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Elizabeth Hawksley: The Tools of the Trade

December 21, 2010

I have Susie’s interesting and stimulating blog Am I a Bad Writer? to thank for inspiring this blog. How can you tell if a piece of writing is any good or is all critical judgement merely subjective?

I taught Creative Writing for many years and I came to the conclusion that knowing the Tools of your Trade is a vital first step. There are the basics: understanding grammar and punctuation, both essential if you are to get your meaning across clearly. But there other tools as well. It also helps to understand imagery (alliteration, simile, assonance etc) and metrical stresses (iamb, spondee, dactyl and so on).

One evening, towards the end of the first term, we looked at Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. In it, the poet calls for a glass of red wine ‘with beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. Originally, Keats had written ‘clustered bubbles’. I asked my students why they thought he’d changed it and did they think the change to ‘beaded bubbles’ was an improvement.

A long discussion followed. They thought the ‘b’ sound itself, which exploded from the mouth, was very bubbly; and they liked the alliteration of the b’s in beaded, bubbles and brim which made you think the wine was continuing to bubble.

They then moved on to ‘winking at the brim.’. Here they noted the assonance, where the vowel sounds are repeated, which adds to the feeling of continuity. Someone pointed out that there was assonance, too, in the discarded phrase ‘clustered bubbles’. So, originally, the line had had twice as much assonance. They decided that Keats had traded in the assonance in ‘clustered bubbles’ for added alliteration. They thought he’d been right to make the change.

At the beginning of the term, my students had had no idea what either of these terms meant and, at first, they were self-conscious about using them. Now, I was pleased to see, they were tossing words like ‘assonance’ about quite unselfconsciously. And, in so doing, they were honing their critical faculties. They now understood why Keats chose the words he did. Of course, you don’t have to know the technical terms to get the point – but it helps.

And, yes, their own writing improved, too.

Knowing the Tools of the Trade won’t automatically turn a bad writer into a good one but it helped my students to work out possible reasons why a piece of writing was or wasn’t working, and it certainly gave them a lot more self-confidence.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2010 4:02 pm

    I quite agree that budding writers can learn so much about the crafting and techniques of writing from workshops like yours ( and mine, I hope). I also prefer to use a text to illustrate a point rather than a disembodied writing exercise. There is so much to be gained from looking at texts by experienced writers.

  2. childrensauthor permalink
    December 22, 2010 6:14 pm

    I have some examples of truly awful writing I give my students. Once they’ve got over the shock of being allowed to pull it to pieces, they really enjoy it!

    Elizabeth

  3. Alison Allen-Gray permalink
    December 23, 2010 4:49 pm

    It’s my theory that children who read widely have the ‘mind’s ear’ tuned to linguistic subtlety and complexity without their even knowing it. I think Elizabeth is right. We need to know, both as readers and as writers, the nuts and bolts of how language works. If we are taught this well, it enhances enjoyment of language. And I would stress the word ‘well’.

  4. December 23, 2010 5:19 pm

    I do so agree with you, Alison. Unfortunately, there seem to have been too many dull English teachers in my students’ pasts.

    I remember discussing Dickens’ use of swelling cadences in Fagin’s trial scene in Oliver Twist. It’s a trememdous piece of writing. My students then did an exercise using something similar describing a storm. A lot of purple passages resulted – but they certainly had fun writing them – and, what’s more, they understood, from the inside, how careful use of language helped to get the effect they wanted.

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