On teaching writing

I’ve been working as a Royal Literary Fellow at Newcastle University for the last year, a job that involves me helping students improve their academic writing. Mainly this happens through one to one sessions in which the student and I talk about their work, usually with reference to a specific piece they’re working on. The following is a short piece on what that experience has been like for me.

This is a strange job. I work amongst academics, but am not an academic. There are superficial similarities between what we do — we sit in our offices and talk to students — but I’m not sure we have the same goals. Whereas they try to convey information to the students, my role feels more diagnostic. The students who visit me know that they, or rather their work, is unwell in some fashion, but can’t see (or at least articulate) what the problem is.

The true cause of this sickness is impossible to discern. Laziness, the education system, their parents, the decline of community libraries, the Internet, the thrill of text messaging, the fact that television has never, ever been as good as it is now: take your pick. But perhaps the aetiology is immaterial. Treatment is all that matters.

I suspect that many of the students want some easy to swallow pill that will make them all better after 7 days. Telling them to search their essays for phrases like ‘This emphasies’ and words like ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ will provide minor relief – and maybe reduce irritation – but it will not cure their writing of its maladies. What I recommend is more akin to physiotherapy. They need to assume new habits that may seem dull, uncomfortable and pointless and don’t appear to be doing anything useful even after six bloody weeks. They need to print out their work and slowly read through it in a quiet room. They need to read more. They need to read better.

Even if they suffer this regime of treatment there are no guarantees. Having excellent skin is no indicator of one’s internal health. Simplistic, naïve ideas can be well-expressed. And one can be many wonderful things in life without being able to write well. It’s entirely understandable if people have other priorities. There are other kinds of health.

I’m sure many doctors doubt their choice of vocation. People smoke and eat rubbish food and try to meld with their couch and then complain they are unwell. But I don’t blame the students for their problems. In some ways it’s surprising that they’re not much worse: it seems to me that often they are required to do things they haven’t been shown how to do.

I sometimes find it difficult to accept that a student’s prognosis depends almost entirely on them, how much they want to improve, how much their circumstances allow them to. I can reassure them, I can listen, but I cannot transport them to some sanatorium cum library on a Swiss mountain.

But it strikes me that perhaps this illness metaphor misses the point. To speak of recovery assumes they have fallen from some state of perfect health in which no comma was ever misplaced. They aren’t trying to get well. They, like the rest of us, are only trying to learn.

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