Saturday, October 02, 2010

Elementary School Writing lessons....grrrrr

I've been painstakingly collecting lessons for each of my children on each topic they're studying this year (reading, writing, spelling, art, music, history/social studies, science, Spanish, and a few miscellaneous things), and I keep coming across writing lessons that teach downright WRONG writing ideas---ideas editors and agents in the professional sphere are constantly harping on writers to get right. (Right being exactly what the elementary schools worldwide are teaching is WRONG.  So confusing!).

Some things I keep finding that are well-established in all the reading and writing English curricula I've found around the world:

--"You need to cut back on the use of the word 'said.'"  They have whole lessons on synonyms for "said" because they say you are not supposed to use it. Guess what? Agents constantly are begging authors to just go with "said." Why? Two reasons: a) it's relatively invisible, putting the focus on WHAT was said instead of the words you're using to express yourself. It's straightforward and tells you who said what without drawing attention out of the text.  And b) most of the time, people really do just say it. They don't exclaim, proclaim, declaim, shout, sigh, declare, state, announce, or any of those other supposed "synonyms" teachers tell you to use. Most people just talk. For the sake of accuracy and clarity of writing, it's best to use the right word, which is usually "said."  And, since it is so invisible, most people skip over it. They don't sit there and think, "Gee, the author used that word an awful lot of times in a row...."  If your characters really are shouting, then by all means use that word. But don't just use it for variety--it both muddies the writing and reveals you lack both imagination and a firm grasp of English. Good writers use words precisely, and all those "synonyms" for 'said' really have their own meaning and should be used when they are called for, not for variety. Words for "said" are like words for colors: azure, turquoise, and aquamarine are all words for blue, but nobody who has SEEN those colors is going to think they are synonyms.

"Synonyms" itself is another of those things that gets taught and is wrong. There are no true synonyms by the English teachers' definition: two words that mean the same thing. People who really "get" language know that every word has a different, precise meaning that is not identical to any other. Even if the denotation is the same, the connotations are very different. Two words, while very similar in meaning, are NOT interchangeable in a carefully written sentence. It would behoove teachers to teach writers to choose the most descriptive, accurate word that best expresses the meaning, not just a "synonym for variety." Likewise, it would benefit students to choose the simplest way to say something---often the more complex "synonym" actually means something slightly different than the writer thinks it does, and it makes the writer look stupid. Likewise, what is the benefit of confusing the reader if there is a simpler way to express what you mean?

Another thing I keep running across is "There are three ways to begin a story."  What? Who made that up? Not a writer, editor, or agent. Especially since one of the ways is dialogue. While it can be appropriate to begin a tale with dialogue, agents all over BEG young writers not to use dialogue to begin a story. It's confusing, weak, and generally speaking boring. It does happen effectively sometimes, but it shouldn't be done as a matter of course.

"Begin at the beginning." This might be true, but teachers invariably fail to properly teach what the beginning IS. They're so busy teaching exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution...when in real books, you'll find they don't really start with exposition. They start with action. The thing is, English teachers tend to like "literary fiction," which most of the rest of us don't like, and THOSE books tend to be heavy on the exposition and light on the action. In fact, they often are all exposition with very little action, a barely justifiable "climax" and an unsettling resolution. English teachers like to read those. Most of the rest of the country doesn't. And most books aren't actually written that way. (English teachers live in their own little wacky world that they define the parameters for and then try to force everything to fit or declare it trashy.)

See, the beginning of a story is where the STORY starts, not the stuff that happened before the story started. It's where the plot begins, and the plot isn't really E, R, C, F, R--it's really a problem that is solved. Problem--solution. That's a plot. Plot often includes character growth, a quest, and mystery. It involves a conflict and its resolution.  And where that conflict starts, where that quest or mystery becomes an issue to the character--that's the beginning of the story. NOT an exposition telling you how the character got to the point where the story might matter to them, not an exposition telling you who the character is or where they came from or why they're working in the forge or castle or library.  You only need enough before the "beginning" that the reader cares about the protagonist. And that is often less than a page.

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