Education Writing

On floweriness

Les Fleurs du Mal

My wife pointed me to a piece in The Guardian about the UK’s National Curriculum and the tendency for primary school teachers to steer children’s creative writing towards “too elaborate, flowery and over-complex” language to meet assessment criteria. An issue raised by a large group of children’s book writers including at least two Carnegie Medal winners.

I have worked with children in schools recently, talking about poetry and advertising with ‘more able writers’ at Downs Junior. I was really impressed by the teaching there, and the vibrant word choices some of the children were able to call upon, and how they were taught to reach for interesting words.

I was at my godson’s school, where I was asked by his Dad to pop in one day to be with him while we worked on his literacy in an after school club, that I experienced what the childrens’ authors were talking about.  As I sat with him, the lad had produced what I thought to be a crisp and pacy paragraph. It was found wanting by the teacher, however, as it was not sufficiently larded with adverbs and adjectives. Precisely the kind of flowery language the children’s authors are talking about.

Of course children’s vocabulary must be increased, but this can be done in a way that does not diminish the import of the sentence as a whole. Despite my poetic shenanigans I have a workmanlike approach to language. I believe its primary function is to communicate, rather than prove how clever the speaker or writer is. To communicate well you have to be entertaining and hold people’s attention and get to the point from time to time, rather than ambling endlessly, lengthily, ponderously about in the cul de sacs of floor-waxed, saw-dusted, labyrinthine – That IS a good word Peter. Thanks Miss! – educational dogma.

Luckily, nobody owns the English language. What is considered good writing is culturally assigned, and the opinions of these authors may come to seem outmoded. In my day job as a copywriter, for example, I have had to reassure a two or three French clients that I was not underselling their products because I had use fewer adjectives than my French counterparts would have used. They expected a floweriness that most English readers would find insincere and over the top. When you are selling something too hard, the customer begins to smell a rat.

The Guardian article quotes Cecilia Busby (who writes children’s fantasy as C.J.Busby).

The way writing is taught in primary schools, she said, is the opposite of how it is taught in MAs in creative writing, “where you’re taught to strip out the adverbs, remove all adjectives, and write in a simple, direct way”.

I think that just because this is how it is taught for MA courses doesn’t make that automatically right either. It feeds into the suspicion that there is a generation of writers who have been taught the “correct” way of writing. Interestingly, their way of writing may be at odds to the generation of readers spawned under current teaching methods. Now that IS interesting.