Writing Myths: The Unwritten Rules of Writing

Jude loves books, has a PhD in English Literature from Bath Spa, and is an examiner for English Language and Literature for A-level, GCSE & IGCSEs for Edexcel, AQA and Cambridge exam boards. She is an online English GCSE tutor, university English tutor and A-Level English tutor. She is also a writer.

Today, Jude is going to dispel some common writing myths for us and help us to help our kids improve their creative writing skills in English. She is also going to explain why she, an online tutor, writes with a pen!

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, the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize, who wrote her first novel as part of her Master’s in Creative Writing, and, at the tender age of 28, was a tutor of English herself.

Despite Catton’s success, a myth persists that creative writing in English 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

If you write to the examiner, it is the worst thing you can do. It will make you nervous. Try asking your child to imagine a friend or family member, or even better, no reader at all. The easiest way to accomplish this is by starting in the middle of the story. Taking the focus off any particular reader, and on to the story itself, makes the work more vivid. Create a middle and an end, write the title at the top, and leave half or a whole page empty so you can get to the action straight away. When they’ve settled in, they can return to the beginning. Furthermore, it ensures that 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

The process of creating a story is difficult – and even more difficult in a tension-filled exam room where you can’t think clearly or use your imagination effectively. So, why not take advantage of the tension? Suggest your child draws a suspension bridge to help visualize the story before starting. It should be equipped with an entrance, an exit, two pillars, and pathways between them. Define each feature. In this way, you can see the relationship between each part of the speech better than if you used headers such as ‘beginning’, ‘middle’, and ‘end’.

4: Think Small

Whenever all else fails, I find it harder to think big than small. Brain freeze is guaranteed with a question that asks you to think of your favorite thing, or your scariest moment on the spot. When given a choice, pick the question that does not include superlatives. Start small – describing a palm sized object can be very evocative, ease the student into the process of writing, and maintain a manageable pace.

Why I Write With A Pen

This is the fourth article I’ve written today. The seventh I’ve worked on. I’ve also had a haircut, walked around an art gallery, bought some vegetables, cooked a chicken, watched a documentary and skyped my mum. For an hour.

Now, I like to take many moments in my day to talk or gaze out of the window, as if from the blue sky above an idea will float gently into my lap. It’s just that I’ve found my groove. Writing doesn’t take any discipline anymore. I just do it, almost as instinctual as taking a breath or letting out a yawn. And it’s all down to the pen.

I was skeptical too, at first. I’m no technophobe. Until a month ago I wouldn’t even write notes by hand. Always on my phone or my laptop. But it has been transformative. I’m now one of those writers that looks up, an hour gone by and his coffee is cold, the sun on the other side of the sky.

Writing by hand encourages flow. Paper has no distraction, no internet or email. But more than this it causes a symbiosis between the brain and paper. I feel like my thoughts are just spilling onto the page. My head open, tipped forward, its contents pouring out like milk from a jug. In a moderately coherent fashion too! My first drafts no longer make me weep. Only sob, a little.

lt has all become subconscious, rather than deliberate. I start with the title of an essay, a few brief notes perhaps, but nothing more. And then the thing emerges as I scribble, thoughts I didn’t know I thought, things I didn’t know I knew. I feel I’ve crossed a rubicon, one where I can now write better than I can talk. The pen a tool of leverage, cranking my head open so its insides can be scooped.

No more do my thoughts lag behind. Gone are those furious bursts of typing punctuated by far lengthier periods of staring, straining and doubting. No more compulsive edits mid draft. No more read throughs of half finished work, stroking the ego with a nice analogy here and a bit of cute phrasing there, neglecting to fill up that column of never ending white.

Even being able to turn the page helps. I just did. You forget what you’ve written, the only way to go being forward.

And of course it is writerly. I’m sure you can already picture yourself in a scuffed cafe, mysteriously grappling with the archaic methods of renaissance man, the surrounding macbookers bristling at your romance. But that isn’t the point. How you look won’t improve your writing. Using a pen, however, may well.

So go buy a fat leatherbound notebook. And fill it. Mercilessly scrawl over every page, the whole damn thing. It feels wonderful, I promise.