‘Hemingway would fail’: NAPLAN takes toll on creative writing

Subsequent hitherto applications pursuant to aforementioned entitlements all previously corresponded to aspirants must reconsider their qualifications, desirous of and commensurate with their newly created vocation, to wit, ‘Chief Creative Director of Spin’… If I’ve lost you already that is completely understandable, and far more understandable than a mouthful of syllabic torture. As an HSC teacher I would sit back, refill my inkwell, and start running lines through redundant words. When the marker needs a thesaurus to unravel the word jumble, they start to look a little closer. Reading each paragraph over and over, they start to question the judgement of such choice words. In many cases I find that the cumulation of ‘big words’ becomes contradictory and subsequent paragraphs unravel in absolute confusion. Yet we are to blame. Teachers and parents. And NESA, ACARA, myriad curriculum writers and the proliferation of so-called experts – many of which tend be HSC students from previous years selling their dog-eared notes. It becomes a game of Chinese whispers, and the result is…not English!

Why? Because we write ridiculously convoluted descriptors, rationales and…rubrics. We have students so tied up looking for analogous juxtaposed anomalies that they completely lost sight with what subject English is – communication. Effective communication. They believe in a need to include every single buzzword to score well, regardless of their understanding and effectiveness. If I stood next to a hospital bed and screamed “I need a crash cart and ten cc of adrenaline, stat!”, it wouldn’t make me a doctor, just a fan of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. A collective of words does not guarantee meaningful communication. You need to frame every thought, every sentence, every idea, and analysis as a packet of information for the most effective interpretation. Think binary code.

The problem follows ten years of schooling where students are taught to write more. More words, more paragraphs, more pages…with bigger words. I find that when I get hold of Year 11 students they are crushed when I tear strips off their essays. Word counts torn in half. The adage of K.I.S.S still applies, and subject English is communication. Make your point, make it clear, move on. More killer, less filler. You get the point. It is also the reason why we restrict assessments to word limits. I know that students can write 10,000 words, but there are very few instances in life where we have that luxury. Communication, economics, business, medicine, law, engineering, carpentry, mechanics, computer technology are all time sensitive. The world is time sensitive. Subject English dictates that you must decide on the most important 1200 words. It teaches you to make judicious, discerning choices. Make an evaluation and communicate effectively.

So now the tapering begins, the editing process everyone must undertake. Australian author Scott Monk once told me to “reduce it by a third, then a third again”. Imagine 1000 words edited to 666, then to 444 words. It is a harsh process and in academic writing it might not be that extreme but is well worth considering. Regardless of how many words you start with, nothing is lost, everything has value. Your knowledge is broad and deep, but maybe we just don’t want it all at once. Less can be more, especially as it allows room for more content. That is what scores high grades.

The title of this article is linked to a recent Sydney Morning Herald article describing how Hemingway’s economic use of words would not have scored well in NAPLAN. Simplicity was his signature and stood tall against Tolstoy and his luminaries. Ironically, the HSC prescribes George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language describing his golden rules of writing. One of which is use a ‘single word’ when suffice. So where has the confusion come from? Where has the gap developed in our learning and who explains these secrets to our students? When I raise concerns of redundancy and nominalisation ACELA1508 and EN3-6B come to mind, but are left with vacant stares from students. Now I don’t care if anyone knows these glyphs or even what the terms mean, but it is important to recognise it when they see it. Even these Australian and NSW curriculum codes don’t specifically mention these terms, and with the limited training and ‘out of area’ teachers in the system it is difficult. And how can they be expected to get it right when our system rewards years 3,5,7 and 9 NAPLAN with unrefined writing? If a teacher doesn’t choose George Orwell’s text as their prescribed text, they may not know.

Creative and academic writing might appear opposed but they both communicate with the reader. As you start the first edit (of many) of your next masterpiece, try running these preliminary tests.

  1. Redundancy – what is not needed?

Eg: “In spite of the fact that”…”the reason”
“In the event of” …”if”
“there was a total of seven”… “seven”

  1. Nominalisation – turning verbs into nouns, is formal and academic.

Eg: “The discussion within the class was all about how they would best go about studying for the HSC”   becomes;

“The class discussed HSC study techniques”

You may have also noticed that I blur the lines of these rules in these blogs. I take a ‘conversational’ tone, not a purely academic tone. Subtle differences, but important to recognise. For Craft of Writing, remember that whatever you choose, use and abuse, explain it in the Reflection Statement. For more details see my earlier article “Reflection Statement”.

Engage, Inspire…Create

Luke Taylor

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