Random Thoughts: On teaching writing. By Jean Bedford
Godfather Peter Corris is still on a sickie, though we hope he’ll be back soon (this column-writing lark is harder than it looks). Meanwhile NRB Editors continue to share their random thoughts. This week Jean Bedford talks about teaching writing and gives her own ten rules for good writing.
‘You can’t teach writing!’ How often have we heard that said? It’s true to some extent, as it’s also true for painting or music or sculpture. Anyone can draw a lopsided human form, sit in silence at the piano, put large holes in a distorted bronze figure or ride a bike over wet paint, but that doesn’t mean you’re the next Picasso or John Cage or Henry Moore or Jackson Pollock, all of whom had a strong and lengthy apprenticeship in the fundamentals of producing art.
You can be taught the basic elements of the craft – style, design, short cuts, how various structures, narrative levels, tense and time, voice and point of view work, and so on. After that it’s a matter of whether this grounding can be turned into art; whether there is inherent talent at play. Whether you have a voice. Whether what you can produce is fresh and necessary. That is, necessary for you to write and necessary to be read. This includes so-called ‘popular’ fiction – the necessity here is to entertain, to fulfil or subvert genre expectations and to do it honestly (see Rule 9), not cynically or carelessly. And don’t despair, talent can apparently be forced to emerge. I know writers who have found their voice through sheer perseverance, having not shown much flair to begin with.
I’ve taught writing for much of my adult life, in most of the institutions on the east coast that provide Creative Writing courses. I’ve taught undergraduates and post-graduates, and quite a few of my students have been published, though I don’t claim much credit for this.
I’ve conducted many writing workshops, all over the place and for varied organisations – from a high school in Burwood, UTS and the University of Sydney, through the Northern Rivers and Byron Bay to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. I once ran a three-month workshop at Hobart jail with a group that included Mark ‘Chopper’ Reed. That was … interesting, as they say, and he did have talent – as well as charm, to my surprise. He also obediently did all the weekly exercises, which meant the others in the group did too – they were obviously in awe of him – and read all the set texts. He wrote a very funny, and metrically correct, haiku for one exercise, about Dorothy Porter (his taste in poetry was more of the Banjo Paterson variety), which I wish I had kept a copy of. It began something like ‘Dorothy Porter/Barrister’s daughter …’ I recited it to Dorothy and she laughed. I can’t read his books, but they do seem to have something of his energy and charisma – and arrogance.
The writer’s residency in Hobart was memorable for several reasons apart from Chopper. I travelled a lot, visiting various writers’ groups and during one I was explaining that I thought that using the first person properly is difficult for beginning writers, especially if the fiction is to any extent autobiographical, because of the potential confusion between the ‘I’ writing and the ‘I’ narrating. Someone in the class said, ‘But Bryce,’ (Courtney had been their last visiting writer) said it was the easiest.’ ‘He’s wrong,’ I said. They were unconvinced. I should add here that when I was working in publishing at Transworld I advised against us bidding in the auction for The Power of One because I thought the draft I had seen was terrible and really badly written. It went on to sell more than eight million copies.
Elmore Leonard is famous for his ten rules of good writing and I agree with most of them. However, Jane Eyre might not have been written if Charlotte Brontë had read ‘Never open a book with weather’. And prologues can be very useful and effective devices. Rules, of course, are there to be broken – if you know the rules in the first place and have a deliberate reason for breaking them.
So here are my ten rules:
1 Read. Read. Read. There might be some good writers who don’t read, but I can’t name any. Reading is both the fertile ground and the seed of writing. It contextualises the art; it immerses you in the written word and it shows the infinite possibilities of story worlds. It tells you what has gone before, so you don’t inadvertently repeat it. Writing students have confessed to me that they don’t read much, and I’ve replied, in the gentlest possible way, ‘Well, then, you probably won’t write much worth reading, either.’
2 Know your grammar. English grammar is a wonderful labyrinth of incomplete rules, contradictions and subtly nuanced distinctions, with thorny briar patches that no man or woman (even Chomsky) has ever fully penetrated. Many writers have an instinctive grasp of grammar, without necessarily much formal knowledge of its terms, but for those who don’t – learn it! Your readers may not have formal knowledge but they will know when something isn’t right. Grammar should be enthralling for writers, in my opinion, with its inexhaustible opportunities for expression. It, along with punctuation (see below), also provides the nuts and bolts of writing.
3 Get the punctuation right. Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is an entertaining place to start brushing up if you’re a bit lacking in this department. Punctuation provides the pauses and therefore the rhythms of writing. It offers, or precludes, ambiguity. It indicates dialogue and it can be a sometimes powerful substitute for text, as in ellipses. It can add layers of meaning and information – as with parentheses. The subtle differences between commas, semi-colons and full stops create a particular flow of language and used correctly they can contribute to a distinctive voice. (Also see Elmore Leonard on exclamation marks!!)
4 Write, write some more, then keep on writing, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s advice to a young would-be writer. Writers write; that’s what they do. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike – the muse is a flighty creature and might not appear all that often. Buckle down. Get words on the page. You can always change them later, but only if they’re already there.
5 I’m with Leonard on using adverbs sparingly. Helen Garner once said that adverbs are fascist words, and I know what she means. Especially in dialogue, they leave the reader no imaginative room to move. ‘He spoke angrily’ closes off the possibilities of interpreting character and interaction. Much better to show his anger (‘show, don’t tell’): ‘He slammed his fist on the table as he spoke.’ Let the reader interpret the action. Also, in dialogue adverbs can easily become silly – ‘”Don’t do that,” she cried trillingly.’ I used to tell my undergraduate writing classes they could have one adverb a semester and would be fined for using any more. Of course, if you want to be bossy or preemptive they can be very useful.
6 The same applies to adjectives, though not as stringently. (My writing students were allowed ten of these per semester.) Strings of adjectives blur the description. Find the salient one or two that give the best impression of what you are describing, or space them out over several passages, or don’t use them at all. It’s surprising how much can be conveyed of character and even appearance by action and reaction, rather than actual description. More than two adjectives in a sentence is too many.
7 Avoid clichés (like the plague, right?). So hard to do, this. Sometimes it seems as if everything has already been said and there’s no fresh way to say it. It’s a writer’s task to find that fresh way. So examine all your metaphors and similes for clichés. In fact, apply the ‘use sparingly’ rule to metaphors and similes, anyway. And be careful that in looking for an original image you don’t become unintentionally comical: ‘The sun rose like a broken poached egg’, I once read.
8 Avoid starting too many sentences with the subordinate clause or action – usually words ending in ‘-ing’. For example, ‘Coming into the room, she took out a gun.’ The main action of the sentence, the taking out of the gun, is delayed by the subordinate action of entering the room. This construction can sometimes be useful, if the intention is to delay the action or to have some other effect – for example, surprise or contrast: ‘Smiling, she punched him on the nose.’ However, too many sentences of this nature keep on delaying the action and lose reader interest.
9 Not ‘write what you know’ but write what you know or believe to be the truth, however fictional the work. It’s a writer’s duty. This also goes back to avoiding clichés, as well as other pitfalls. Don’t take accepted wisdom or common generalisations for granted; write directly from your own perception of the world and people.
10 Edit your work. Your writing is an artefact like any other and can be corrected, altered and polished. Find a way of looking at it impartially, as if it were written by someone else. Sometimes putting it away for a few weeks between drafts can give the necessary distance.