Thursday 10 December 2015

3 blogs as one article:'Good writing', 'well-edited writing', teaching, assessing, helping pupils write, publishing

(I've put all three posts as one article here. Please feel free to copy it, print it, distribute it, discuss it, use it, share it. My only request is that you credit me with having written it!)

The kind of writing that teachers are supposed to teach in schools is the kind of writing that comes up in exams.
This kind of writing is geared towards what can and must be assessed according to mark schemes.
People who advise teachers or tell teachers how to teach writing produce booklets, books, text books, courses on how to teach writing.
What they mean is that these are booklets, books, text books and courses on how to teach the kind of writing that comes up in exams.
Meanwhile, people called 'writers' write stuff that is not the same as the kind of writing that comes up in exams.

The booklets, books, text books and courses for writing that comes up in exams are full of formulae for what makes good writing. They mean writing that is good for exams.
These formulae are such things as Vocabulary Connectives Openings Punctuation, Wow words, and stuff to do with 'fronted adverbials', 'embedded relative clauses', 'noun clauses'.
In fact, under instruction from these booklets, books, text books and courses, the application of these formulae has come to mean 'good writing'.
It is not 'good writing'. It is 'writing for exams'.
Meanwhile, people called 'writers', write stuff that is not the same as the kind of writing that comes up in exams.

When you read the kind of writing that children do under the influence of the booklets, books, text-books and courses, you realise that a good deal of it starts to sound the same.
You notice strings of adjectives, a good deal of adverbs, many randomly inserted relative clauses, odd  sounding 'fronted adverbials' (which the children will have been told may also be called 'time connectives').
I might say this is not 'good writing'.
It's what I would call 'bad writing'.
To which you might say, 'What is good writing?'

Fair enough.

How do we decide what is 'good writing'.

I don't think we can decide what is 'good writing' according to tiny differences of percentage marks.
I think we can come up with a loose general feel of what is 'good writing' perhaps on a three-grade scale of 'very good', 'good' 'not so good'.

Really? What criteria?

First - 'first impression'. That's a valuable resource to think about when thinking if something is good writing or not. You could 'grade' that first impression on my 3 grade scale.  Perhaps.

One criterion, I would say is 'surprise'. Is there anything about this piece of writing that is unusual, different, grabs the attention, surprises? A lot, a little, or not at all? (3 grade scale, again)

Another: is there anything going on in this writing that keeps my attention? Are there things going on with this writing that keep me interested? Or am I dozing off? Am I losing interest? (3 grade scale)

Another: (more complicated and theoretical) how has this writer 'transformed their sources'. This rests on the theory known as 'intertextuality'. This theory says that what we all do is write with the 'already'. We use the resources of language, and forms of language (e.g. literary forms, 'the essay', the story', 'the play', 'the newspaper article' and so on) that are in our heads or that we have just come across. A piece of writing that we do, 'transforms' these. That is 'originality'.
As we read a piece we will have a sense of shadowy shapes of previous writings - maybe because we're reading 'a recount' - it's like all other recounts BUT has it in anyway slightly differently or interestingly departed from that. Other times the shadowy shape might be a 'motif' or 'scene' or 'type' e.g. 'boy meets girl' or 'I walked into the building' or whatever.  Has the writer simply taken these without modifying them, or does it feel as if the writer has done something different and interesting? i.e. has the writer transformed his/her sources in interesting (or not so interesting) ways? (3 grade scale)

So, if you were to take these four forms of assessment, and put each on a scale of 1-3, would you be able to come up with a 'mark'? If three of you looked at a piece of writing, and you averaged out your scores would  you arrive at a set of pieces of writing which genuinely varied from what were 'very good', 'good' and 'not so good'.

Now all this is relatively trivial and unimportant, if you can't then do something with this which would help all the writers (children or adults) to write more (rather than less) interesting things. So, what might help?

Share the writing with explanations as to why and how you arrived at the conclusions the readers came up with for that loose grade - so all three categories of writing ('very good', 'good' 'not so good') are shared. Do we agree with that classification? Why don't we agree?

How might we learn from each other? What aspects of someone else's writing might help me with mine? What aspects of my writing might help you with yours?


But what about correctness? What about producing correct writing?

To which I say:

1. Writing is much more varied than the curriculum allows for. Many kinds of writing do not operate according to the rules of continuous, formal, non-fiction prose.
As examples:

some passages within fiction,
song lyrics,
many parts of newspapers and magazines - especially headlines, sub-heads and summaries or 'boxes', billboards,
film scripts,

None of these 'forms' of written language are trivial or unnecessary or unimportant. To ignore them is to misrepresent what 'writing' is. 

2. Even continuous, formal, non-fiction prose is open to variation and change. A comparison over, say, 50 years of newspaper editorials would find a great difference in some key aspects of sentence structure and length, use of colloquialisms, use of 'non-sentence' forms as sentences and so on.

3. The correctness we usually talk about when we say 'correctness' is about a specific set of punctuation 'rules', prescribed conventions of grammar and spelling. As I say, these only apply regularly and mostly in the circumstances of formal, continuous, non-fiction prose. In other words, they are used for that purpose. However, this is not the same as 'good writing'. It is quite possible to deliver a piece of writing using that specific set of conventions whilst being extremely dull, illogical, pointless, repetitive, hackneyed, imitative and so on.

4. This leads me to think that in an ideal world we would have two categories: 'good writing' - (which I have tried to cover in the previous blog)  and 'well-edited writing'.

5. I think we should teach how to do 'well-edited writing' in schools. I don't think we need to do it all the time. I don't think we should kid children and students that 'well-edited writing' is the same as 'good writing' nor that all 'good writing' needs to 'well edited' according to the rules of formal, continuous, non-fiction prose - especially when writing those other 'forms' that I have listed above. These operate according to other conventions or indeed, sometimes, invented conventions.

I think that if we keep the two fields of 'well-edited writing' and 'good writing' separate we can also say that for certain purposes, it is vital and necessary to apply 'good-editing' to 'good writing' - especially when we 'publish' what we write in written form (as opposed to when we perform it).

6. We can teach 'good-editing' in many different ways. There isn't only one dull prescriptive way of doing it. We can use games, editing each other's writing, making deliberate 'mistakes' and seeing if we can spot them. We can 'investigate' of continuous formal non-fiction writing to see whether we can deduce the rules being used. We can look at the other varieties of written language to see how they are not using those rules. For example, we could go on expedition and look at billboards, or examine ads in newspapers or on TV and see how punctuation and sentence grammar are laid to one side for the sake of putting over powerful messages (or messages that are attempting to be powerful).

7. We should not let the 'good editing' tail wag the 'good writing' dog. We should not penalise 'good writing' for not being 'well-edited'. If we want to mark 'good editing' then that's fine, we can give it marks. But let's not pretend it's anything else other than 'good editing'.


The final part of this set of thoughts on writing and teaching concerns what I've been calling 'publishing'.

In an ideal world, schools would be even more of publishing houses than they are. That's to say one of the in-built functions and purposes of a school would be to publish the thoughts and ideas and experiences of the people in and at that school.

Of course, this goes on to a limited extent in most schools and in some schools a good deal. To be precise, I mean by 'publishing' any of the following and any others that people can think of:

wall displays,
cabaret evenings
school bulletins
radio shows
tv programmes

And these wouldn't be one-offs or exceptions but a continuous part of what everyone would understand 'school' to be: 'I go to school to write things or perform things or publish things for the....magazine, the show, the book that my friend and I are writing....' and so on.

The school would make every effort to help pupils develop the means of knowing how to produce these, whether that means typing, printing, distributing, rigging lights, sound-recording, directing shows...and so on.

What I've called 'editing' in the previous section would be part of this. It would be understood that the written side of publication involves 'good-editing'. Adults and older pupils how know how to do this, can help those who are less confident to do it. The purpose of editing is to make the written products intelligible to the most number of people.

I am suggesting here that a school geared to see 'writing' in this way, is a school showing pupils (and all the adults too) that writing has a purpose, writing is for an audience, and that audiences help you write better.