Monday, 29 June 2015

A small grey pigeon - John Dougherty

You may have read this ABBA piece by the most excellent CJ Busby of this parish. In case you’re the sort of reader who can’t be doing with clicking links, it’s the one with the open letter to the education secretary about the way that children are taught to consciously overcomplicate their writing, cramming it with superfluous adjectives and unwieldy subordinate clauses, in order to… er… well, I’m not quite sure, actually. I imagine it’s in order to show that Somebody is Doing Something.

The Guardian picked up on this, interviewing both CJ and me for this article. You’re going to have to click that link yourself, I’m afraid.

I mention this, because the very day that Guardian article appeared, my 14-year old son came home from school and told me that his English teacher had asked him to amend a description in a piece of writing because the vocabulary used wasn’t ‘advanced’ enough. The description was:

“A small, grey pigeon”.

My son spent several minutes trying to work out how to change the word ‘small’ and the word ‘grey’ to make them more “advanced”. “I could say it’s minuscule,” he said; “but it’s not minuscule. It’s just small.” I suggested he ask his mother, who appears to know more names for colours than Dulux and Farrow & Ball put together, for alternatives for grey, or try something like ‘marl’ or ‘slate’.

In the end, rather than change the description, he changed that whole section of the passage. He made the bird much more significant; it became a strutting monarch in an iridescent grey robe, demanding discarded chips from its subjects. It was quite a neat solution to a wholly unnecessary problem, I thought. 

 Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix
I say “wholly unnecessary” because to demand the original description be reframed in more ‘advanced’ vocabulary completely missed the point of the description, as far as I could see. The small, grey pigeon was a powerful image exactly because of its commonplace simplicity. To use more flowery language - to turn it, for instance, into a bijou, gunmetal pigeon, or a compact, cloud-coloured pigeon -  would have robbed it of its ordinariness, turned it into something remarkable. The vocabulary might have been more “advanced”, but the writing, frankly, would have been worse, and the description less accurate. As my son put it, in a burst of frustration before settling down to the task:

“It’s just a small, grey pigeon.”

John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, will be published on July 2nd.

In the meantime, you can read these.


Catherine Czerkawska said...

Couldn't agree more. Some years ago, while my son was still at school, I spent a happy and productive session teaching him how - as long as the reader understood who was speaking - he didn't need to use he said/she said, or the many variations on those words, all the time. How you could even indicate who was speaking and how they were saying things by what they were actually doing. He grasped it pretty quickly and produced what I thought was a good piece of writing. Back it came, a few days later, with 'corrections' such as uttered /exclaimed /articulated /bellowed etc, in red pen all over it. That's when he learned to distinguish between what to write for the teacher, and how to do it properly.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I love that small grey pigeon with no pretensions to be anything other than what he is. Write his story, John!
Great post because it is so true.

catdownunder said...

Sigh - you are so right!

Susan Price said...

Catherine - I love your comment/ The difference between what to write for the teacher and how to do it properly! I realise that I learned that for myself, while still at school. I used to let the teacher's advice wash over me while thinking, 'Well if it's good enough for {fill in name of writer I was enjoying at the time} it's good enough for me.'

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think one of the major problems is that teacher aren't taught creative writing in College and also don't read enough (no time I know, but surely while they were at College?)

If enough teachers complained about the system and pointed out how silly it was, then perhaps a change might be initiated. Problem is most teachers don't see the present system as wrong. They really believe the 'saids' and the 'exclaimeds' and the 'articulateds' and the fanciful words need to be in a piece of writing to make it 'good'.

One has to be grateful for all the teachers who turn their backs on the system. Perhaps some of us wouldn't be writers today if we hadn't had those sort of creative teachers who encouraged us to free spirited writers using big and small words when appropriate.

Dawn Finch said...

"During my most immediate period of nocturnal rest I was fortunate enough to have a highly visual hypnogogic illusion that gave me the impression that I was in fact revisiting a former structure that I once considered to be my primary residence"

oops - my bad...

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"

Catherine Czerkawska said...