Things which have a proper name
Starting to breathe

It flows. So what?

Last year I went to an induction day at the Open University for new Associate Lecturers in Creative Writing. And the moment which raised the biggest laugh was when someone said, "How do we get the students to say anything more about each others' work than 'This flows really well'?" Not only did we laugh, but it became the running joke of the day, because we'd all seen and heard it so often.

Okay, perhaps that's a less than warm and empathetic attitude towards neophyte writers but, dammit, if we're going to engage with them and their writing warmly and empathetically in class - which we must, to do our job properly - we have to let off steam somewhere. Good doctors don't make jokes to patients, they save their gallows humour for the canteen, and good teachers save it for the staffroom. And "It flows" really doesn't tell you a lot, does it? Specially since they usually go on to suggest a few moved commas, spot a typo, say that they really like the characters and want to read more, and that's that.

Of course, anyone who's ever been on a training course for trainers will be familiar with the 'praise sandwich' principle, although it's always more effective if even the first slice of bread has a bit more substance than "it flows". But even in places which are avowedly (and sometimes expensively) set up to make your writing better, beginner writers seem to find it very difficult to talk detail about either good or bad stuff, and I'm sure what can come over as a culture of bland niceness is really just blandness. If I had 50p for every time I've responded to student's B's general comment about student A's piece being exciting or funny or flat or sad, with "Okay; but what actual words are doing that?" and a dead silence has followed... I wouldn't have doubled my fee, but the latte at lunchtime would have been free. Sometimes the silence is thinking time, of course: if I let it run long enough someone ventures a word or two. And certainly with any given set of students they do get better at it over time.

But it's not just me, and it's not just creative writing. As any teacher or lecturer in Literature - English or otherwise - would tell you, most students have to have the thumbscrews applied before they'll talk about specific words, sentences... the nuts and bolts and beams and rivets of what we make. Perhaps it's a change in English teaching which I've observed, towards something richer in cultural context but poorer in close reading? But we all have to write word-by-word, so why is it so hard to read that way?

Books such as Francine Prose's Reading Like A Writer help, as does a firmly applied poetry course or two, and reading fiction in which the quality and originality of the prose is as important as the story it's telling. And one thing I notice when I'm teaching someone whose day job is the law is that they may lack many things in their writing, but they never, ever need teaching that individual words matter - and I'd always credit my lawyer-father with any word sense I have, as much as my English-teacher-mother. Perhaps if we could convince our students that a contract (or a treaty) might be made or broken on each word, so it had better be a good one, they'd get the message and start worrying about, and worrying away at, every word. Especially since it's just possibly true.

Comments