I have always had a problem with some aspects of teaching writing. Namely, purple prose. Or, flowery prose, as I like to call it. You could, for example, have a crap garden, but you insist it is still a ‘nice garden’ by using loads of flowers in plant pots. The pots look nice, but the garden is still crap. The same, I feel, happens with writing. Put X, Y, Z and another X, Y and Z into your short story - there, you have a wonderful piece of writing. Umm, no you don’t. You might have some features of good writing, but there rest is incoherent and it is a little over the top.
Recently, I have taught David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ and I casually asked the class about level of the writing that Almond had produced. The class simply replied that it was a low Level 5 (sorry, Almond). There, I think, lies the problem. Their understanding of writing was based on writing that is crammed with every technique under the sun. Furthermore, there was no hope that it would get a Level 6, as Almond hadn’t even used a semicolon on the pages were studying.
Good writing is not about using every tool in the box. It’s about using the right tool for the job. One of my favourite writers is Susan Hill. She is a fantastic and her writing is deceptively simple as each sentence is precise and the writing is so concise. Techniques aren’t wasted and the language is carefully crafted and selected for the maximum effect. On the other hand, there are writers like Alan Hollinghurst who have pages and pages of detailed and evocative writing. Now, I like Hill, and I like Hollinghurst, but which one is best? There is only one way to find out: fight!
But, I do think this contrast lies at the heart of English teaching. Flowery or sparse? As teachers, we have to be aware of this. Chucking everything in the melting pot doesn’t make the best kind of writing. Maybe, we should spend more and more time on looking at selecting the best techniques for the job, rather than introducing new and obscure techniques for the sake of teaching something new. I have sat there planning, scratching my head, trying to think of something new, when I should have been focusing on what they knew and developing that further. That is where Level 6s are going. They can do stuff and do it well. Now, they need to work on doing it exceptionally well by being subtle and discreet.
Most Level 5 writers are always asking, ‘What can I add to make this better?’, so maybe, we should explicitly teach Level 6s the following questions:
- What can be removed which doesn’t affect the overall effect of the writing?
- Are there any techniques that have the same effect as each other in a paragraph?
- Have you made sure that a technique is only used once in the writing?
- Do you need to show or tell in this paragraph?
- Are we writing for clarity? Or are you writing for detail?
TipsThe following is a list is cribbed from my talk with a primary school. It was aimed at helping teachers build some ways into their teaching, which help students achieve or secure a Level 6/7. At this level we are dealing with the subtleties of language, so it is quite hard to separate things down to a single aspect, but I have tried.
- Humour - satire, parody, irony
- Structure – cohesion / cohesive devices across a text
- Flair /Style
- Original sentence construction – over reliance of the same structures
- Sophisticated level of use of punctuation
A piece of writing that varies pace, tone, detail, punctuation usage or perspective throughout will achieve a higher level. A Level 5 will tend to keep their tone constant throughout the piece of writing.
- Being concise and precise
- Looking at natural speech
Most English teachers will agree with me when I say that you cannot teach a writer to be an outstanding writer. It is something writers learn to be, by themselves. Most writers will read, read and read to pick up ideas, skills and techniques. Part of becoming a Level 6 or Level 7 is absorbing some of the subtle complexities of language through the reading of good writing. They copy, mirror or adapt these and use them in their own work. This isn’t always something that you can directly teach. They just do it.
Thanks for reading,