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Writing Myths

We’re surrounded by stories from the day we’re born – and yet writing our own can produce feelings that range from blankness to vertigo. Strange that an innately human urge – think of cavemen – should be so daunting. Stories came before writing; the latter should be the easier part. But you can’t teach writing, right? Wrong. Writing can be both taught and learned. Ask Eleanor Catton, last night’s (youngest ever) winner of the Man Booker Prize, who wrote her first novel as part of her Master’s in Creative Writing, and now, at the tender age of 28, is a teacher of Creative Writing herself.

Despite Catton’s success, a myth persists that creative writing is a dark art, instruction in which is as hopeful as willing base metal into gold. Many teachers, when pressed, will shrug and tell you that, unlike Maths, it can’t really be taught – you’ve either got it or you don’t. Not so… and not the most encouraging thing to hear from a teacher either. Here are four tips to put into practice now before your child sits their exam.

The Unwritten Rules of Writing

1: There is No ‘Write’ Way

If your child is stronger at Maths, and consequently feels weaker when it comes to English (this can have more to do with relative comfort level than ability), make writing into a Maths problem instead. The two don’t have to be thought of in binary terms, with strength lying in one or the other. Look at the question or title and break it down into manageable pieces like an equation. For example, I like to map out a student’s cast of characters using a CAST equation, where Characters + Actions = Speech + Thoughts. Who is in the story and what do they do? What kind of dialogue and internal monologues result?

2: Write Like No One’s Reading

The worst thing to do is to write to the examiner. It guarantees stage fright. Get your child to imagine a friend or family member, or better still, no reader at all. This is easier said than done, but one way to bring it about is by starting in the middle of the story. This makes the work more vivid, and takes the focus off addressing any particular reader, and onto the story itself. Plan a ‘middle’ and ‘end’, write the title at the top, then leave half a page – or a whole one – and skip straight to the action. They can come back to the beginning having got into their stride. This has the added benefit of making sure they don’t waste time fussing or meandering through the first page, as there will be limited space to fill before the story has to gain momentum.

3: Bridge the Gap

Structuring a story is hard – harder still in an exam room where tension means you can’t think straight, or free up your imagination to populate this structure. Why not turn tension to your advantage? Suggest your child draws a suspension bridge to help visualize the story before starting. The suspension bridge should have an entry, an exit, two pillars and a pathway between. Annotate each part. Visualising it in this way works better than headers like ‘beginning’, ‘middle’, ‘end’, because there is a visible relationship between each part.

4: Think Small

When all else fails, I find it harder to think big than small. A question that requires you to think, on the spot, of a favourite something, or a scariest time, guarantees brain freeze. If there is a choice, pick the question without superlatives. If not, start small – a simple opening description of a palm sized object can be very evocative, ease the student into their writing, and keep things at a manageable scale.

Writing Myths was written by an English Tavistock Tutor

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