How Fan Fiction Can Transform Student Writing (and Reduce Your Grading)
Fan fiction assignments can help make young readers and writers more passionate, confident, and expressive, while easing your workload.
Ideally, writing shouldn’t feel like a chore to students, and grading writing shouldn’t be overwhelming for teachers. An endless stream of essays—and rule-based feedback on grammar, spelling, and punctuation—can have a chilling effect on the motivation of everyone in the classroom.
Couple all those rules with topics or assignments a student has no interest in, and you’re likely to get an uninspired, frustrated kid, and a teacher who doesn’t feel up to grading the work.
Enter fan fiction, says Ki Sung in a recent MindShift piece titled “How Fan Fiction Inspires Kids to Read and Write and Write and Write.” Fan fiction is a form of narrative that draws hard-core followers and “builds upon or takes liberties with existing stories.” Writers of this type of content can “create alternate endings for stories, create parallel worlds, develop side characters more deeply, or cross over characters from different stories.”
The Harry Potter books are a popular source of inspiration, along with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, the anime/manga series Naruto, and the futuristic series Star Trek and Star Wars. Fan fiction isn’t always rooted in fantasy and sci-fi, though, according to Harvard professor of English Stephanie Burt, as related in the New Yorker. Some strains grow from an interest in Sherlock Holmes, Virgil’s Aeneid, or Jane Austen’s work. Pride and Prejudice alone has spawned countless works of fan fiction, with some adapted for film, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and some leapfrogging straight to television, like P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley and the BBC series Lost in Austen.
When teachers assign fan fiction as reading and writing projects, says Sung, the results can be startling.
“I’ve had several students over the years who've come to me with the fan fiction that they've written that's in the hundreds of pages,” says librarian Julia Torres, as reported by MindShift. “I had one student, his name was Arturo, and he had written several novels’ worth of fan fiction. And they want you to read it as their teacher because they want your feedback.”
That last bit, about the desired feedback, can be terrifying for educators tasked with teaching classes of 30 or more. But there are ways to encourage your students to write more without bogging you down with more grading.
Below are four strategies to keep in mind when you incorporate fan fiction into your instruction.
Encourage Students to Read Stories They’re Passionate About—Format Be Damned
“Students will read if they choose the books,” writes English teacher Brian Sztabnick in the Edutopia article “Start a Reading Revolution,” so if your students choose fan fiction, go with it, no matter if they want to riff on novels, short stories, or even anime, graphic novels, or comics. This approach takes bookmatching to the next level by encouraging students to find their own way to stories they love.
Keep in mind that one of the joys of fan fiction is its inclusiveness. Torres suggests that in fan fiction, some students find a sense of freedom they don’t find in more traditional literature: "The imagined worlds that I have read are free of a lot of the oppressive structures that we have in the real world...So that's a place where our students escape from all of that, and they might do that through their favorite fantasy characters."
Many students are inspired to spin new, diverse characters that reflect the world they live in, while others go for even more drama by creating non-human characters (think animals, monsters, androids.)
Focus on Writing Volume and Passion, Not Rules
When you assign fan fiction writing projects, let your students choose what they want to build on so they are truly motivated and engaged, but also make it clear to them that you want them to write, and write, and write, without limits on length or concerns about proper grammar.
Kelly Gallagher, author of Teaching Adolescent Writers is a well-known proponent of the let-them-write-more-than-you-can assess strategy—ideally 30 to 60 minutes per day or more. If you give your students and yourself permission to let go when it comes to grammar and usage (and even sloppiness, to a certain extent), you will likely find that they write more, and eventually better.
If every bit of writing and every hour spent writing counts as practice, then all of that inspiration, energy, and time makes students more capable and confident writers, even if some of the content they produce is less than perfect. The sheer volume of writing, according to Gallagher and others, is more important than we imagine.
Grade Less, and Sometimes Not at All
It’s hard to let go of the grading reins, but according to the best teachers of middle and high school writing, it’s also necessary. Students need to write more to achieve fluency—and feedback, which is meant to improve outcomes, is counterproductive if it’s the bottleneck.
As Matthew M. Johnson notes in “Assigning More Writing—With Less Grading,” painstaking attention to every word and in every piece that a student writes can also backfire: “This potential for intimidating, confusing, or overwhelming students is why so many modern writing researchers argue that teachers should give fewer comments that have greater depth.”
Nothing takes more time than assessing and grading writing assignments, given the care you have to take to evaluate ideas, address questions of structure and style, and provide continued encouragement with thoughtful comments. There’s no doubt that for some assignments, that’s exactly how you should assess writing. But you’re one human being, and you can’t do that for everything.
Sometimes you might only spot-check that the writing has been done, and offer no feedback at all. In cases where you actively assess, you can focus on positive feedback and on larger questions of organization, structural problems, or areas where the narrative flow and sequencing miss the mark. A few of the successful writing teachers we have spoken to suggest that you might allow students to choose their best work for final grading, or only grade the writing after many rounds of improvement, when a final draft has been submitted.
Those strategies will lighten your load, keep kids writing more—remember, volume is crucial—and ensure that your students react positively to your comments.
Introduce Your Students to the Fan Fiction Community
According to Sung, student fan fiction writers can benefit from the vast fan fiction communities that populate the web. Torres suggests resources like Fanfiction.net, where students can post their original fan fiction, read submissions by others, find writing tips, and even discuss character and storyline challenges. Archive of Our Own is another site that is rich in content that riffs on not just fiction but anime, graphic novels and comics, songs, and feature films.
Many students become more confident writers in online communities. Sung notes that “one unique element of fan fiction is the community that coalesces in support of writers. The feedback writers get in fan fiction communities helps them get better,” adding that Rebecca Black, professor of informatics at UC Irvine, discovered that English language learners in particular can become more confident writers when they practice writing and get feedback through fan fiction.
For students who think they hate writing or think that they are bad at it and always will be, fan fiction communities can be transformative.