“Don’t use ‘said’,” he bellowed: creative writing lessons from the primary school classroom

I attended a couple of  ‘Impact’ literary workshops at my sons’ primary school this week, in which their teachers laid out the strategies they would be using to help improve the pupils’ literacy – in this case, their writing, rather than their reading. The aim was to encourage them to be more adventurous in their Vocabulary, their use of Connectives, and their sentence/paragraph/story Openers, and to consolidate their Punctuation usage – all of which goes together to give us the unlovely acronym VCOP.

Stickers of the door of my boys' Year 4 classroom

Quite apart from the  experience of sitting on a tiny chair, clutching an A4 white board and a marker pen, and listening – rather than doing what I’d usually be doing at 9am on a Wednesday, which is being the one standing at the front, trying to keep everyone’s attention focused – I was struck by just how radically different the core lessons were to those that I’ve been teaching in undergraduate Creative Writing seminars. When I say radically different, I mean diametrically opposed.

Let’s take, as emblematic, a ‘rule’ and an exercise from the workshop:

  • The rule is that children should avoid using ‘said’ when tagging speech, and instead choose a more descriptive verb.
  • The exercise, which the class teacher got the parents to do, was to take a simple sentence (“The old man walked through the forest”) and make it more ‘interesting’ by changing and adding words.

You don’t have to be Hemingway to guess that, when it comes to undergraduate creative writing, these are pretty much the opposite of what we preach – where we = the great academic-literary consensus/conspiracy. Take out those annoying speech-act verbs, we say: use good old ‘said’ instead. And remove all extraneous, flowery vocabulary. Keep it simple.

Obviously, these lessons come at very different stages in the life-long journey of becoming a great writer/a normal adult. It’s not like discouraging kids from expanding their vocabulary, and whacking them with a ruler every time they used ‘mumbled’ instead of ‘said,’ would automatically turn them into natural writers of spare, cut-to-the-bone prose. The opposite is probably true. So something more complex is in play.

It’s this: that there is a time in a writer’s early development when they have to stop showing how good they are by virtue of demonstrating the breadth of their vocabulary, and instead show it through something like discretion. The right word at the right – occasional – moment will make all the difference. A paragraph stuffed full of mots justes will read like a dense tangle of conflicting, self-regarding brilliances.

Or take the speech tag paradox. It’s one of the most common ‘rules’ of creative writing that you should to stick to ‘said’ most if not all of the time. This isn’t because we don’t want readers to know that the characters are angry/drunk/scared/whatever the more specific verb would imply, but because it’s ‘better’ (the literary consensus has it) that we get that information either through the dialogue itself, or through an accompanying piece of description.

In structuralist parlance, the signified of this absent, accursèd word must be alluded to, without the signifier itself being present. The writer must prove s/he has a vast vocabulary, not be using it, but by not hiding it… but in such a way to demonstrate that s/he – and the reader – both know it’s there.

I was beginning to think these thoughts as I set about my task of ‘improving’ that exemplary sentence – for which we parents were given just 60 seconds. My first thought was that, as sentences go, “The old man walked through the forest” was pretty good, and possibly unimprovable. Although I suspected that what was wanted was something along the lines of “The wizened old man tripped and tottered through the dark and foreboding forest” I tried to see if I could improve the sentence in a way more in keeping with the way I’d try to get my Creative Writing students to do it – to give the sense of his oldness, and of the setting, and perhaps of something more – that would hint at ways his story might unfold – without resorting to the most obvious means.

What I wrote was: “The man walked along the path, stopping and starting, eyes on the tops of the trees, his hand on his stick.”

Obviously, it’s pretty bog-standard, as sentences go, but I do think it hints at the way our assumptions about ‘elegant’ ‘literary’ prose function. The words ‘man’ and ‘walked’ stay (they are eminently ‘degree-zero’ forms of writing, very much on a par with ‘said’), while the parts that can be alluded to, rather than explicitly stated, are cut out – ‘old’ and ‘forest’.  What is aimed for is not density of specification, but deftness of allusion. You get the reader to collaborate in the production of meaning.

This allusiveness carries risks: in this case, that reader will misread the ‘stick’ as a dog-walker’s prop, and the ‘trees’ as those of an orchard, rather than a forest. But that’s where the next sentence would come in – not to add to the reader’s grab-bag of definite, cast-iron adjectives, but to offer qualification and adjustment of what they already have. Paragraphs are multi-directional webs of allusion for the reader to negotiate, not linear paths, liberally sprinkled with breadcrumbs for him/her to collect.

I still think “The old man walked through the forest” is a better sentence, though.

And none of my characters do much fuming, enquiring or murmuring, not matter what they might say.

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4 comments

  1. W. R. Woolf

    I love the title of this post; it made me smile :)
    I think that writing too many adjectives and using very descriptive verbs is stage that one has to go through before becoming a really competent writer. Just like it most artist have to go through a stage where they paint/draw very naturalistic pictures, before they can create beautiful works of their own, that are perhaps surreal or symbolic.
    I think that the stage is needed to learn certain tools, then later the very same tools can be used in new ways to create something more elegant.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Thanks for the comment, W. I think you’re right, and I think what we don’t quite realise in reading stuff like Hemmingway (for example) is how much its spareness is predicated onto an acknowledgement that all that flowerly vocabularly is there, not being used. The reader and the author work from the assumption that when ‘said’ is used as a speech tag, the myriad other, more descriptive options have been weighed and rejected. It’s like irony: it only works if the reader/listener knows what the writer/speaker *really* means… that is, we read/hear what *isn’t there*. Aren’t we clever things, really, when you think about it…

  3. ophelia

    Every time a teacher suggests cutting out the word ‘said’, a university tutor somewhere feels an inexplicable shiver.

  4. Matt Wardle

    Reblogged this on Matt Wardle and commented:
    This is a trap I’ve fallen into in the past. I think in my case it was caused by a lack of confidence and the fear that if I didn’t spell it out, the reader wouldn’t get it.

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