Thursday, 1 April 2010

Interesting writing

As an example of key stage 3 skills in narrative writing, a website called gives us this sentence: ‘He was unhappy’. In the name of making the writing ‘more interesting’ the author offers an improved version: ‘He wiped away a glistening tear as he watched her turn away and walk purposefully towards the door.’
The more I look at the improved version, the more I like the original. ‘He was unhappy’ strikes me as a sentence with some integrity. It sounds like English. It delivers a single piece of information effectively. It establishes a point of view.
As it goes through its improvement, something weird happens to the point of view. Who exactly is paying attention to the glistening of that tear? It can’t be the man, unless he’s a narcissist and there happens to be a mirror in the room. Nor the woman: she’s facing the wrong way. So from whose point of view is it significant that the tear glistens? God’s maybe. But is this really what God would find most interesting about the man at this moment of personal crisis?
There’s also something muddled about the order of events. Four things happen: he wipes away a tear; he watches the woman; she turns away; she walks towards the door. But in what order do they happen? The turning and walking are clearly sequential. But the wiping and watching seem to be concurrent with each other and co-extensive with the turning and walking. Which suggests that it’s a big tear and a small room.
The author encourages us to make similar pigs' ears of other perfectly decent sentences. ‘The wind blew hard,’ for example, and ‘The dog barked at the children.’
Why does this matter and why am I being such a pedant about it? I’ve found this very same example reproduced on two other websites purporting to provide material for children or their teachers on how to write better.
I assume that the person who wrote this sentence and the people who continue to transmit it have paid closer attention to key stage 3 national curriculum guidelines than I have. That’s the interesting part. People with control over the education of our children really do want them to write this badly.