Flash fiction not flash bang

It's over 20 years now since I did my Bachelors degree in Creative Writing and Literature. A good long while since my Masters and the unfinished (will it ever end?!) Doctorate. 

At the youthfully optimistic age of 18 I wasn't an experienced writer. Now as I wallow in my 40s I am still wary of writing. The characters and stories still live just as comfortably in my mind as they have always done. My confidence in dragging them out and onto the page hasn't really grown with experience. My tenacity, resilience and those infamous avoidance strategies have all blossomed. But I cannot say in all honesty that I am a more confident writer now than then. 

And so when I am asked about writing and about teaching writing in my classroom, I often - always - must speak in tones and shades rather than absolutes.

Yet we are locked into an education system that is all about absolute. And I hate it. I really do.  Over the last few years, I have sort out ways to tackle head on the 'checklist / rubric' culture of writing in my classroom and in our schools.

Here's a little bit of where I'm at...



I recently presented at a teaching and learning conference in the north of England (the city of Leeds). The focus for my session was transforming classroom writing into real writing.  A link to my slides is at the bottom of this post.

But before you open it - I need to get a few things off my chest. 

So called rigorous assessment of writing (checklist driven) is robbing our students of their creative voice.

Department of Education legislation (in the UK) has forced creative writing into a technical corner from which it is very hard to escape.
I said at this conference that teachers are prisoners of the government legislation and while this metaphor is a tab hyperbolic, the constituent idea is true. 
When creative writing is most frequently discussed (and marked) in terms of its technical components, then it is easy to see writing as only a technical exercise.  It is no surprise that these requirements have resulted in checklists, success criteria, targets and marking rubrics.  These however have reduced creative writing pieces to another form of gap-fill. This time each sentence has to have a different technique (a simile, prepositions, gerunds - yawn).

Ok - hold your horses. Writing is a technical exercise. Yes, I agree. But... what the DfE have done is take literary techniques stretching across several centuries (not to mention numerous forms and styles of writing) and funnelled them in what is a very modern form of writing: flash fiction.

This is why it doesn't work.


Flash fiction

Flash fiction (a term somewhat unfairly abhorred by academics) is any fiction that does quite make it to short story length. Flash fiction can be anything from 250 words to 7,000. Our students are writing a few pages. They are writing flash fiction. It doesn't matter how you feel about the term. Call it a very short story. Call it concise narratives.
But don't mistake it for a novel. It isn't. It shouldn't sound or feel like one.

For all UK 16 year olds, the GCSE exam requires a piece of writing is spontaneous, unplanned (because a 3-minute plan at the beginning of an exam is not a plan) and unedited.
While this might mirror 'real life' writing scenarios (might), it does not in anyway mirror how writers of fiction (or indeed fact) work.
As part of my presentation I set out the main differences between novels and very short fiction (see link). What we teach explicitly and what we intentionally avoid.
I make the case the novels are long enough to absorb great literary flourishes. Short narratives cannot swallow them. The plot and characters become bogged down.

Over the summer, I will blog specifically on how we teach these individual elements and how we separate novelistic techniques from early writing and then eventually much later on begin to feed them back in again.

Here's the link to my presentation: Flash fiction not flash bang

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