Making up is hard to do

It should be easy, shouldn’t it? Just “making stuff up” would seem to be the most natural thing in the world, and just about any literate person should be able to sit down at a keyboard or with a pen and paper and do it with ease. But easy it ain’t.

It’s not the making up of characters, or giving them something to do, more a question of not knowing how to get smoothly from one point to the next. Part of the art of storytelling is making up the bits in between the major plot points so that everything seems to happen for a reason, and fairly naturally too. That’s the bit that I find so hard. My outline will tell me that I need my protagonist at a certain bus stop at 10 a.m., but finding plausible reasons why this might happen drives me to distraction.

How do the best writers do it? There doesn’t seem to be a pattern. In some cases we just get a new chapter that begins, “The next morning Jim was standing at the bus stop well before his 10 a.m. deadline.” In others there’s a bit of dialogue beforehand to set up the next piece of action:

“Don’t be late,” she said. “If you’re not at the bus stop at 10 you can forget the whole thing.”

“I’ll be there, don’t you worry,” he said grimly.

According to David Baboulene, story is what happens in between the plot points. In other words, the plot itself is simply a series of staging posts or set pieces, but what actually binds us to the characters or their predicament is the glue that writers use to stick the plot together. I can’t do that glue very well.

Should I worry about it? Well, yes. Without it, stories are just all-action, paint-it-by- numbers processions of inciting incident, first plot point, second plot point, low point, turning point, climax and resolution. There really isn’t any interest beyond the working out of the plot, whereas in the best novels the action seems to arise out of what the characters inevitably and naturally do in the (normal) world that’s been created for them.

I’ve looked around for guidance, but there isn’t a lot of it. In fact, I can’t find any. Whilst there are any number of websites and books that will tell me in minute detail how to construct a plot, how to write an outline, how to write a scene or sequel, how to produce great dialogue, characters, settings or action, nobody seems to want to advise me on those vital sections that link everything together.

In other words, the writing that matters.

Unless you know differently?

The best ever writing tip

Procrastination is the thief of time …but sometimes you’d rather do anything than get down to the actual task of writing. The computer itself provides endless ways of “researching” before starting and there are many examples of “distraction free” writing software to provide… well … a distraction. (“Now which writing environment should I work in today? Ermm, let me see: do I want to fire up Ommwriter and listen to new age music as I type on to a faded snow scene that obliterates everything else on the desktop, or do I need the full power of my megalithic word processor for all that fancy layout stuff that I could do?”)

It’s not that the work itself is particularly hard. There are hundreds of blogs extolling the idea that “the actual writing is the bit we love”. The same blogs usually endorse the premise that preliminary work such as outlining is a tedious but necessary chore before the creative urge is let rip and paragraph after paragraph emerges on the screen. But surely the opposite is the case? Any and all preliminaries stave off the evil moment when there really is nothing else to do but write the actual words that will (with luck) eventually be read by others (who might even be prepared to shell out good money for the privilege). Looked at from this viewpoint, the more complex the software is the better. There are always many, many settings that can be tweaked, manuals consulted, video “how tos” to watch. Whole mornings can be passed in looking up how others set up their writing space and software Preferences, and Amazon provides innumerable opportunities to “Look inside …” manuals on writing or e-books on using your software of choice.

This procrastination is not in any way to be confused with Writer’s Block. If it exists at all – which is hotly disputed – Writer’s Block is usually defined as not being able to come up with anything to write. The petrol tank is empty, as ’twere. Procrastinitis, to coin a term and to stretch the analogy, is having a full tank but declining to put the key in the ignition. There’s plenty of help out there for those who suffer from Block, but far less, if any, for Procrastinitis. The usual suggested remedy – which apparently works as an unBlocker, too, – is to sit down at the keyboard and simply type anything at all. It doesn’t have to be words, even, but it can be disconnected sentences or any gibberish that comes to mind. Once the writing part of the brain is engaged, so goes the thinking, the problem is solved.

Well, it never worked for me. But there is one writing tip that works flawlessly and it’s so simple that it seems impossible to credit, but for some reason it works every time.

It goes like this: you know that you have to do the writing and you really shouldn’t put it off any longer. Get ready to start (bloated word processor or minimalist environment, it doesn’t matter: this just works). Force yourself to begin the first sentence but don’t look at the screen. Look only at your keyboard and keep typing. You’ll probably make lots of typos, but that’s not a problem. The sense of what you want to write will still be there, no matter how many spelling mistakes you make. Carry on until you’ve written at least two paragraphs before you even think of looking up – and you’re away. Honest. Works every time.

Why does it work? It could be something to do with the fact that as soon as you look at a piece of writing on screen you start to engage another part of the brain – the part that does the editing. You start to think about expression, effect, word choice, adjective and adverb placement – all those things that are rather less fun than the writing itself and stop you from making progress. Be happy in the knowledge that all of that stuff can come later. If you don’t look at the screen you’re effectively firing up the ignition – and there’ll be a satisfying roar as the engine catches and you smoothly start out on the day’s word count.

Try it. And feel free to leave a comment to let us all know that it worked.

The versatile writer

The secure versatile writer has mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing. He or she has confidence in using writing skills and can respond clearly and coherently across the full range of forms that have been encountered, taking account of purpose and audience. He or she performs well in a range of contexts … but recognises that there is much to learn so that … through wider experience of reading and writing, and increasing care and accuracy, their writing will continue to improve.

Who is this a description of? (Correction: as all 11 year olds will know once they’ve studied for the new Grammar Test in 2013, that sentence should read “Of whom is this a description?”) Martin Amis? Ian McEwan? Alan Hollinghurst? Hilary Mantel? Actually, none of these. Rather it describes the “Versatile writer”, one who is “likely to be assessed as … GCSE grade C” according to the English progression map guide: Writing published by the Department for Education in 2009.

Most writers would be proud to be called “versatile”, and even more pleased to know that they had “mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing”. But if this truly describes and represents a grade C at GCSE, generally the minimum grade acceptable for employment or higher education, why do we hear the continual complaint that standards of writing are dropping?

The problem, of course, is that the initial description lacks a context. In the realm of education, teachers will recognise the language of the level or grade descriptor and will set their expectations of the kind of writing they might see at this grade accordingly. This is not a description that would stand up to scrutiny in the real world outside school.

But the professional or indeed the hobbyist writer may be interested to know what the D of E’s targets are for students who have already reached these exalted heights at an early age and want to progress even further. In fact, becoming an even better writer is fairly simple. Apparently, all you need to do is:

choose words wisely and ambitiously;

and

construct and shape my writing so that the reader responds as I intend.

There: that’s not too hard, is it?

Naming of parts

I’ve seen a sample of the new “grammar test”. It’s horrible. I suppose it will depend on how high stakes the test is in terms of the overall assessment of writing at age 11, but if it has any sort of significant weighting then the Year 6 curiculum is going to go back to the glory days of drills, skills and naming of parts.

Here’s the first question. It gives a very good flavour of the whole test.

Circle all the adverbs in the sentence below:

Open the drawers carefully and quietly when using the filing cabinet.

Much of the rest is in the same vein – at least the grammar questions are. (There are also questions on punctuation.) The actual format of the question may alter slightly, requiring pupils to connect correct pairs with lines or tick the box containing the right word, but essentially we’re in the world of decontextualised feature spotting.

The age old question returns: does being able to spot an adverb make you a better writer? If we think about what a fluent writer does, the answer is self-evidently no. In writing this piece I do not think, “I need an adverb here” nor “Most of my sentences so far have been simple or compound. For the sake of variety I need to put in a complex sentence or two.” The other side of the argument is however equally powerful. We are not talking about fluent writers, we’re referring to learners. If we want to have some sort of common language to discuss improving writing with a learner, such a language already exists – the language of English grammar – so why make it hard on ourselves by inventing circuitous descriptors when the technical terms will do just as well, or better? As far as children are concerned, a technical term like subordinate clause is no worse than any other term, it’s just something else to be learned, alongside a whole raft of other terms in other subjects (percentages anyone?) that are there because they’re there and need to be learned because that’s what you do at school.

The teacher’s craft, of course, lies in the way such learning is applied. I can see that in some classrooms there’ll be daily grammar exercises that never lead anywhere. They’ll be called “warm ups” or “jumpstarts” and will happily name the parts of speech for no other reason than to name them. It’s quite possible that children taught this way will score highly in the grammar and punctuation tests. The better teachers will of course provide rich and immersive experiences that lead to extended writing that really matters to children and for which they’ve been well prepared. Part of the immersive experience may well be exploring the effect of adverbials or expanded noun phrases on the reader, but that’s the key: good writers, aged 7 or 70, know that what matters is the effect. If we have the wherewithal to discuss whether the judicious use of an adverb just here will have real effect, all well and good.

Which brings us back to the weighting of the new test. Surely composition and effect should always be worth more than feature spotting? Let’s weight and see.

A novel approach

Planner or pantster? It’s a very important question, both for professional writers and for those learning the trade (which probably means anyone from about the age of 9 upwards: anyone, that is, who’s reached the point where mastery of the physical act of making marks on paper is taken for granted and the emphasis shifts to composition and effect.)

Novice writers are always exhorted to make a plan. Some teachers go so far as to specify the type of plan that should be used – spidergram, bulleted list, mindmap, flowchart and so on – whilst others resort to a plaintive, “I don’t mind how you plan as long as you actually have one!” The basic idea seems to be that any young writer who hasn’t organised content in advance of writing full sentences is doomed to failure.

Does this hold up in the real world (insofar as the world inhabited by professional writers can be said to be real)? Up to a point. Some successful writers plan methodically, even obsessively. David Baboulene’s The Story Book refuses even to entertain the idea of beginning a draft of a novel until a “step outline” has been written – and this outline can be nearly as long as the book itself. Other writers simply jot down an idea of how to get a bunch of characters to face a major problem and then they’re away: for them, part of the appeal of writing is the joy of discovery along the way. They’ll probably end up doing a lot more rewriting to correct faulty plot lines or meandering byways that the story unhelpfully took them along, but that goes with the territory. (For an example of this approach, try David Hewson’s Writing: a user manual)

Writing in the GCSE English examination means writing non fiction. It’s generally writing to argue, persuade, describe or inform and the topics tend to be fairly uninspiring, since they have to be socially, politically and ethnically neutral as well as touching on areas that 16 year olds might know something about. In the AQA version of the exam, there are two writing tasks, known as the “shorter” and the “longer”. The “shorter” is aptly named: the recommended time for it is 25 minutes. Nevertheless, students are generally expected to plan: “5 minutes’ planning, 5 minutes’ checking. That leaves you 15 minutes to produce 3 or 4 quality paragraphs!” (The more astute amongst my readers will have noticed that this is paragraph 4 of this piece. So far it has taken me half an hour.)

Is there any research showing that planned answers score more highly than unplanned ones in English examinations? Probably not – and even if there was, it would doubtless be inconclusive.

But here’s a thought: it’s actually impossible for the human mind to write any sort of extended piece without doing some sort of categorising and sorting. It’s just the way our brains work, making connections between ideas and putting them into some sort of logical order. In fact, it would be harder for most students to write a completely disjointed piece in 25 minutes than simply to let one idea lead on naturally to the next. So perhaps we should give up insisting that all young writers must be planners by default, and encourage the “seat of the pants approach” as more likely to produce high quality results.

On writing and rote-ing

As we expected. The ground is being prepared by the Department for Education, readying us for the horrors of the updated National Curriculum. By placing a few judicious titbits in the sunday papers the men at the ministry can soften up the opposition by drawing fire for a while.

Micheal Gove wavingSo it’s to be learn poetry by rote and recite it. From Year 1 onwards. In fact, quite a lot of teachers will have no problem with this. Poetry is something of a neglected art form in the Primary curriculum, and the ability to memorise engaging works is not a bad thing in itself. We often marvel at people who can quote chunks of poetry – or indeed prose and plays – so it seems to be a skill that’s worth having, in that it trains the mind and uses something useful to do it with. (Is poetry useful? Discuss.)

More controversial is what’s casually dropped in after this headline grabbing bit of fluff. Apparently, there is to be a greater emphasis on spelling and grammar. No problem. The nation’s children will spell beautifully and produce sentences that are the very models of correct syntax and concord. The only trouble is, the content of these sentences is highly likely to be unoriginal, unengaging, and unrepresentative of what children can do when they’re immersed in the writing process. Why? Because the drilling and skilling for the inevitable grammar and spelling test will mean that there’s no time for the teaching and learning that makes writing worth doing: the enjoyment of making something new, of delighting or surprising a reader, of coming up with a novel combination of words that just works.

By the time enough space has been made for memorising and reciting, honing grammatical knowledge and endless spelling tests, there simply won’t be time for the immersion in creativity that characterises the best teaching of writing.

W(h)ither writing?

I’m in a lot of Primary schools at the moment looking at the writing done in Year 6. One of the many things that strikes me is the loving care that pupils devote to presentation of the finished product. A piece of writing may take a week or more to develop, with various teaching strategies used along the way to draw attention to different aspects of composition and technical accuracy , but there might be another week in getting the piece to the standard required for inclusion in a “Theme” or “Topic” book. Often this will include the selection of paper that looks right for a particular effect, and a typeface will be chosen to enhance the look. Various images might be placed around the central text, and a whole panoply of pockets, fold out charts and arrows added to assist the reader.

What happens to this impressive approach to writing when little Johnny moves up the road to the local Secondary? The evidence suggests that he’ll get an English exercise book which might be used for anything and everything from rough notes to scribbled drawing to full length stories. Presentation will be very low down on the list of priorities, if there at all, and the opportunity to produce something via a computer is usually limited to those who have the time and the inclination to do something with their final version at home.

Does this matter? If Johnny’s writing improves, isn’t the presentation aspect merely decorative? Well, to some extent yes. But – and it’s a big but – the art of presentation makes up a goodly chunk of the way writing is perceived in the modern world. Since the vast majority of writing now requires a keyboard rather than a pen, the look of the piece becomes all important. It’s why people spend ages poring over the most appropriate theme for their blog, or tinker endlessly with the look of their web pages. The content is, presumably, enhanced by the look. If your first reaction to a piece on your screen is, “Ugh, that’s hideous!”, you’re presumably less likely to be influenced by the words of wisdom contained within the offending design.

So w(h)ither writing? Do we just have to accept that “they do things differently in big school”, or that interest in the look of something inevitably fades, along with interest in writing at all as puberty kicks in? If the proportion of time and energy devoted to presentation in early secondary school could match that in primary, would progress in writing slow down? Somehow, I doubt it.