Tacit Knowledge and Invisible Writers: What makes good writing and are we sure we’re teaching it?

Normal People

I’ve had plenty of conversations with fellow bookworms about the brilliance of Sally Rooney recently and there’s been a renewed interest in her writing prompted by the BBC adaptation of her novel Normal People. To be clear: she writes for adults, and I am not suggesting that she’s a suitable choice for an English curriculum or a school library (adult themes abound!). BUT in thinking about what makes her prose so good, I have found myself musing on the nature of English teaching and what I see not only as a dilemma for any English curriculum but for assessment in general.

Invisible Writing

Sally Rooney is what I call an invisible writer. Her prose is so good that you don’t notice it. Her fiction is full of character and incident but the craft never distracts. It’s the equivalent of losing yourself in a movie and forgetting to notice the special effects or the actors’ techniques. It seems effortless but it’s really hard to achieve.

In short: it’s writing that is unobtrusive. Which is the opposite of how students are often taught to write in schools. Teaching students to become invisible writers like Sally Rooney is risky. What if an examiner doesn’t notice their brilliance? What if subtlety and restraint costs them marks? Questions like this cause English Moderation meetings to last an epoch.

How would you assess Sally Rooney against our assessment criteria?

Here is an actual Sally Rooney sentence:

The bus was caught in traffic because of some rally in town and now he’s eight minutes late and he doesn’t know where the cafe is.

And here is that sentence rewritten by me to impress a GCSE examiner:

Screeching to a stuttering halt, the double-decker bus had stopped at the sudden appearance of protesters who blocked the road, trooping with banners and placards; now he’s eight minutes late, biting his lip, scratching his head and wondering where the cafe is.

If these were two separate students peer-assesssing each other with a checklist of techniques given to them by their teacher, what would they conclude? It’d be the actual Sally Rooney who’d come up short. Which is a bit odd for “one of the major young writers in the English speaking world” (according to the Times Literary Supplement). But she’d only comes up short because she fails the ‘technique spotting’ test.

Examiners might also succumb to the technique spotting and reward the second version for the fronted adverbials, the obvious use of ‘vocabulary for effect’ and the controlled, varied punctuation. Yet gone is Rooney’s elegant pace and precision and instead there is a litany of learnt techniques crammed in to bludgeoning affect. Whisper it, but could it be that best writing for the GCSE isn’t the same thing as actual best writing?

Tacit-Knowledge and Comparative Judgement

All of this brings us to the argument that some assessment criteria distorts our curriculum and pupils’ learning. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this several times, not least in the brilliant Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment For Learning. She argues that there is a ‘tacit-knowledge’ of what makes good writing that typical assessment criteria is in conflict with. If we assess pupils against a checklist of what makes good writing, it follows that we’ll teach a performative writing style.

The trouble with English teaching and the even bigger trouble with English assessments is that students are encouraged to flag, loudly and clearly: LOOK AT MY TECHNIQUE! Behold my fronted adverbials! Look upon my cyclical structure ye mighty and despair! We have all marked a piece of work which in theory is brilliant: the student has diligently included every technique we have ever taught them and done so with rock solid technical accuracy. Yet reading it is like wading through treacle and they are still a long way from becoming the next Sally Rooney. This is why a pupil who previously achieved a stunning SATS score in year six might still struggle to achieve a Grade 9 at GCSE – it requires subtlety and sophistication that is not only difficult to teach but is also subjective to the examiner assessing it. It’s an issue teachers of Arts subjects can also empathise with.

Compounded by The Canon

The more I think about it, the more I think some of these problems are also compounded by the canonical English Literature Curriculums. I adore Dickens and I love Shakespeare but my guess is that for many students they only reaffirm that writing requires tricks and techniques, words, words, words and stylish flourishes. Neither of them are ‘invisible writers’. Meanwhile, anyone who also teaches Jekyll and Hyde will have experienced the challenge of guiding pupils through Stevenson’s prose which is as dense and labyrinthian as the foggy streets of London. For pupils who read little else beyond the studied texts of their curriculum, it is no wonder if their own writing has an absence of restraint and subtlety. It follows that reading for pleasure, beyond the ‘canon’, is something we must encourage at every opportunity (not that we didn’t realise that!).

I am not advocating that we cut the canon (sacrilege!), but I am fighting the corner for the place of contemporary fiction and a deliberate teaching of its craft. Who else remembers when Ernest Hemmingway’s The End of Something used to be on the AQA syllabus and how it baffled teachers as much as students? How do we teach something so paired down, so seemingly simplistic? Pupils raised solely on Mnemonics such as TRAPPERS and DAFOREST will have little concept of how to analyse writing as economic and ‘invisible’ as Hemmingway’s. Teaching both short stories, plays and poetry are a vital part in our curriculum for this reason. They are forms that create meaning through a brevity of language but we risk losing a full appreciation of them if we reduce them to technique checklists and acronyms. Mnemonics are useful for improving long term memory in preparation for exams but an ambitious curriculum should aim for more than exam performance. My guess is that Wifred Owen didn’t sit in the trenches, annotating Anthem For Doomed Youth with his green pen and ticking off a self assessment sheet.

What he did do however, was edit. Editing is a universal part of the writing process and it has nothing to do with assessment criteria and everything to do with our tacit knowledge of great writing. From Shakespeare, to Dickens, from Hemmingway to Rooney. All of these writers would have edited their work. Which begs the question: when and how do we teach pupils to do the same?

Edit, edit, edit.

In the classroom, I have been guided by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) towards a teaching of writing that uses a metacognitive cycle of planning, monitoring and evaluation. For writers, monitoring and evaluating means having good editing skills. Which no doubt, Sally Rooney has in abundance. How else do you explain the precision of the prose and the economy with which she creates character? We could learn from this. So what if you have used two metaphors, an embedded clause and 3 out of the 5 senses? Does the reader feel what you want them to feel? Is your meaning clear? I suspect that if we spend more time teaching the editing process then pupils’ writing will improve. Something I’ve tried in the past is to provide something ‘overwritten’ to a class and challenge them to edit it to something more precise. In my experience, many students need to learn how to elaborate but those knocking on the border of the highest grades usually need to be taught how to edit and cut down.

Modelling the writing process live with an open word document, narrating the decisions we make as writers is also useful for this. Pupils often watch their food teachers cooking, their art teachers drawing and their science teachers demonstrating a practical. English teachers shouldn’t be any different and live modelling writing is a tool we have at our disposal. That goes for any subject too where writing is involved. Students are often taught what goes into great writing, but through narrating our thought process we can also show them what comes out. I wonder how many times Sally Rooney hit backspace when she wrote Normal People? Prize winning bestsellers don’t arrive fully formed without an edit after all.

A final thought

This year, my YR11 never even sat their GCSE English exam. As unimaginable as that would have been before the pandemic, the reality now is that they don’t know how they would have ‘performed’ as writers in an exam. Instead, what matters is what they have learnt for life. What do they know and understand as readers and as writers?

What is their tacit knowledge of good writing?