Can We Talk About Authentic Writing?

All, Reflections

As a writing instructor and National Writing Project site director I often hear and read the term “authentic writing” bandied about, but I suspect (from the conversation that follows) that many educators do not have a considered definition for the term. I know that I am guilty. To be completely honest, I am not sure that I have a working definition myself other than the indefensible “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. So in the interest of being the reflective practitioner I advocate, I want to further consider my definition of authentic writing.

I will begin this consideration by exploring the definitions of writing instructors I consider mentors. Two Writing Teachers defines authentic writing as writing for an audience while Literacy For Pleasure challenges that authentic writing has to be relevant to the students’ world. Talks With Teachers shared the views of a variety of educators who described authentic writing to include the previously offered definitions as well as writing that gives students voice and agency. Writers Who Care agrees that authentic writing gives students agency and additionally a real world audience.

Exploring these definitions really helped me clarify my thinking about authentic writing. I think writing that has a real world audience is definitely authentic writing and one reason I include real world writing in the final projects for my Writing I and Professional Writing classes. However, I do not think that is a requirement for all authentic writing. I prefer the wider definition offered by John Warner that includes a genuine rhetorical situation which includes, as Literacy For Pleasure notes, writing that is relevant to the student. There are reasons for students to write in order to learn or explore an idea or simply to have some fun or exercise their creativity or maybe exorcise some demons. Sometimes we write for our internal audience (the class community for example) although I never want a deliverable that was created for and read by me alone. However, as other educators have noted when not writing for a real world audience it is even more important that students be given the agency to write in their own voice. I also think the idea that the writer must be given the opportunity to choose a topic and approach relevant to their world is an important part of authenticity. This choice is one of the guiding principles for my own pedagogy.

My definition of authentic writing certainly includes real world writing, but is not restricted only to writing for a real audience. Authentic writing gives students agency and choice to pursue writing that matters to them and is relevant to their world. How do you define authentic writing? What does authentic writing look like in your classroom? I believe authentic writing opportunities inspire my students and solve classroom problems. Why does authentic writing matter to you?

Artwork via Wikimedia Commons


  • love it! I am drawn as I often am to think about my daughter who NEVER wanted to share personal writing with her teachers (not their business, she told me, my life outside of school is not for them) but who uses writing in a very meaningful, and I would say authentic, way to think her way through tangles and troubles. For her, writing about her troubles for herself as an audience is and AUTHENTIC problem-solving tool, writing about her personal life for a teacher or class is a completely inauthentic, as in nothing she would ever do, experience.
    I have written myself to a place where I don’t know if this is a response or more of a tangent. . .

  • This is an interesting question. I just launched a writer’s group here in Harrodsburg for middle school students and I was amazed at what they wrote. I gave them 3 prompts to pick from (totally cold writing) and gave them only 12 minutes to write whatever came into their mind. 12 minutes and these students delivered writing they would not have submitted in a classroom at school. Two 13 year olds wrote things they would never consider sharing at school. It was writing that brought tears to the eyes of all the participants. To others wrote dark stories that they admitted they would not submit in a school class. But, those stories were not so dark that I would criticize them for writing it. As a matter of fact, the stories were well written and entertaining.
    So is that authentic? I believe so because it came out of their creativity in 12 minutes. I share this not because I am criticizing our teachers but to show that, given the chance to write from their minds, they speak their hearts.

    • Absolutely this fits in my definition…their writing came out of their authentic lives so even if it wasn’t shared in your small group but just written in their personal journal then it is authentic writing.

  • Can you please give some examples of authentic writing that not include a real audience? The one you include about, writing to other students in the class, certainly includes a real audience: other students. So far, I respectfully disagree that authentic writing does not require a real audience. But I am open to additional information.

    • Can’t authentic writing sometimes just be for yourself? A lot of the early stage writing in my classes can be shared but is not required to be shared. I know I often write just to think things through or blow off steam. I think that’s pretty authentic writing.

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