“Shhh! I gotta focus. I’m shifting into soup mode.”
You can’t eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle.
In one of the finest episodes of Seinfeld, The Soup Nazi, a gifted but temperamental chef, sells the best soup in New York. But step out of line in any way – dither, ask too many questions, maker small talk – and you are refused access to the wondrous delights of his bisques and comsumés with what might be the show’s most memorable quote, ‘No soup for you!’
George Costanza, having been refused soup previously for having the sheer audacity to ask for the bread that was missed from his order, is determined to get his crab bisque this time and shifts into ‘soup mode’, a gloriously stilted performance with every fibre of his being focused on not making a mistake. Elaine on the other hand, unfamiliar with the irritable nature of the chef, sashays in, tapping on the counter, making small talk, cracking jokes. Of course, we get the inevtibale pay off as the Soup Nazi utters his immortal line, ‘No soup for you!” and bans her from his establishment for an entire year.
For many students, independent writing is an exercise in trying to buy crab bisque from a surly soup chef. They try to shift into the right register, focusing on every word, every punctuation mark, trying to make things neat, precise, to follow the rules. But either like George they turn out a self-self-conscious, stilted performance which they struggle to maintain, or like Elaine they simply pay no attention to the rules of the game, and what might start out well with good intentions, ends up as a soup of ideas with words and clauses floating around in watery mess of undigestible ideas, full stops and commas scattered over the surface like misplaced croutons. Oh and then they add ‘gingerly’ incorrectly fourteen times over, because every soup needs garnish and that’s the flavour-of-the-week word wafting around the classroom at the moment.
It’s very important not to embellish on your order. No extraneous comments. No questions. No compliments.
Writing is like running a marathon. You limber up at the line in your pristine running gear and off you go, striding with grace and ease, filled with energy and enthusiasm. But it’s not long before you’re a dripping mass of sweat, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. A trained athlete may never hit that wall, or do so very late in the race. But for that fun-runner who turned up in the Tyrannosaurus Rex costume, it happens a lot sooner, and by the time they reach the end – if they reach the end – they are feeling almost extinct themselves.
And that first sentence too is usually well-punctuated. It uses great vocabulary. There’s even a relative clause. Halfway down the page and capital letters are beginning to go astray, the vocabulary is simpler, the sentence structure more basic. Turn the page over and the writing has all the grace of BoJo on a zipwire – it’s become the kind of chaotic free-for-all rarely seen outside a Tory cabinet meeting.
By writing less, we ensure that students are less likely to make too many soup-related faux-pas or end up a puddle of sweat. By stopping before the writing quality dips, students are less likely to reinforce errors. As Larry Gelwix, the coach of the Highland Rugby team in Salt Lake City and sport’s most quotable man, says, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.’ And that includes the bad stuff too. Those missing capital letters, those erroneous commas, the sentence fragments and misused vocabulary, all become habitual if students are allowed to practice writing badly. And when writing at length, some students are practicing those errors over and over again, hammering them into their long-term memories so deeply that they are almost impossible to polish out again.
So when planning writing lessons, be like Jerry buying soup. (No extraneous comments. No questions. No compliments.) Keep it brief and to the point. Write less. Stop before practice becomes bad practice. But don’t just write less. Write less, more often, in clusters.
Year 5 at Chetwynd Primary Academy, Nottinghamshire, were studying the United Kingdom recently. As part of that, they read the Scottish myth, the Stoorworm Dragon. We could have written our own myths from start to end. They might have taken a few weeks. But instead we wrote just the introductions, setting the scene for the arrival of the mighty serpent. We practiced key techniques: the use of adverbials, of similes that drew upon abstract nouns (as dark as despair); we drew upon topic knowledge (Highlands, lochs, glens, heather, thistles); we set the tone with adventurous vocabulary (snarled, lashed, bruised, raged, ragged, arced). They were short pieces, eight to ten well-crafted sentences with an intense focus, poring over each word, considering each sentence pattern. And because they were short there was more good practice than bad.
And because they were short, we could do it again. So, we wrote the opening scene from Macbeth as a narrative too. The content was similar (a storm rages over Scotland and something terrible appears); the tone was similar (dark, foreboding). It meant we could draw upon our Stoorworm pieces and feed into our Macbeth pieces. We shared favourite sentences from our Stoorworm pieces, we dissected them, stole the best bits and fed them into our new Macbeth piece.
Our best Stoorworm sentences.
Had we taken a few weeks and written the whole of the Stoorworm tale, we’d have moved on to something new. Perhaps a recount, a discursive or instructional text. And we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to feed all that was great about our Stoorworm introductions into our next piece. Sure, we might have been a little better at simile, at adverbials, at abstract nouns. But these techniques don’t exist in isolation; they are bound to content. We were never going to use ‘a whirlpool of echoes’ in a recount, ‘ragged strips of cloud’ in a persuasive text, ‘as grey as misery’ in a set of instructions. But in our Macbeth pieces, we most certainly could. And we did. And so much better the second time around. Where before there was a single mention of the ‘downcast Scottish hills’, now they were the backdrop to several settings, ‘inky clouds’ dragged themselves across a dozen ‘bruised skies’, a cluster of ‘sickly moons’ were ‘slumped’ upon ‘the horizon’, lightning ‘arced across skies’ and ‘deluges of rain lashed the skies’ again and again.
Here’s Jasmine’s Stoorworm piece.
It’s a wonderful piece of writing. There was a lot of modelling. We focused on powerful vocabulary; ‘bruised’, ‘stain’, ‘as black as misery’, ‘immense’, ‘glens’, ‘strips of ragged clouds’, and ‘from loch to loch’ have been taken and used to great effect. We focused on interesting sentence structure, and there’s barely two sentence patterns alike in her work. She’s worked hard to build in variety.
The bar is already high. But in her Macbeth piece, she clears it.
We see a similar tone, a similar use of varied sentence structure. But that sentence structure has been dialled up a notch or two. Where we had ‘As it drew near…’ now we have ‘As rain lashed ever more viciously, as thunder raged ever more angrily, as lightning arced ever more wildly…’ Not one now, but three beautiful adverbial clauses rising to a crescendo.
And we see vocabulary pulled from elsewhere and repurposed to great effect. ‘Oily air’, ‘as thick as fear’. ‘screaming frenzy’, ‘a whirlpool of echoes’, ‘fat-bellied clouds’, ‘a row of decaying, broken teeth’, ‘skimmed’, ‘inky lochs’, ‘unforgiving fog’, ‘rain lashed’, ‘the depths of the Lowlands and the peaks of the Highlands’, ‘like a shroud’, ‘atop’, ‘charred earth’, ‘ever more viciously, ever more angrily, ever more wildly’ and more. Jasmine has absorbed the language used by others – taken from our favourite Stoorworm sentences, and the teacher modelling from both pieces – and has made it her own.
Is it a million miles better than her Stoorworm piece? No. With the quality of the first piece, it was never going to be. But it’s that little bit denser, that little bit richer, that little bit more elegant.
And writing a third would allow us to hone our moody Scottish myths even more. We’d fine tune the vocabulary. Some students were using some verbs intransitively – ‘rain hammered’ or ‘rain lashed’ – where they required objects – ‘rain lashed the heath’ or ‘rain hammered the dead earth’. We’d further improve our sentence structure. We’d remind Jasmine about paragraphs. Students were beginning to build periodic sentences by chaining three adverbial clauses before the main clause, but next time around we’d get more. And of course, we’d recycle the great vocabulary being used once more and it would likely pepper ever more students’ writing, and lock itself into long term memories through continued practice.
And had we not written less, more often, in clusters, Jasmine would never had the opportunity to build directly on her earlier work, to take that first piece and make it, well, more.
And writing in clusters makes for easier comparison. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the process of writing moderation. Teacher A brings in their myths, Teacher B their autobiographies, and Teacher C their film reviews and they try to decide which are better. It’s like a vegetable growing competition where a judge has to decide if these carrots are more carroty than those turnips are turnipy. It’s much easier to compare the carrots to other carrots, and the turnips to other turnips. And so too with our clusters of writing. Because the content, tone and techniques are similar, we can easily see if students have improved.
And none of this is to say, never write longer pieces. I’d still perhaps write four a year – two narrative and two non-narrative. But I wouldn’t do more than that.
Instead… Write less, more often, in clusters.