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.

Show and Tell


When I was a teacher in China I used to get my students to bring in items and talk about them. It was good practice for them and also meant there was only 42 minutes left of the lesson to fill. The best one was a young man who brought in a bullet and then spoke about how happy he’d felt the first time he fired a gun. This story is probably vaguely inspired by this – it’s in The Manchester Review.

late style — the m john harrison blog

Late style arrives when you realise that you are: competent enough to write those things you wanted to write when you were twenty five; impatient enough to have one more go at going all the way; angry enough not to allow anyone else to persuade you to do something else. At the same time late […]

via late style — the m john harrison blog

New Traffic Patterns May Emerge


I have a new story titled ‘New Traffic Patterns May Emerge’ in Short Fiction magazine. This is how it starts:

Sally is a worried tiger because they are late. Her mother drives round the block and when they return Sally spies the perfect space — right outside the old church hall — but they cannot stop. When they come round again a dirty white van has taken the space, and this seems unfair, it was theirs. But then a parked car eases out and everything is fine.


Injuries, break ups, deaths of friends: these were normal, awful life events that Chris could have managed. If they’d happened over several years he might have coped. But it had been a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat. His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in the face by a stranger. He had been a witness to his mother’s slow unmaking. She no longer knew his name. She lived, and she did not.

He had never cried as much, been so unable to sleep, and yet he was not depressed. He sometimes wished he were. There were pills for that, and therapy, the notion of a path that wound back to health. What he felt seemed permanent.


When Sally bursts through the double doors a tall girl squeals her name. All heads turn; they gather round; her tiger make up is praised.

‘I’ll see you later,’ her mother says. ‘Mrs Gray will bring you home.’

The sea of children parts for Lucas. He is wearing black jeans and a blue shirt with a green wool tie. On his head an orange paper crown has slightly split. Before Sally can say, ‘Happy Birthday’ he has launched into the breathless, delighted speech only she evokes.

“It’s the last one I saved it for you it’s like mine do you like it?’

She takes the hat. She’d prefer green. ‘It’s lovely,’ she says.

Lucas bows and offers her his arm, and in this childish, gallant way, the party begins. Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.

‘You look beautiful,’ he says and then the music starts. Sally can’t see where it’s coming from, knows only that it’s getting louder and keeps changing its mind.


The traffic is bad: the bus lurches; there is no momentum. But Chris is in no hurry. Being on the bus is no worse than being at work. In both he only watches things appear and vanish. At work these are mostly words on a screen, and though it is his hand that cuts and pastes, he is not involved.

He sees broken glass, a damaged car, policemen standing still. Then the traffic starts to flow and when he arrives at the offices of Conflict Resolution he is barely late. It is a small office of only six people, and yet only Adam answers when he says, ‘Good morning’. He sits down and turns on his computer and soon the moving begins. He fixes bad text, but more arrives, as it always will.

‘Did you see the Botswana piece?’ says Adam. ‘That was a war crime. He used about ten commas per sentence.’

He nods and Adam makes a sound of disgust; for the next half an hour no one speaks. They click and type and maybe, in some small way, help to resolve conflict. He really has no idea. What was a passion is now a job he watches himself do. Even poor, jaded Adam is more engaged than that. After his kidnap, and his escape, he’ll do his job much better.

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