Your writing; your choice!

By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, University of Exeter

This past week I’ve been lucky enough to spend a week in Australia, meeting up with teachers and teacher educators who share my interest in writing and the teaching of writing. It is always refreshing to get an insight into how teachers in other countries think and what their expectations are in the classroom. Australia has only just introduced a new National Curriculum as previously the various States determined the curriculum; they have high-stakes testing as we do; and they have concerns about the academic achievement of socially-disadvantaged groups, particularly the indigenous aboriginal groups.  We have a lot in common. But as we appear to be propelling ourselves in a time-shift back to the 1950s, they have a curriculum and practices which seem decidedly more forward-looking. Their view of text encompasses multi-modal texts, not just verbal text, and in talking about children and young people as writers, words such as voice, agency, intention and choice are very prominent. Their teaching of writing is genre-based (as was the National Literacy Strategy) but they go beyond teaching formulaic features for children to replicate: there is much more about audience and purpose and about managing the relationship between what you want to say and how you say it.

It has made me think about reader awareness and authorial intention – we often encourage writers to think of their reader, and we have probably created a rather deficit model of a needy reader who needs to be ‘hooked in’, to be kept interested, to be prevented from boredom, and to be helped by wow words! But how often do we talk about the writer’s goals and intentions and what it is they want the writer to achieve? In the Teachers as Writers project, it was noticeable that the professional writers paid relatively little attention to their readers: only three of the writers interviewed referred to their readership, and in one case it was to affirm that ‘I don’t think about the readers at all’. Another writer felt the priority was ‘to find the best way of telling that particular story’ and then ‘that particular story then probably finds a readership, so it tends to work that way’.  What was also clear was that the professional writers had very strong authorial intentions – they knew what they wanted their writing to do.

Of course, our professional writers possess a confidence, richness of experience and identity which most of the young people will not (yet) have. Thinking about the potential reader of your writing is important for developing writers but the Australian perspective, coupled with what our professional writers have said, has made me wonder if we should give more time to helping young writers to articulate more carefully what their own intentions as writers are for the text they are reading – rather than thinking about the readers’ needs, what do they want to make the reader feel or think or do. If you want to make your reader laugh, where are the puns and jokes in your writing? If you want to make your reader feel the way you do about a particular topic, where are the emotive choices and the pull on the heartstrings? If you want your reader to understand a particular idea, how do you explain it clearly for him or her? This approach might help writers make more informed choices in their writing, and recognise that as writers they are powerful.

And who knows, one day, instead of choosing a ‘better adjective’ or ‘up-levelling an adjective’, a young writer may choose a particular adjective because she knows it will make you weep – as she intended!

Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
University of Exeter

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