This article was originally posted in 2021. Lately I’ve been working with teachers on the new Study Design for VCE English and EAL, and one of the big fears is the need to be “teachers as writers” in the new Crafting and Creating Texts Areas of Study. I write every day, fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve published short stories, study guides, and books. But I still occasionally (reasonably often…) write absolute rubbish. Hopefully this (re)post will show you that it’s OK to write nonsense, and it can even be a useful learning moment in the classroom.
The importance of teachers-as-writers cannot be understated, particularly in the English classroom. If you want students to be successful, you must be willing and able to model. The problem is, it can be incredibly daunting to stand in front of a class of students and just start writing. The good news: your students will benefit even if what you write isn’t actually… very good.
I’ve been writing for a few years, from scribbling in notebooks and hacking away at science fiction for my own amusement, to writing professionally for publishers like Jacaranda and Insight Publications. I’ve discovered I’m far more comfortable writing nonfiction than fiction – character development escapes me, and I’m learning the hard way that most people like their characters to be more than just a convenient vehicle for plot. The problem is, we want our students to write fluently across all modes, so there comes a time when I have to suck it up and put my fiction on show.
Everything is a lesson. As well what I’ve learned about characters, I’ve learned the importance of proof-reading, getting a second opinion, and editing. These are all useful and transferable skills that students need not only in creative writing but in any extended written task across the curriculum. Enter: the worst sentence I ever wrote.
I’d churned out around 70,000 words of draft science fiction and had finally reached the point where I felt if I stared at it any longer, it might burst into flames. In a couple of particularly frustrated moments, I’d considered throwing it into the fire so it could literally burst into flames. Instead, I asked my wife to read through it. For some reason, she agreed. Pen in hand, she skimmed through my magnum opus while I simultaneously went through and picked up a few SPGs here and there. And then she started laughing. She had circled a section of the text and was starting to illustrate it in the margins. Clearly, something was going on. And then she showed me what I’d written.
It was perfect. It had everything. A confusing simile. Awkward phrasing. Weak descriptions. Neck meat. I joined in the laughter, copied the sentence into a notebook as a reminder of what not to do, and scribbled out the offending passage in the draft. The notebook went into a drawer and the draft eventually went wherever draft manuscripts go to die.
Flash forward to 2019, and a Year 12 class working on the Unit 3 creative outcome. I’d been modelling short passages to illustrate dialogue, descriptions of setting, and so on. I’d even attempted some examples of characterisation. But I needed something to demonstrate the importance of reviewing and peer editing. Enter, the short man, the snake, and the neck meat. I copied the passage out of the notebook and presented it to the class the next day. We tore the sentence apart. Students asked to come up to the whiteboard just to point out more flaws. And at the end of it, an important lesson was learned: Your own eyes miss the most obvious mistakes.
I’m sure I’ve written worse sentences than that. But it’s the only sentence that a Year 12 class has ever immortalised on the side of a coffee mug.
Thanks for that, class of 2019.
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