In schools around the country children are being misled. The habits they’re acquiring as writers may tick a whole row of boxes but in my opinion they distort the English language and crush youthful creativity. Let me add at once, however, that I do NOT blame the teachers. The stylistic tricks they’re obliged to teach children to turn are not, of course, their idea. After all, in today’s education system ideas are a luxury teachers are rarely allowed. No, these specifications have been identified and handed down from Mount Assessment by the all-knowing, all-powerful god of data. Like all pronouncements from above, these ‘skills’ must be demonstrated on paper if boxes are to be ticked as required – by schools forced to compete in the name of education. But authors like me, who believe more passionately than most in the joy, power and beauty of words, are dismayed by the results. That dreaded ‘system’ is training kids to write in a way that’s unnatural, stilted and excessive. It drains the light and colour, humanity and energy from the language and leaves behind a kind of elaborately decorated scaffolding where there could have been ripples on water or a bird in flight. The objectives and levelling criteria, along with the teaching tools designed to match, are misguided. They’re destructive of spirit and individuality, and as a visiting author I’m sometimes horrified by the damage they do.
- I’m no minimalist but I believe nouns can be allowed out on their own now and then. They don’t always need two or three adjectives to accompany them. ‘The snow’ gains little if it becomes ‘the cold white snow’ – unless one is writing for people who have no idea what snow is. If adjectives are redundant, inappropriate or yawningly predictable like all those ‘glittering, shimmering, sapphire eyes’ with which heroines apparently dazzle us all, they neither clarify nor enhance. They exhaust.
- There are thousands of words and phrases to choose from when beginning a sentence but some are too elaborate to consider unless aiming for the baroque. When I see children dutifully choosing from openers like ‘fascinatingly’ and ‘unsurprisingly’ even if invited to present a character in a story – and the remainder of the sentence has no relationship with the opener they felt obliged to use – I’m tempted to ask what’s wrong with ‘She…’ or ‘His…’! I would model the use of these fancy alternatives to genuine effect (with the help of Prof Cox?) in order to illustrate how and why they work, rather than display them in isolation, but I would also mount a defence of less invasive options.
- In writing, long sentences aren’t always better than short ones, and complexity isn’t a goal in itself. Authors know this, and since children’s fiction has been stripped back in pursuit of accessibility (and perhaps to increase urgency in order to compete with the screen) few of today’s titles can be used to illustrate the kind of sentences children are required to write. Some authors do dumb down and I hate it; I wrote a 52 word sentence in TRACES and hope it rolls emotionally. But sometimes in a story the best technique is simplicity. The average length of the sentences on the first page of Morpurgo’s The Butterfly Lion is nine words, and five out of these eleven sentences begin with ‘I’ – appropriately so in a vivid first person narrative. I dread to think how low a level this would earn the great man. In The Iron Man by Ted Hughes sentences range from twenty-three words to two; as a poet Hughes understands rhythm and contrast as well as the storytelling tradition. Every one of the favourite stories I’ve examined uses short sentences as skilfully as longer ones, and not one of the authors I admire most, from Robert Swindells and Malorie Blackman to Alan Gibbons and Siobhan Dowd, seems to value complexity above fluency, energy and spirit.
- Punctuation is not a circus act; it shouldn’t attract attention from the words. Employing every available punctuation mark on the bottom row of the pyramid doesn’t automatically enhance the quality of the prose. In the first chapter of The Iron Man the writing is starkly dramatic, but it requires nothing fancier than full stops and commas. Of course the authors I admire demonstrate understanding of speech marks and know how to punctuate a question and an exclamation, but use semi-colons, colons, brackets and ellipses sparingly, when needed. Stories, characters, particular genres and atmospheres make their own demands but at the same time resist rules. While there are tools to equip us to craft our writing, which we can reach for as necessary, the quality of the work is not defined by the range of equipment used. Moreover, attempts to use the tools without knowing how or understanding why can lead to writing that’s as botched as a sloping shelf.
- Writing is an art too. Great authors offer individual voices, and draw in readers from the start with clarity and the magic of ‘feel’. Morpurgo is a storyteller whose real-world narratives flow and move us, while McCaughrean surprises with daring, sometimes surreal humour and wildly original imagery. They don’t follow the same rules but each has a style that’s rich and distinctive. They’re artists, and that’s what makes them writers. The only way teachers can explain the mystery of talent is by ensuring that children experience it. Bring back Story Time!
If I were Minister for Education I’d have two overarching objectives for primary school Literacy. Firstly, I’d call for total immersion in stories, in order for young readers to enjoy the deep connection fiction can make – which can be expressed in art, music, dance and drama. Lastly, I’d call on teachers to ensure that children delight as writers in the power and playfulness of the words they choose for themselves. When it comes to teaching great writing, I don’t believe in the Fascinatingly Approach. I believe in liberation. Let’s free the teachers and pupils from the tyranny of the tick box and let the language live.