Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Can you mark creative writing?

Do you get pressure from your management to give an 'assessment' -- that is, a mark -- for each student? Most institutions insist on it; and no, it cannot be a little statement [brilliant characterisation but needs to improve language]. It has to be a number or letter to put in the box so that the computer or observer can see instantly that the student has been assessed.

A whole 50% of my lovely keen class, in week 2, completed 'homework' (polishing up one of the exercises we did in class) or, per my invitation, gave me something they'd written previously. I have often had classes where hardly anyone gave in writing, which is a shame. Students aren't getting their own money's worth if they don't get feedback.

So I had a busy day yesterday prepping for class and reading and giving feedback. So how do YOU give feedback? I would never-never-never put a grade on a piece of creative writing -- far too specific and potentially devastating to a tender writer. No, I just put comments on their pages.

Obviously this indicates to you that I do not accept emailed writing from students. I spend enough time at this screen on my own stuff... as well as ink and paper. No, I tell them that publishers and competitions have their rules, and so do I. I want them to Make the Effort. Also, to practice proper layout.

I use pencil, not pen, because it looks softer, kinder. I adopted something that I liked from feedback I have received... tick in the margin and/or bottom of page. Shows I like something, or at least it looks like I have actually read the page.

Except for very small comments I put all my feedback at the end of the writing. Yes, I do it sandwich style: a positive, enthusiastic sentence or several, then some critique (I give page and para numbers, or sometimes in the margin of the section in question I pencil a squiggly vertical line). Then end with some upbeat encouragement.

It is all handwritten on their work. Gracious me, if I got into typing out my feedback I would spend far too much time and perfection on my comments; I know, because I have tried it once or twice, that I tend to get too far into explaining why something isn't working. As in writing this blog, I think and type simultaneously... and always find things to say. In the case of feedback, too many things.

Handwritten feedback is more personal, too. AND, I am famous for my illegible handwriting (though for students I try harder)... so I apologise in advance and say it brings me closer to my students: if you can't figure out something I wrote, come and talk to me!

Then there's the challenge... how much do you criticise? Where do you rein in your perfectionism, where can you best help a writer to improve without squashing? Hmmm, think I'd better continue this next week. And I do have a secret grade scheme, to keep management happy.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Wordstarts exercise

Well guess what? The querying student did enrol (see last week's entry about managing student expectations). Surprise, surprise as to what his genre is: graphic novels. Interestingly, out of 17 students, another is also writing in that genre.

It is a form that I know nothing about -- however, a story is a story, and at the end of the session the original enquiring student said this had been a really useful class and that the whole course would work for him. I thought it would. Synchronicity: this week's Sunday Times Culture has an excellent mini-review for a children's graphic novel.

Wordstarts exercise: Exercise 22 (actually called 'I remember...') gives your students a structure for freewriting. It is something you can use just once, or use over several weeks or longer. Used one way you can also turn it into a self-editing project.

At the start of each term I give away a new exercise and new tutor support tip on http://paxtonpublishing.co.uk/ the website for my book of exercises and ideas. So this blogweek, tune in there for your teachingcreativewriting goody.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Managing student expectations

First week of term! Yes, I do have a class, enrolment has met the required number. Maybe by now, exceeded it. I will go in early tomorrow to check the numbers and to be sure to get in the photocopy queue with time to spare. Also, to pick up whatever admin bumpf the college has devised over the break.

A prospective student emailed me via the college -- will The Hero's Journey teach him to write a true adventure?

Hmmm -- depends on what he means by 'teach him to write', by 'write', by 'true' and by 'adventure'. In just about every new class, someone arrives with the idea that he/she will have written a book by the end of the course, or end of the year. If only!

But this is just a 5 week course, so in the first instance I said that this would give him the tools with which to start and to continue to write a story (by which I mean story or book-length story). The same answer actually also applies to a full year course.

So that's the gentle disillusionment you have to deliver if a student arrives with that goal. Let alone the student who says he/she will write, get published and be rich and famous by the end of the course. But we cannot shatter and trample upon dreams and motivation: gently, gently.

I hope I didn't sound too snippy when I said I was sure he must already have looked at the course outline online where I explain the elements of the course.

But then maybe he was talking about genre? So I explained that the course does talk in terms of heroes and dragons, mentors and Shadows... the stuff of fantasy and sci fi, Star Wars and Lion King. BUT my exercises and lectures are about the psychological power in the hero's quest -- power that works in every story, on a domestic or a galactic canvas. Pride and Prejudice, The King's Speech, Peter Rabbit -- these too have a hero's journey template. But I don't know if his query stems from wanting fantasy or from an aversion to it. Or maybe, by 'true', he meant a real-life adventure, like the 127 Hours story? Hero's Journey can work for that too.

Interesting how so many people can't bear fantasy novels; some students insist literary novels are the only thing, and hate popular fiction of the chic-lit or crime sort. I know of one class that was nearly wrecked by one such student. On the other hand, the few (in my circles) who love fantasy/sci fi are rather lost souls in the world of creative writing classes and I believe in supporting them as well as the others.

I encourage genre tolerance -- we can all learn from other genres, even if we don't like them. Whatever the genre, it has readers or it wouldn't exist. The most important thing: beginning, middle, end -- and getting it written!

I wonder if he will join the course...