Friday, 25 May 2012

Marking within the academy

We’re well into the marking season now. This serves to remind me that marking creative writing, within the academy, is about more than raw talent. Some with raw talent are still only getting mediocre marks. Some who are willing to learn but whose work has some way to go are getting better marks.
At my institution, within my subject area, we look at a variety of areas:
Task  Has the student completed everything and in the way we expected? We pose a five mark (out of a hundred) penalty for any missing element and pro rata for only partially completed elements. Students can then fail to gain marks in areas that deal with the missing element. So, for example, a missing bibliography may lose them five marks and make their score in Writerly Reading and Research about 35%.
Expression This is an area where a student might have some talent and may not be relying on what we have taught them. Does their prose / poetry / dialogue flow? However, it can be improved: through more practice and through extensive reading.               
Technical skills A good mark in this area may come from the student being able to apply what they’ve learn n a particular module. For example, in my Writing Novels for Young People module, I’m delighted to see people getting pace into their novel extracts, drawing characters that look like young adults and maybe pushing a few boundaries.  Plus much more. However, I also expect to see evidence of skills they’ve learnt elsewhere – like how to show instead of tell.
Writerly reading and research This is usually about the annotated bibliography. Students are expected to supply a bibliography and make comments about the books they have read. I expect at least the set books on the course to appear, a good mixture of primary and secondary resources and meaningful comments on what they have learnt about writing from the books they have read. However, they don’t have to agree with them but if they don’t, they should produce convincing arguments against them.       
Style This, like expression, is less teachable and rather must be learnt. Exposure to good writing and continued practice again help. There is something here, also, about, appropriateness for the content and consistency. We are approaching voice, which is actually very hard to get right. Still practice makes perfect.
Reflection This usually refers to a self-assessment students produce and the drafts they submit alongside their final piece. In the self-assessment I look for deep insights into how this particular genre works and a writer’s understanding of their own process. I look for evidence of a sound drafting process.
Writing skills We expect good grammar, good spelling and good punctuation. We expect effective use of words and well constructed sentences. We expect controlled language and tight writing UNLESS an aspect of style calls for something else.
Presentation We expect correctly formatted work (industry standard) and correctly completed references (academic standard). Dialogue must be set out correctly and paragraphing must be appropriate. How does one achieve “excellent”? Maybe by supplying extra bits of thoughtfulness, starting with an industry standard cover sheet.        
So no, raw talent isn’t the only thing. And anyway, talent that is still raw needs to be honed, in or out of the academy.       

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Writers’ Reflections on Writing Novels for Young People

I’m currently marking the Writer’s Reflection that my students on this course gave in three days ago. All of our creative writing modules in the second and third year require students to write a Reflection. They tell how their journeys as writers are going, what they have learnt in the module and how what they are learning is helping them to shape their futures. We discourage a mere regurgitation of our own lectures and praise for the tutors will not get them higher marks. The reflections must be well written and contain all the critical rigour that would be expected in an academic essay.
All of the ones I have read so far are honest and many also show a really deep level of commitment. And there are surprises.
I guess in this module I’ve been fairly strict about the workshop element of the seminars. Every student is expected to bring work along every week. They work initially in groups and then the whole group looks at a few selected pieces together. We rotate so everyone has a turn. Attendance has been good on the whole and every week there has been plenty to share though not everyone has attended every week and not everyone who has attended has brought work every time. Many students have claimed this part of the seminar to be extremely useful and many also say they have overcome their fear of having other people read their work. It is good for this to happen in the second year: Final Portfolio in our third year is all about workshopping and they get more out of it if they’re used to it from the first day of Semester 1.
Many students also mention that they’re pleased to find that they can plan a whole novel. They’ve often not finished pieces of work before. Now that they’ve looked carefully at story structure and plotting, they feel that they can look ahead. Many of them are planning to finish their novels later.
Learning how to condense a novel into a synopsis is also extremely useful. When I mark the first assignment, which is the 500 word synopsis, I’m looking for a good story shape and a synopsis that makes this clear as well as showing up what the characters are like. I give them some sound instruction on this, show them one of my own that I know worked extremely well and get them to read Nicola Morgan’s excellent book on the topic.
Some students also report that they are pleased to be informed of how the industry works. Those who intend to become writers need to know this. Certainly, I always make a point about mentioning this.
And virtually all of them have mentioned the value of continued reading. Good.  
Most of the writing itself on this task has been good or very good. Recently I’ve also been marking a first year Writer’s Response exercise – a slightly different task but also critical. There is a lot of talent in our first year, but some of this critical writing is a little raw. The second year writing is much more polished; they are more used to academic writing and many of them have taken the University’s renowned Wordscope course. Naturally, that is exactly how it should be. I would be worried if second years had not progressed beyond what first years can do.