We were reading a new class novel. One of the greats.
“What is it about the start of this book that you like?” I asked them. “What makes this good writing?”
“I like the simile,” said one child.
“Yes, but it could be better,” added another. “It only says that he was ‘taller than a house’. It could have said that he was taller than a castle or taller than a gigantic skyscraper.”
“What about the next two paragraphs?” I asked. “What do you think about the rhythm of the language and the way the author describes what’s happening?”
“It’s quite good,” conceded one child. “But he could have varied his sentence openers a bit more.”
“He uses the word ‘slowly’ twice in one line,” added another. “He could have found a different word.”
And so it continued. They criticised his lack of adverbs, his placement of commas, his failure to include a subordinate clause.
“This is Ted Hughes!” I wanted to scream at them. “It’s bloody brilliant. The man can do things with language that you can only dream of. Stand back in wonder.”
Of course I realise that I’ve only got myself to blame. Part of the problem is that, very often, what we celebrate in primary schools as good writing isn’t, in fact, good writing. At best, it’s clumsily constructed hyperbole; at worst, it’s meaningless drivel.
We’re so busy keeping score of each subordinate clause and Wow word, we forget that the whole point of writing is to communicate with a reader.
Some children believe that the route to good writing is to pack the page with as many long words as they can, which is why it’s not unusual to read recounts that open with sentences like: “I loudly avalanched down the stairs and dashed into the kitchen where my delectable mother served me some surreptitious cornflakes and a curvaceous plate of dilapidated toast and jam.”
Sentences like this are what happens when children are trying to please you; when they have listened to your tirades on the features of good writing and diligently responded by offering up a flurry of synonyms for “said” and similes more tortured than a music critic at a Justin Bieber concert.
Maybe it’s just a phase they have to go through until maturity brings a fuller understanding of the nuances of language. But a lecturer friend of mine tells me that she is inundated with undergraduates who start their sentences with phrases like “One propounds to ascertain…” and who adorn their essays with grandiose vocabulary but struggle to recognise that every sentence needs a verb.
The very exacting curriculum expectations for primary-aged pupils has made it more likely that, in the classroom, how you write takes precedence over what you write. Perspiration not inspiration. Presumably when a Poet Laureate sits down to write, he doesn’t start by sticking in a success criteria and end by highlighting all the similes.
I’m pretty sure that Ted Hughes would have had a pretty low opinion of our tick boxes and lists of required sentence types. Writing in 1967 in his book Poetry in the Making: An Anthology, he had the following advice for budding young writers: “Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.”
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands