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Creative writing – Improve poetry and prose with specific details

"Don't say biscuit, say Garibaldi!" – Clichés and generalisms make for plodding and tiresome poetry and prose. For writing to grab us, it needs to be specific, says Jonny Walker...

  • Creative writing – Improve poetry and prose with specific details

Here are some scenarios you have likely encountered.

You are reading a child’s writing and despite knowing what they are trying to say, their message isn’t coming across clearly.

You are giving yourself time to do some creative writing, but your own ideas leave you feeling stale.

A friend is telling you a beige anecdote and rather than it grabbing your attention, you are secretly waiting for it to end.

Oftentimes, the issue we have in our communication – whether written or spoken – is a lack of detail.

In school, detail is often confused with length, when it ought instead to be synonymous with specificity.

A child’s detailed sentence may well be short, snappy and packed with insight, but more often, we may instead find it is long-winded, meandering and seemingly unending not unlike – you might think – this sentence (this one), which is addled with unnecessary detail, dull repetition, and, some might say, profligate and unnecessary use of rare vocabulary and convoluted structures (including, but not limited, to overuse of embedded clauses).

See. Horrid isn’t it?

Clarity can be achieved through being specific. This simple insight can support children and adults to become engaging writers and fluent communicators.

The writing in the BBC comedy Inside Number 9 is exquisite, and in one episode, two men who used to work as the double-act Cheese and Crackers are bickering about the past. They argue about the name:

“I hate that stupid name. I always did.”

“But somebody had already registered Cheese and Onion! I told you.”

“Why did it have to be Cheese and anything? It’s so babyish. And it’s not funny.”

“Well, I think it’s funny.”

“It’s too generic. First rule of comedy – be specific. You never say biscuit – you say Garibaldi.”

Too much of children’s writing suffers from being biscuit when it could be Garibaldi.

And while this rule may refer to humorous writing, I think the point stands across all writing and storytelling. By seeking to be specific rather than general in our language, we can often better elucidate ourselves.

Some of this can be reflected in the way that we frame writing tasks and questions with children.

Rather than a general task like “Write about what you did this Summer”, if the task were phrased as “Tell us about the strangest moment you had this Summer”, we would already be guiding children towards sharing specific details from a specific event.

Their choice of event guides them away from vague statements like “I played Xbox”. The authenticity of children’s voices comes out in the details.

Working with Year 5s from a group of primary schools in Newham, I was talking about food. We were exploring AF Harrold’s Midnight Feasts, a wonderful poetry anthology, and we spent time just sharing stories that popped into our heads.

Sometimes, proper conversations can be the best kind of planning.

Children’s initial ideas were broad statements, and their poetry grew little beyond the repeated assertion that they like crisps.

As we shared stories, the depth of our anecdotal exchanges opened children up to consider the details a little more.

Phrases started emerging that had the ring of authenticity to them: “I would always hear the Gujarati songs my grandma sang, and smell the sweet scent of mango beside me.” (Sianna)

These specific details, taken from a particular moment in time, enable the children to write and to speak with more candour and expression.

Michael Rosen is a champion for the importance of anecdote, and for giving children the opportunity to write from elements of their lives.

Loose topics such as ‘food’, ‘rivalry’, ‘growing up’ and ‘fashion’ can start children thinking about their own experience, and this can be channelled into their writing.

Perhaps the best starting point for all of us is found in our roles as teacher-writers.

Let’s experiment with our own writing, and explore whether we instinctively lean towards generalisms where specificities might be better.

When we describe a new character’s face, do we give a predictable roll-call of their anatomical features? When telling of a building, do we lean on cliché?

Anyway, enough for now, friends. I’m going to go and get a snack.

Wait! What I mean is, I’m bimbling off to the kitchen to shovel a fistful of the dry roast into my face!


Jonny Walker is the director of OtherWise Education @OtherWiseEdu), and works with schools across England to run inter-school poetry retreats, creative writing networks and pastoral projects for pupils with additional SEMH needs. Follow him on Twitter at @jonnywalker_edu.

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