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Plain and perfect, rich and rare: what is "lyrical" writing?

This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths

The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle, and staff struggling with a presentation. Their problems can be anything from "What does "critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction or I won't get funding". And since I've blogged my Twenty Top Tips for Academic Writing, this is more about what being a Fellow is actually like.

Unlike some brand-new, nervous RLF Fellows, I was already familiar with the institution: Goldsmith’s is a small, compact campus three urban miles from home. It’s only concerned with the arts, humanities and social sciences, and I did my own PhD in Creative Writing there not so long ago. I also taught there for a year, so today’s undergraduates, from those who live and breathe Theory, to those whose sentences would be impressive in a nine year old, aren’t too much of a shock.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t brand new and nervous about the post.  My allergy to passive voice and Germanic traffic jams of nouns contradicts so much that the students must read, while what I know about Media could be written in the margin of a vintage Radio Times. But the latter limitation, as everyone tells you, is an advantage: the easiest teaching trick I know is to say, “Tell me about it,” because almost invariably you can then say, “See? You do know what you’re talking about.” The second easiest is to say, “Write the first draft for yourself, and the second for your reader.” And the third is to explain how to shake an essay question out into an essay structure.

So, five times a day someone walks in looking stressed and un-confident, and (nearly) five times a day someone walks out looking better. Sometimes amazingly better: if I wanted a measure of how likely a student is to succeed it would be in how well they can take tools I’ve offered, and use them on their own subject, in their own way. Interestingly, it’s by no means always the most polished-seeming students who have that kind of intelligence. Some others are always going to struggle, but it's a very rare student indeed who made no progress at all despite my efforts and those of my fellow Fellow, playwright Annie Caulfield. And it can make a huge difference just to say, “No, you’re not the only one who finds essay-writing baffling and difficult. But it’s not magic, it’s just a set of skills that people can learn, and I know you can learn them too.”

Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is just give a student fifty minutes of your undivided attention. I'm not in their department, I'm not judging them, I'm not reporting to anyone, and in my RLF room there's no such thing as embarrassing ignorance or a stupid question. About a third to a half are foreign students, and though we're not EFL specialists and don't offer that kind of help, it's immensely interesting unpicking the nuances of English which are beyond the reaches of normal Language teaching - and beyond the reach of some native-English speakers, too.  It's often the lack of micro-attention to language which is stopping the student getting the grades their understanding of their discipline deserves, and having to explain the nuances I take for granted makes me think about my own medium for myself.

All in all, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, not just because you can make such a difference by such straightforward means; the range of subjects and levels is also pure joy for my novelist’s, fox-type brain. From the FSA Photographers of the American Depression, to the patterns and psychologies of online consumption of foreign TV, and the writing of History in Ancient Greece, I get to do kinds of thinking and play with stuff that novels never offer me. I've helped with poetry for a Fine Arts sound installation and case studies for various Therapies, number-crunching for Anthropology, literature reviews for Music and structure for absolutely everything. Yes, I’m really rather familiar with that particular first-year Social Work essay, let alone comma splices and dangling modifiers, but each student is different. And that makes all the difference.

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