Sunday, 25 February 2018

I couldn’t think of anything worse than a poem written by an English teacher

I am extremely grateful to one specific English teacher. If my memory is right, it was one lesson in Year 10. The lesson involved looking at the ‘Plain English Campaign’. Now, you could imagine that something like this is particularly dry, but for it wasn’t. For others, it might have been painful and torture. For me, it has stuck with me forever. And, it is a website ( I go back to regularly.

The ‘Plain English Campaign’ is something that has influenced my writing and my teaching. The purpose of the campaign is to make the meaning clear and focus on clarity in reading and writing materials. This might be at odds with what we do in English. We read dense texts and we ask students to write complex texts. And, be sure, I am not suggesting a simplification of some of the texts. Can you imagine it?

Original version

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  

Plain English Version

It was an interesting time.

I love the richness of Dickens, but I also love the sparseness of Patricia Highsmith. We do, however, have an issue with one version being the preferred style of writing in schools. Highsmith it isn’t. Writing, worryingly, has become about adding rather than removing aspects. Concise and clear writing is inflated by purple prose.

This week, I was writing with a group of Year 7s and we were trying to recreate the style of Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales from the Unexpected’. They had structured a story based on ‘The Landlady’, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, ‘Hitchhiker’ and ‘Man from the South’. I asked them to write two sentences. One to introduce the setting. One to introduce a character.  And they struggled to imitate his style.  They are a top set group, yet they couldn’t hold their writing back. Their sentences were crammed to the brim with adjectives, exaggeration and bombastic language.

Look at the way Dahl introduces the setting in ‘The Man from the South’.

It was a fine garden with lawns and beds of azaleas and tall coconut palms, and the wind was blowing strongly through the tops of the palm trees making the leaves hiss and crackle as though they were on fire.

 I could see the clusters of big brown nuts handing down underneath the leaves.

There will be a teacher out there thinking of targets to improve it. Couldn’t you think of another adverb instead of ‘strongly’? You could put a bit of personification in that second sentence. Personally, I think it is fine and dandy. I’d be glad if a student wrote like that. I am fed up of reading cluttered sentences with three similes and four examples of personification in one paragraph. It is sparse, but interesting. That first sentence is brilliantly constructed moving deftly from physical landscape to atmosphere to sound and to a hint of danger. The meaning is clear. There is clarity.

Look at the way Dahl describes a character.

Just then I noticed a small, oldish man walking briskly around the edge of the pool.

He was immaculately dressed in a white suit and he walked very quickly with little bouncing strides, pushing himself high up onto his toes with each step.

He had on a large creamy Panama hat, and he came bouncing along the side of the pool, looking at the people and the chairs.

Quickly, with a few steps, we have a sketched out character. Yes, there is very little backstory, but it isn’t necessary. Dickens was writing to make money. The more he wrote, the more money he could make. Modern storytelling does have the same constraints. Quantity does not always link to money.

One or two adjectives are so much more interesting than ten and a simile. Looking at the words ‘oldish’ , ‘small’ and ‘briskly’ have so much to them. Also, look at the combination of ‘immaculately’ and ‘white’ in the second line.  That tells us so much about this one character. They must spend a lot of time on their appearance. I wore white jeans in the 1990s and it was a fulltime job keeping them white.

If we look at the new English Language GCSEs and Paper 1, you see this sparse type of prose. Prose where the emphasis is shorthand character sketching. One or two adjectives and verbs sketch out for us the characters thoughts, feelings and backstory. In a way, I’d be even bold enough to suggest that the extract for Paper 1 is the model for what students should be writing in the writing section.  Detailed. Complex. Simple and sparse writing.

We do have an issue in English relating to style. Whose style is the prominent one we should be promoting?

Why do I fear poetry written by English teachers? Well, simple because the overblown writing we often promote in lessons.

 Thanks for reading,



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