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Creative Writing and the Craft of Crossing Out

I recently shared via Twitter the below image, which I always share with my students when beginning to think about creative writing and specifically Language Paper 1 Question 5:

After introducing this image, I explain that more than anything their success on this question will be defined by the extent to which they are able to make appropriate deliberate choices. The examiner wants to be able to point to parts of their response and say ‘this was done on purpose because obviously the writer wanted to achieve X’. And we want to make the examiner’s life easy.

I then explain there are certain strategies I will teach them to help craft their responses, at the level of the sentence, paragraph and whole text. Underpinning all of this, I say, will be the need to consciously and deliberately select the most appropriate words and images for whatever they are trying to make the reader think or feel.

Now, this might make perfect sense to an English teacher. Deliberate choices? Of course. I know what they are. They’re those words I use when I mean just that and not that other thing. But, does this really make sense to a 15 year old? Do they really get what we’re trying to say? Surely, all words are deliberate. That’s how writing works, no? I think of a word, my hand moves in the appropriate direction, and it appears on the page in front of me. But then, as we know, there’s deliberate and then there’s deliberate. How can we help our students to understand the difference?

One answer, perhaps the main one, would be lots and lots of modelling, verbalising the process that we as expert writers go through in order to arrive at the appropriate level of deliberate and conscious craft we hope to install in our students. This post, though, is about something slightly different, a strategy that I use to help frame and conceptualise what exactly I mean by making deliberate choices.

Let’s imagine during some live modelling I produce something that looks like the below:

Using the sentence stem ‘a year ago, a month ago, today’ from Chris Curtis’ book How to Teach English

There’s one aspect of this process that I want my students to pay really close attention to: the crossing out. I want them to revel in it. This isn’t something to be Tip-Ex’d out because what do these scruffy, scribbled, crossed out words tell us? They tell us that someone has thought very carefully, very deliberately about the exact words that they wanted to use. This is the craft of crossing out, and it is crucial to all good writing.

So when introducing creative writing to my students I talk a lot about those moments in their work that they can point to and say ‘this was deliberate’ or ‘I did this on purpose because…’. I call these crossed-out images or crossed-out words. I explain that such moments of deliberate craft often don’t happen immediately. They don’t come automatically. They come through deliberation and consideration. Such moments will usually be the result of other initial words or images being crossed out.

As I teach creative writing, I find myself talking a lot about the craft of crossing out. We model and rehearse sentence stems, paragraph shapes, and overall text structures, but underneath all of this there are words that have been crossed out, dwelled on, considered, crafted.

Here’s a specific example that I share with my students typically towards the beginning of studying creative writing:

I talk a lot about the first sentence and that ‘cocooned’ and ‘sanctuary’ were definitely not my first choices. They came about by crossing other words out. I start by asking them what might have been there first? What did I cross out? Perhaps someone might suggest ‘sat within the safety of my train cab’. We talk about the differences between this and what I eventually ended up with and why the one is better than the other. When I live model I explicitly focus on and draw attention to what I’m crossing out and why. I ask them to do the same when they write.

This also becomes a really useful thing to point out when studying poetry, and responding to the perennial question: ‘but do poets really think about the words they use?’ In the past I’ve shown students this image from Wilfred Owen’s process of drafting ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’:

Or, this one from Sylvia Plath’s drafting of ‘Ariel’:

Thinking about this in terms of their own writing, but that of others too, becomes a really tangible way to help students to understand more precisely what we mean when we ask them to deliberately and consciously consider their choice of language. It helps them to think about and refine the choices they’re making. It helps them to think about the craft of crossing out.


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