SPaG Balls: a slight rant

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing recently and specifically about how we go from being readers, to storytellers, to fully-fledged writers.  Part of the reason is that now I have four books published, another one lined up for release in September (the sequel to The Blacksmith’s Wife telling Roger’s story) and am in the throes of writing book 6, I finally feel qualified to call myself an author.

The other reason is that the way writing is taught – and more crucially, tested – in schools has been going through a lot of changes over the past couple of years.  My son is in Year 6 and next week will be sitting his SATs, including the recently introduced SPaG tests.  That’s Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.  The Powers That Be have decided it is important that children leave Primary school being able to confidently use the aforementioned (all good) and should be tested on it (not so good).

Im’ all for grammar and punctuation! its important to know if its the right use of its in a sentence and their is nothing worse than a writer who peppers they’re work with mistakes*.

No one would deny that children should be equipped to communicate in writing. The issue that many teachers and parents take with the tests is not that it should be taught, but how, and at what level.  I’m not sure requiring eleven year olds to be able to tick the sentences that show the correct use of the past progressive or whether after is being used as a preposition or subordinating conjunction is the best way to teach them to write, or to want to.  Some of the terminology they’re expected to know I barely touched upon doing A-level English language, never mind aged ten and eleven.  I don’t remember being asked to say whether ‘the insect eating Venus flytrap’ is a fronted adverbial or main clause or identify the correct demonstratives at that age.

Certainly watching my son who brims over with ideas trying to write a sentence that MUST include a number of the statutory spellings (samples include privilege, government, controversy, criticise and hindrance – knock yourself out) and producing convoluted, dull sentences isn’t showing his creative side.

I fell in love with stories at a young age when they were read to me and decided that making things up was fun. Being able to write them down was a bonus but learning and mimicking stories, changing characters or settings, playing with rules and preconceived ideas for what should happen is how we develop our understanding of how stories work.  When I write I start with a characters or a situation I can’t get out of my head, a beginning and (hopefully) and end. The middle is often hazy but I usually know a few key events that will happen. This goes for chapters as well as the whole book. The fun of writing is starting with an idea and running with it to see what happens. Starting with a ‘what if?’ is how children (and adults if they’re anything like me) begin to feel the creative buzz and want to grab a pencil and get scribbling something down. I knew what would bring Joanna and Hal together in The Blacksmith’s Wife but I didn’t know they were going to end up with a dog or what would happen in Malton that ended up shaping their first night together. In A Wager for the Widow one key fact that ended up shaping a lot of Will’s character and motives was a complete surprise to me until he told Eleanor in the garden.  When I gave Aelric a hobby in The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge  I didn’t expect it to play such a crucial part in uncovering the plot.

I’m now five books in to my writing career and can honestly say I have never consciously thought ‘I haven’t used a fronted adverbial for a while. Better stick one in’.  I suspect that if I tried to write that way I would find myself very quickly going off writing and that is the danger I worry is facing our children today.

I play around with word order, change the adjectives and adverbs, delete and rewrite based on what sounds catchy when I read it back. Somehow at the end I have enough words on the page to do something constructive with. As a writer there is nothing better than looking up from the keyboard and realising an hour has gone by, or I’ve beaten my word count target.

As I tell myself (and my son and the children I teach) you can’t edit an empty page. If we get so hung up on the correct use of grammar or punctuation at the start and worse still, try to write with the express purpose of fitting the idea into the grammar, we will never pick up the pencil.  There are few things more depressing than seeing children are wanting to write sentences that I have to tell them to do again because although ‘swam’ is a great word, it doesn’t have an -ed suffix so can they change it to something that does because that is the key skill we’re doing today.  How soul destroying to be a young writer and told that!

I don’t know what the answer is to creating an entire population who accurately use all the correct grammatical forms. Perhaps the people who advocate filling in the blanks to change the root verb to an appropriate adjective will turn out to be right all along and in twenty years time we’ll have literature that surpasses anything available now.

I don’t think becoming a creative writer happens by learning to name or correctly spot parts of sentences any more than becoming a good driver involves sitting in a room labelling diagrams of the parts that link the brake and accelerator to the other bits of rod, gears and scary looking bits under the bonnet (I don’t know what they’re called). You learn to drive by being shown the basics (this one makes you go fast, this one makes you stop) then getting out onto the roads and having a go. Writing is the same.

 

*did you spot them all?

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