05 August 2012

The education of readers and writers

I remember clearly many of my secondary school English lessons. Perhaps one of the most interesting lessons was on the subject of how stories begin. Several options were presented ranging from the somewhat clich├ęd “It was a dark and stormy night” through to the more nuanced but equally as suggestive “to Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”. The central thrust of the lesson, after going through various successful opening lines – or at least the opening lines to successful works of fiction – seemed to be that there wasn’t really a right or a wrong way to begin a story, so long as the author managed to in some way reach into the mind of the audience and plant a question or two or three that would make them want to read more. This reader would continue turning the pages like some literate, speed reading dervish until such a time as those questions were answered, the book was complete and the reader left shocked, amused and fulfilled. Being older and cynical, I also imagine that these answers would need to be rooted far enough into the book that they couldn’t be quickly answered by someone having a surreptitious shufty in a book shop, thereby forcing a sale and the generation of royalties.

In school, and maybe this was just the 1990s, there was always this sense that people wrote either stories or essays, with the occasional recourse to poetry (particularly the intricacies of iambic pentameter) and plays (presumably for either those who could only write dialogue, or for those who found quotation marks offensive). This probably explains the conversations I’ve had recently where I’m initially asked what kind of story I’m writing. I tried getting ahead of the curve with one old friend by starting out with “technical author” rather than “writer”, and received the reply “well, you were always interested in science fiction; does it happen in space?”

My inner cynic tells me not to complain too much, as this lack of understanding reflects a fairly broad niche that technical authors are required to fill. When looking at the bigger picture I feel that, just as there has been a recent push to replace the older IT syllabi with something that will better gear the UK for a technological future, there could be a matching push to move the art and craft of understanding, manipulating and using words to better reflect the way modern professional writers often write.



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