Saturday, 18 January 2014

The solid, loyal and easily forgotten adjective

The humble adjective is often neglected when we teach creative writing to students. Literary techniques always sound better, because they have a name. Why put an adjective in when you can use something with a cool name? How many times have I groaned inside when a student, when analysing a poem, jumps to a piece of alliteration and neglects the fifty or so effective adjectives around it? Adjectives get a tough deal. They are the basic components of writing, yet the figurative devices sound so much cooler, like their older brother who smokes and drinks, and even has a girlfriend.

I am teaching creative writing to Year 11 and travel writing to Year 9 and it is amazing how I have to battle against a sea of clichés when dealing with creative writing. Things are always trapped like animals in a cage or a person is as slow as a snail. I want to leave the classroom like a thunderbolt, leopard and rocket when I hear these. Sadly, the way students write at times is devoid of thinking time, planning or exploration.  Apparently, we have to get them ready to write under pressure. They have to do it in the exam, so they may as well get used to writing like Charles Dickens in 20 minutes. Sadly students rarely get to craft a piece of writing. That’s why I am such a fan of ‘Slow Writing’. It is no surprise that students rush to produce work; we have subconsciously told them you must produce the real deal quickly from the start. This is why students default to their bank of clichés. I need to describe a scary room: cobwebs, shadows and lots of creaking. I often think that their writing neglects the humble adjective. A simple, effective word that can add so much to a plain, boring and uninteresting line.

This is something I often use in lessons. I get students to fill the gaps.

The room was __________, ______________, and _____________. Shadows flickered across the _________ and ____________ walls. In the centre of the ­_________ room there was a ___________ , ___________ table. Amongst the _____ items on the table there was a ___________ , ___________ and ___________ knife.  

It is amazing what they come up with. Usually, I suggest that they make it creepy. Soon as you mention that, the word ‘creepy’ appears that or ‘eerie’ (always spelt incorrectly) several times, leading to a discussion. Does using the word ‘creepy’ make something creepy? Most of them are clichés or at least predictable. This does, however, produce a lot of alternatives. A teacher then can tease the layers of meaning between different words.

 The room was dark, musty and cold.

The room was still, motionless and blank.
The room was cold, silent and lifeless.

So many possibilities, but often students pick the most obvious one. Why not use the second one? Doesn’t it make a point?  It does something different with the writing at least. Students get hung up with the idea of adding techniques (if I hear AFOREST again, I will shove it up someone’s…nose) that their writing becomes a collection of techniques that lacks any cohesion or continuity. I would never be an examiner because I think I would scream with every paper as students cling to the idea that good writing only relies on a shove-lots-of-techniques-in formula.

Anyway, I then get students to fill the gaps to make the room positive. Surprisingly, this always produces better results, as students have rarely been asked to describe a warm, pleasant and welcoming room – the knife always gets them. This simple cloze exercise has always generated a good level of understanding of how adjectives affect a piece of writing.

The exercise also helps them to look at how to use adjectives in a sentence. We now have developed a little mantra. They recite the following back to me every lesson. I find it useful, along with the naming different of grammar structures, to help students understand the variety of using adjectives in a sentence. If they can spot a noun, then they know where to add an adjective or adjectives.

adjective noun

adjective, adjective noun

adjective , adjective and adjective noun

adjective, adjective, adjective noun

adjective and adjective noun

Just giving the above to some of my C grade students has transformed their writing. Things just click. I find it much better than looking at copious amounts of examples as students are given a way to add and adapt rather than copy.

We then also look at how adjectives can be used to slow the pace of writing. It isn’t just long sentences that slows readers down but lots of adjectives too. We explore how we might change the use of adjectives throughout the piece of writing. We discuss where there is a need to describe things and where there might not be a need to describe things in great detail. As teachers we often tell students they need to show rather than tell in their writing, but actually it is about a balance between the two and knowing when to describe and when not to describe something.

I am always cautious of bombarding students with vocabulary lists for descriptive writing because you end up getting flowery writing as they put in words with a lack of thought for the overall impact and effect of a text. It sounds good and clever so I will put it in my writing. Never: I want to make the opening positive so they will help see that it is a friendly environment. I’d rather make a connection between parts of their existing knowledge rather than cram their brains with new things. Unlock the synapses in the brain rather than add new knowledge to the detriment of the old knowledge.  The vocabulary our students have in the brain is hidden, yet we insist that they don’t have enough words. Maybe, they haven’t had a bridge built between an adjective they know and a noun they know. That’s why they never come up with a ‘friendly vase’ or an ‘unforgiving table’. They have never been given the connection . And, if we constantly bombard then with new words, we are missing hundreds if not thousands of meaningful combinations of words.  And, along the way they get to use personification and it wasn’t even explicitly taught to them.  

Adjective                                                                                             Noun

sturdy                                                                                                   table

shining                                                                                                  window pane

delicate                                                                                                flower

deep                                                                                                     hole

What happens if we explore how adjectives can be mixed up?

The shining flower stood on the delicate table before the deep window, which was like a sturdy hole.

Yes, it isn’t brilliant, but it is effective. Do students normally associate flowers with shining? Do students normally describe windows as deep? They do, however, add texture and a new level of meaning. If more of my students wrote like this, I’d be really happy.

Right, before people start thinking of adjectives to describe this blog, I’ll end on this note:  I think if we spent double the time on the basics of verbs, adjectives and other things, than we do on the ‘whizzy things’ then our students will have good foundations to do some of the clever things naturally.

Thanks for reading,