by Lynda Goetz
Photo and quote by Hannah Greene, Unsplash
In the last issue, Richard asked if he should continue to edit and publish Only-Connect. The (limited) response was in favour. As one of those who writes semi-regularly for Richard, I am keen for the publication to continue. Why? Because, like Richard, I enjoy writing. Like him, my actual career lay elsewhere, (although I did for a while get paid for magazine articles, mainly on the subject of house renovations and style). Now, as he pointed out, I do not get paid, but I do get to choose what I write about.
The business of crafting an article of between 1,000 and 1,500 words for him once a fortnight or once a month and for another magazine, The Shaw Sheet,(forgive the plug, Richard!) once a week, provides me with an interesting and rewarding hobby. It makes me reflect and think about all that is going on in the world, whilst living my day-to-day life in a small corner of rural Devon. My reactions to politics, to events, to movements, to research and to all the other happenings are clearly not going to be the same as everyone else’s. They will inevitably be influenced by my own experiences, the places I have lived and travelled in, my education and the things I have learnt since that formal education ended. Some will agree with my thoughts and reflections, others will disagree. Some may even be persuaded to see things in a different light or to accede that the subject may not be as simple or straightforward as they had thought. Hopefully, some of the research I have done will provide some nuggets of information which readers would not otherwise have known or bothered to look up for themselves; (although it is fair to say that in the age of Google, research has never been easier).
Truthfully, would I rather be writing for The Times, The Telegraph, the Spectator or similar and know I have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of readers rather than a mere handful? Of course, but the challenge lies, as Richard identified, in crafting a piece which says something in a readable format, which is neither too esoteric or obscure to be of general interest; nor too simplistic or patronising to make readers feel irritated and which is of a calibre which leaves them feeling they have gained something by giving up 5 or 10 minutes of their time.
Last week I read with some irritation a piece in The Telegraph trumpeting some research which “discovered” that the study of grammar “does little to actually help children’s writing skills”. My initial thought was that this was self-evident and rather along the same lines as research which “shows” that chickens live in a hierarchical society (where do they think the idea of a ‘pecking order’ comes from?) or that horses are happier living in groups (of course they do, they are herd animals!), but closer reading did reveal a more nuanced view. Dominic Wyse, the study’s lead author and professor of early childhood and primary development at University College London (UCL), said: “The lack of impact of grammar teaching on pupils’ narrative writing raises questions about the extensive grammar specifications that are part of England’s national curriculum.” This has long been the subject of debate and the current system was put in place by Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education between 2010 and 2014, who felt that the decades-long neglect of grammar in this country had done a disservice to our young. As one who not only loves language, but has taught both English to foreigners and foreign languages to the English, I am very aware that those who do not have the ‘building blocks’ of language are disadvantaged.
Clearly, imagination and the ability to create and tell a story are not dependent on a knowledge of grammar, nor on the ability to spell. However, without such knowledge and ability it is undoubtedly difficult for children, or indeed adults, to translate their ideas into a written form intelligible to others, and communication is surely what writing is all about, whether fiction or non-fiction? Narrative, as Richard said in his piece, needs to flow. In order for narrative to flow a writer needs to master as many of the ‘building blocks’ and techniques as possible. Grammar is one of the basic and essential building blocks. Of course you should give children the chance to create without rampaging all over their story-telling efforts with a red pen; at the same time give them the tools to form and shape that creativity in a way it can be shared with and communicated to others.
Photo: Mike Tinnion, Unsplash
Children’s author-illustrator, Cressida Cowell, (How to Train your Dragon series) interviewed last year said “Children are naturally creative and imaginative thinkers, but can get put off writing by the corrective red pen. I believe every child should have a notebook in which they can write down their ideas without worrying about spelling, grammar and neatness. No rules, no marking,
just fun. When I was a child my handwriting was terrible, and my spelling wasn’t great either, but I had a lovely teacher called Miss Mellows and she gave me just such a notebook”.
For those of us who have not pursued a career in creative writing or journalism, but who nevertheless enjoy the art of writing, outlets such as Only Connect are a great way to put our thoughts, ideas or stories into the public domain, (even if that domain is limited); they are also a great way to read and find out about other people’s ideas, life stories and events. Unfortunately, readership is limited; partly by the pressures on people’s time in an age when everyone is constantly busy and partly by the very crowded market. That is not to say there are lots of ‘Only-Connects’ or ‘Shaw Sheets’ out there, but there are a plethora of online publications, from the online versions of the established dailies and weeklies to endless trade and special interest magazines, not to mention image-makers like YouTube, all taking up small or large amounts of people’s time. Sometimes items on Instagram or YouTube go viral. 1,500 word articles are unlikely to go viral, so perhaps what we should be aiming for is a ‘community’; reading each other’s articles, commenting on them, contributing occasionally and gaining an understanding of lives differently lived. Perhaps this is not in fact too far removed from Richard’s original idea. It could still work.