Gunther Kress procatively declared that teaching students creative writing was a pointless task given just how few will actually do so upon leaving school. It is a point that, when argued through such a lens of an adult-needs model of education, is hard to argue against.
But Kress is a teacher surpreme. He was, of course, arguing that the teaching of creative writing was not to create writers who do nothing but write. He was talking of the ability to understand and to use language in a such a way as to construct the world around us.
Of course, without the knowledge gained from reading extensively, without students and teachers reading their place in the world, developing such skills to (re)create perceptions of the world are somewhat flawed. To what ends should students (and, indeed, people) create a certain perception of the world? For sure, partisan supporters of political parties create their own perceptions with much skill, and not much creative writing.
The key to descriptive writing is the understanding of perception. To understand perception, one must read and socialise widely.
Of course, this is a demand upon students that is not always reflected in their home lives, or even in the curriculum of non-selective schools – and not through guile. In fact, there are a number of teachers who they themselves do not read or socialise widely: the demands of modern life in a nuclear family are not unsubstantial.
It is not impossible, despite its challenge, to make a reading school. Reading can be encouraged in students. Writing, however, is far trickier. Outside the demands of school, very few people (including teachers!) will write. Writing, the creating of content and perception, is not so much used. Instead, in our the market-based society of the West, we the masses are inclined to consumption. YouTube offers us an audience: the proportion of people who create is judiciously small.
It is within this context that we, as English teachers, must teach students to write descriptively. And that experience of writing is primarily, in the eyes of most, to achieve a mark on the exam.
The fundamental approach to this must be on the use of writing techniques – figurative language and sentence structures. If students are not writing extensively outside the classroom, then this is the most effective response. Quite simply, the more techniques in the writing of a student, the more they can be credited.
This leads us to the true ambition of teaching students to write descriptive: they must plan to balance the employment of techniques with the creation of tone. In the words of the characterful Peter Thomas, do the techniques achieve a desired effect?
Tone in writing is necessary for the higher grades, to create ‘compelling’ writing. Two points to show how this happen are in the use of free indirect narration, and in the teaching of the planning stage:
a) Free indirect narration is the leaking of perception from the first person experiences of characters. It is the act of attributing word choices to characters, or cultural codes external to the text. James Wood How Novel Work is an essential for all English teachers (and students) to understand this.
Essentially, the use of figurative language to describe is not always effective. A laborer is unlikely to have a conceptual perception of an object – such word choices are nakedly that of the author. Instead, more tangible, precise language would be suitable.
b) Linked to this is the need to teach how to plan compelling writing in students. In the space of 45 minutes, non-selective students need to write an absolutely focused piece of work that shows a tension or change. A point of conflict is difficult, as 45 minutes encourages the danger of extended, unbalanced narration as a student rushes to complete the writing.
Instead, students should aim to plan their writing based upon three suggested styles: the top and tail; the time shift; or the facade. Each encourages in its three-point middle three tangibles that will form the focus of description.
Within this should be a clear shift in tone or feeling from the beginning to the end. This should be apparent, yet subtle. Suggested methods are given below.
You are writing for an exam: you are writing for mediocrity
It is a truism that not every marker is a writer themselves. They are likely to be a busy teacher (sometimes a PGCE student) who is trained to look for specific techniques. They may not know much of free indirect narration or of different aspects of descriptive writing themselves. What they will do, though, is spot techniques and the ease of reading.
With this in mind, students need to contrive the demonstration of all punctuation, and of the major techniques of figurative language. In the desire to plan and write for tone, students can forget to contrive these essential foundations.
To this end, I would recommend that students tick off the use of such techniques (or at least definitely punctuation marks) on something outside their answer paper.
The dearth of resources
A quick search for descriptive writing resources reveal a disturbing lack of ambition.
The philosophy I detect in most is that of completing a bunch of tasks, usually based on prompts.
Some teachers have built careers on charisma and writing prompts. The concepts they attempt to make students gain are not so clearly shared.
I will attempt to put up here some descriptive writing concepts and examples that will build upon the foundation of technique-based writing to guide students to not only more sophisticated (and higher-graded) writing, but also to develop a more refined and acute understanding of perception, and what it means to be human.