As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I’m moving in here gradually, which will sometimes mean going over to an old blog and picking up some stuff that might come in useful and finding a new place for it here. Having an occasional ‘Throwback Thursday’ seems like the ideal way to do that.
Here, therefore, is a letter which originally appeared on my family blog, The Rev’s Family, because I had nowhere else to put it at the time. Now that we’re in the school summer term again, it’s a good moment to revive this one.
Dear Young Author,
I read about you on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page, where I found a link to this article. I read that you were worried, because you thought the kinds of questions that baffled you in the SATs tests might mean you had to give up on your dream of being an author. I was pleased to see that lots of authors have already responded on that page.
Perhaps I’m too late, but here’s my message to add to the others.
I’m an author. I always knew I would be one, because I spent my childhood telling stories to my friends, my sister, my parents, my teddies and anyone else who would listen.
My English teacher at school used to put ticks next to the bits he liked best in my stories. If there was one tick, it was something quite good. If there were two ticks, he was seriously impressed. Any more ticks than that, and he had probably done a victory lap of the room and opened a bottle of champagne before sitting down to continue marking. Once, I wrote quite a long story about a girl who had to run up a mountain and warn some people hiding in a cave that there were soldiers coming to get them. When he marked the story, my English teacher put THREE ticks next to the sentence ‘Rocks, lots of rocks before the cave!’
Now, I know what you’re going to say, or at least I know what the person who set the SATs tests would probably say. That isn’t a sentence – it hasn’t got a verb in it. Also, it has an exclamation mark where there should have been a full stop. It uses the word ‘rocks’ twice when it could have used an interesting synonym, and it has no ‘wow’ words in it at all.
The reason it got three ticks, my teacher said, was that taking the verb out and repeating the word ‘rocks’ gave the sentence a breathless, hurried, stumbling feeling, which helped him to imagine how the girl looked and felt as she raced up the mountain and was faced with climbing over loads of rocks when she was in such a hurry.
My English teacher knew what he was talking about. Every now and then I still check over my writing for a ‘three ticks’ moment.
There isn’t actually an exam type of test that can test good writing. The only way to test good writing is to see whether people enjoy reading it. If you can write a story which makes people want to carry on reading it, which makes them worried about the character in it, or which makes them feel breathless or excited or happy or sad, or which makes them laugh until they cry, then the story has passed the test.
It’s never about YOU passing the test, by the way. If the story doesn’t pass the test, it doesn’t make YOU a bad writer. It just means that the story needs polishing, or that you could try writing a different story until you find one that works. I have notebooks full of stories that didn’t quite pass the test, and I think every good writer probably does. Each one helped me to become a better writer, not a worse one, because that’s what good testing should do – unlike the SATs.
I look forward to reading one of your books one day.