preparing for my exams and I was concerned about the Creative Writing element? It was more than a little perturbing to find YouTube videos and revision breakdowns claiming they could help students produce the ‘perfect’ piece of creative writing. Mainly because it doesn’t exist. There are more confirmed sightings of wild unicorns wearing hats than proven perfect prose.

And the advice given feels so arbitrary. Who decides that ‘complicated sentence construction’ is needed in a perfect piece of creative writing? Julia Donaldson? Ernest Hemmingway?

There is a very simple solution to this problem, of course. Stop grading creative writing. Schools should stop treating it as if it’s a subject with right and wrong answers. But it would be fantastic if they continued to encourage it and give space for it.

Schools are obliged to make sure children take part in physical education for a minimum number of hours each week. Not necessarily for examination or grading purposes, but to help young people nurture an interest in sport and exercise and hopefully keep fit and physically healthy for life. Why not allow them to exercise their creativity in the same way? Just an hour a week, ungraded, not for examination purposes but to help stay mentally fit?

Writing for pleasure, empathy, expression, reassurance, exploration can be so wonderfully rewarding and cathartic. Stories are for life, not just for homework.

And you may feel that this blog is only good enough for a mark of 58%, but I mean every word of it. I’ll fight for it!

I’m concerned that the simplest way to put off future novelists, poets and screenwriters is to box them in with constricting rules of what makes ‘good’ or ‘correct’ creativity. I’m worried that the simplest way to stop young people believing they have a creative voice is to only reward them with arbitrary ticks and crosses. Everyone should be told it’s impossible to fail at story-telling, that it’s impossible to write three quarters of a poem. Any piece of creative writing that comes bursting, blazing, vomiting, volcano-ing from someone’s imagination or personal reflection is never, ever worth less than 100%.


Keith Gray

Keith is an author of award winning teen novels including Ostrich Boy and The Runner. His latest book Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus explores the world’s most amazing magic trick performed by Harry Houdini.