Saturday, 26 January 2013

Essay Writing Techniques (with some Tips from Shakespeare)

Are your sentences juggling too many ideas?


This blog is a summary of sentence and essay writing techniques and strategies.

1. Creative Research

Brainstorm all your ideas. Enjoy the sense of liberation and creative flow.

This approach helps the researcher to identify the key words and concepts to be employed in the topic.

Remember that it is easier to juggle words, and to move them around safely, than it is to juggle complex sentences.

2. Composition on a topic.


Sentences are the building blocks of any essay. But start your work by exploring the key words and ideas.

Sentences that communicate effectively are the life-blood of an effective essay. Well-thought out sentences run through an essay like veins and arteries. They distribute the oxygen of ideas to each part of the structure. Poor sentences rot the fabric of the essay; they cause decay and lead to death. Avoid flabby sentences. Cut out what is not needed.

3. Planning / Structure

Identify the key clusters of ideas and concepts. These will become your paragraphs.

Think about the order of sentence-ideas within each paragraph.

Ideas may ripple outwards in circles, from smaller to larger generalizations.

At other times, it is the logical sequence that is essential.

4. The Writing Process


"Brevity is the Soul of Wit." (Polonius, in Hamlet, II.ii.90). Do not use more words than you need.

Initially, start with short, simple sentences. Avoid juggling to many ideas in one sentence!

At the outset avoid trying to show off.  In the first stage of writing it is wise to aim for content over style.

But in Shakespeare's play Polonius fails to stick to his own rule, and falls in love with his own linguistic exuberance. Throwing the right methodology back at the wind-bag politician, the Queen reprimands him concisely and effectively: "More matter with less art." (Hamlet, II.ii.95)

If you try to write long sentences at the outset, there is a danger that you will be lost in a maze of your own making. This means that your writing and thinking slows. You lose track of your ideas and you may become frustrated. Don't juggle more balls than you can handle.

In the second stage of writing, sentences can be joined if they share common ideas. Sometimes sentences are snapped together like links in a chain. Sometimes there is a looser sense of association. Occasionally, sentences work in parallel.

Use connectives as signposts. These words and phrases provide a sense of sequence and direction. They help sentences to flow smoothly and logically.

Think about variety and rhythm. A sentence is a unit of meaning, but it also has a sonic quality.

Employ a range of short, medium and long sentences. Avoid rigid patterns. Too many long sentences exhaust and confuse the reader.

Repetition of words or structures within and across sentences can be pleasing and memorable. Example: in 47 BC Julius Caesar said in Latin: Veni, Vidi, Vici. 'I came, I saw, I conquered.'

Short sentences deliver impact and effect, like a punch!

Longer sentences maybe employed where you want to balance two or three ideas. But avoid complexity for its own sake. A confused reader soon becomes impatient. Long sentences run the risk of entanglement.

Some sentences function as introductions to paragraphs. This type of sentence is like a short announcement. Typically, an opening sentences tells us what the topic is about. It may provide a menu, or offer a list of short points that will be explored subsequently in more detail. Opening sentences are precise statements or definitions. In order the create variety, the opening topic sentence may be delayed to second or third position. An example of this approach is when an essay starts with a quotation. In this case, the first sentence sets the tone for the essay, and/or arouses the curiosity of the reader.

In contrast, closing sentences may summarize the entire paragraph. The summary may offer a broader generalization based on the totality of the evidence or the concepts outlined within the paragraph. Perhaps your final sentence links back to your opening.

Following Julius Caesar's example, is it not the case that stylistic triumphs are more memorable than the events on the battlefield? Words win wars!

There is a reason why composition refers to music and to writing. So avoid being deaf to the sound of your sentences. Learn to listen to your work.

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” - Walter Pater

Poor writing = a death sentence.

5. Next steps

It is essential to produce a second draft of your essay. At this stage you can afford to focus more on stylistic improvements. If you can afford to spend several days away from your work, you will return to it with fresh eyes. failure to re-draft leads to shoddy work.

In my view, the writing process twins creativity and critique. This means making and re-making based on critical insight and creative flair.

The final draft of your work should be proof-read. This means checking for errors. This stage of the process is also an opportunity to fine-tune your work. Step back and listen to the flow of sounds and sense. Use your ears!

The functional mechanics of sentences:

The Glencoe Grammar and Composition Handbook. Start with Chapter 4: Main Clauses and sentence structure. Pages 164-183. Then try pages 160-3.

Semantics and memory.

Writing out sentences is a very effective way to learn new vocabulary. See Lessons in Mary Ann Haller's Essential Vocabulary for College-bound students.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Ethics in Creative Writing

Is Ethical Judgment in Creative Writing still Relevant ?

In the ninetenth century the discussion of the relation between Morality and Literature occupied a central position in the cultural field. A variety of earnest participants were able and ready to offer practical and theoretical perspectives and to debate the application of literature to life. This cosy relationship was disrupted in Europe by the traumatic experience of the first world war (1914-18).

For many critics in the earlier period there was an intersection between social codes, aesthetics and ethical judgments. The project and trials of decadence in the 1890s began the work of critical interrogation by sending up the tired conventions of a smug, hypocritical, bourgeois society. But it was after the war that the cultural plane witnessed the revolutions of modernity. This movement turned art upside down, and led to the expulsion of referentiality in practical criticism. Art became a self suffcient verbal icons. Moreover, the linguistic turn was in part an inward movement of structuralism. But now I'm indulging in a shorthand that is reductive and unethical! The situation is far less homogeneous and hopelessly nihilistic that this portrait suggests.

Clearly, today's postmodern, post-holocaust cultural world is more sceptical than at any previous time about the notion of culture's civilizing effect. Also, in global, postcolonial terms a heightened self-consciousness about the relativity of ethical behaviour rightly predominates. Ethical judgement appears suspended, foreclosed, outcast, irrelevant, indulgent, misguided. One culture's norms are another's demons. Is there any opening for ethical declarations in creativity or criticism, or in literature today?

But the problem of ethics has not been abolished and it will not fade away. Nor should it, in my view.

There is a vast topic to be explored, I feel, on the ethical benefits afforded by writing as the intersection between self-realization and the wider community of issues and responsibilities. I want to participate in that emerging debate as creative writing and self-publishing is apparently gearing up for a renaissance.

In brief, the notion of ethics in creative writing tends presently to revolve around

  • being honest about aspirations and opportunities
  • avoiding plagiarism
  • respecting the life and experiences of others
  • the creative integrity of the artist
  • professional standards

In researching this topic I came across several blogs and recent articles that outlined the responsibilities of the creative writing tutor to her students. One issue was the perceived requirement to be honest with beginners who are unpublished. If they are unduly confident about the impact of a short course on their likelihood of being published, and moving towards a career in writing, what is the best way to warn them without crushing their hopes altogether? Kate Dempsey, for instance, recently underlined the reality of the situation facing the would-be professional writer in her guest blog:

"Out of every five hundred adult students in beginners creative writing classes, one or two of them, at most, will ever be taken on by an agent or a publisher."

She proceeds to explain that two short stories had to be selected from 300 submitted to a recent anthology. In this sense, the odds are heavily stacked against publication. Writers be warned!

But she also senses that the joy of writing should be cherished in its own right. Concurring, I will be arguing that there are far more benefits to writing than the preoccupation with the routes to publication and self-promotion. I want to explore these in more detail, in a forthcoming blog on ethics and mental health awareness.

In Britain, at least, it is re-assuring that the vast majority of academic courses in English do not promote their academic offering as practical training courses in creative writing; in fact, they seldom claim that they are opening doors to the publishing industry. This approach is wise as there are a hundred times more arts graduates than there are opportunities in the traditional publishing fields. But academia is far from immune to being market-driven, and most colleges are cautiously offering creative writing, or language-arts creative transformation exercises. I suspect that this demand-led trend will continue to grow, not matter how wide the gulf between aspirations and realities.

Yet we still tend to value the success of the published author as something that far exceeds the worthwhile activity involved in the struggle to express oneself, or to serve as the mirror for one's community, or to collaborate with others in creative discussion and production. We recoil from any notion that writing is a chnage agent in society, and that its potential for transformation is incalculable. Time to tip the scales?

Further Reading

Rachel Cusk: in praise of the creative writing course. Can people really be taught how to write novels? Doubts have plagued the inexorable rise of creative writing workshops. But the cynicism is beginning to look outdated. Here.

Friday, 18 January 2013

15 Reflections on Writing a Poem a Day

A finely tuned callibration of sonic waves?

Having started on January 10th, I'm now 8 poems in to my plan to compose a poem a day. At this stage I wanted to record my reflections on the project so far.

1. The poems are longer than I had imagined that they would be. 10 to 14 lines is not uncommon. Initially, I had planned couplets, fragments or 3-liners.

2. Perhaps related to the point above, there's a curious creative challenge to turn an 11, 12 or 13 line poem into a sonnet (14 lines). This helps to stretch my thoughts and ideas beyond the safety zone.

3. There is a stronger allegiance to traditional metrical techniques than I had anticipated. It just feels right to have lines that are 10 or 8 syllables.

4. Sometimes rhymes are entertaining and dare I say - delightful! The technical requirements that emerge have the effect of pushing creativity beyond the lazy or logical word choice

5. In summary, there's less of the radical innovation and free experimentation that would have made my task easier than the formal restrictions adopted so far.

6. But there's plenty of time to experiment. And I've mapped out 52 Creative Strategies in an earlier blog.

7. The obvious weaknesses are that the poems have not undergone painstaking revision, reworking and correction. Knowing that these productions are not loaded with the expectation of public viewing really helps me not to become disenchanted or anxious.

8. This lack of sustained revision does not mean that I'm failing to use my critical faculty as I compose; there's plenty of crossing out and lines shifting their positions.

9. The structure of the poetic thinking is quite weak. I'm not sure I'm making enough effort with openings and endings, and a more defined middle game.

10. There is also a tendency to create lists of startling and vivid images. The 'poems' are fragments linked by a theme.

12. Having said that, my intention from the outset was to avoid negative self-critique and the judgmental destructiveness that my fussy perfectionism would prefer to apply to these productions.

13. Has this work improved my spiritual or mental health? Has it sharpened my verbal/critical intelligence? It's too early to answer such questions. My night dreams are still vivid and disturbing (but seldom traumatic).

14. But I will confess that I'm writing more prose - short stories - with greater facility and confidence. So maybe that's a spin off?

15. Madness? Increasingly the writing is semi-independent of my conscious will; almost like hearing friendly voices. And I am catching glimpses of something that was momentarily concealed but which is uncannily familiar. Magic?

If you have any thoughts or comments on my poem a day - mental health five - don't hesitate to drop me a line.


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

 (Quibble Academic, 2013)

Thursday, 17 January 2013

52 Creative Writing Activities


Beyond the apostrophe!

In this blog I appear to have sketched out fifty-two creative writing methods, strategies, and some pedagogic principles. Please add your suggestions and ideas to the comments section at the end of this blog.

52 Creative Writing Activities

1. The Forked Paths

This was a group exercise which was created on a large whiteboard. This game involved writing a story. At the end of each short sentence there are multiple pathways to carry on the story in different directions.

2. Adaptation

Work with the children to adapt the activities described in this list. When a child says, But Can I Do It This Way, that’s music to my ears. But remember that this approach only works if teachers and learners are constantly thriving on new inspiration, outgrowing their comfort zones, and moving beyond dull repetition.

3. Bite Size Steps

We create a three word poem. We can write the words anywhere on the page. The words can be small, medium or large. They can be hidden in a diagram. We are thinking about how they look on the page and how they relate to each other. This activity is very good for younger children; but also expect some surprises with the older ones.

4. Word Monster

We stick words together and deform our writing so that the result depicts a text-monster. Serpents are good for joining words, but we can also use long words for arms and legs and shorter ones for eyes, ears, noses, mouths, fingers and toes.

5. Rap, Rap, Rap

This activity involves writing songs, using music, creating funny tunes and rhythms based on real life situations. But don’t become too technique-obsessed: let this evolve. Re-writing serious songs in a comic vein ... lowering the tone. Humour is a great tool in teaching. Why not let the students choose the tunes?

6. If person A were an X, what would they be?

Starting with a list of characters, or real people, make a list of their equivalent ‘quality’ in terms of weather, plants, fruit, vegetables, animals, flowers, colours. This approach helps to build skills in metaphor, symbolism and personification.

7. Subject Ransack and Pillage

Each school subject/field/special topic has its own jargon, terminologies and discourses. Specialised or technical words can really stand out if you create a poem drawn from the language of a car repair manual, a biology casebook, a theory of physics article, an engineering study guide.

8. Surgical Cut and Entitlement

Take a story and cut out everything except the best phrase/sentence. The result becomes the new title for the story, which could then be retold in fewer words than the original, modified, or improved according to your taste preferences.

9. Choices and Combinations

We could try out different tasks, rather than having them chosen for us. Sometimes we combined three or more short  activities in one lesson. This approach allows learners to experiment with learning styles and to express their own preferences.

10. Morph the Limerick

Starting with a traditional limerick we replaced words one at a time in order to create a new poem. Students progress to explore ideas of the absurd, the bizarre, and the grotesque. You might end up with something more weirdly funny than the original. They key is to have fun with words and to relish their transformative power.

11. Acting Out

Acting out short stories (NOT learning lines) helps with confidence, spontaneity and improvisation. A sense of humour helps. Try picking random roles and characters rather than predictable ones. Why not add sound effects using your home-made instruments?

12. Ball of Wool

Working in a circle, we passed the ball of wool to the person who must supply the next sentence of the story. Stories are tangled webs! This activity is a brilliant way to demonstrate the intricacy of narrative in a kinaesthetic interpersonal fashion.

13. Superhero Job Advert

Write an advert designed to recruit a superhero. The task is to outline the most appropriate skills, qualifications and experience needed for the role. This activity leads naturally into storytelling.

14. Role Transformations

In this activity we invented a basic story but then made some major changes in the characters, e.g. male to female, young to old, human to animal, hero to victim etc. This approach encourages children to think outside their comfort zone.

15. Secret Instructions

These poems can be discovered or created. Secret instructions are hidden in a metaphor or a simile, on in highlighted words. This activity helps to build skills in skimming and scanning for key information.

16. In the Middle Game is the Opening Gambit

We start by writing a 3 or 5 part story as a ‘real time’ sequence. Then we re-write it, starting in the middle. This activity helps children to understand complex sequences and also flashback or foreshadowing techniques.

17. How Did I Get here?

As above. This means that your opening is rather weird, so you want to find out how you got there. ‘Here I am, writing this, covered in green paint, on the church bell-tower ...’ Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, began with the words: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it, the rest of me is on the draining board.’

18. New Locations

An old tired story can be renewed. Produce a new story by  giving it a more exotic location. Pictures from Google maps and images also helped to make this transformation from the local to something more exotic and strange. The new environment  presents innovative challenges for the actors in the story.

19. Animation

Use animation software, sound effects and text, in order to create our own animated short stories. This activity helps children to understand storyline or plotting techniques.

20. Superhero Job Application

We wrote a letter, and filled in an application form, explaining our relevant superhero skills. (See also activity 13.)

21. Word Magnet

These are the plastic words that you stick on your fridge, or on a metal surface. You re-arrange the words to make a poem, or to tell a story. Playing with words in this way functions as an effective warm-up exercise that promotes children’s creativity. It also prompts learners to work within the resources available.

22. The Land of Infinite Possibility

We used a sample of text by a published writer and started to deform/reform it using search and replace on a word processor. Persist in this process until the original has almost disappeared. Curiously, the bizarre results sometimes stimulate a new creative departure.

23. Comic Strip

Images and text are combined in order to create your own storybook. There are several companies online who will publish your book as print-on-demand publication that can be sent to your friends and family.

24. Riddle Poems

Read some riddles and then create your own, by working backwards ... from the answer .... to the questions and the clues.

25. Picture Captions

This could be a picture related to football, or some other sport, or cars, or games. Make a caption for the picture to give it maximum impact. Then writing the title for the newspaper story associated with it.

26. Sharing questions and answers as we write

What if? How? Why? When? What next?

27. Between Two Images

Choose two photographs and then wrote a story about the missing image that makes sense of the other two.

28. Recommendations / What next

Older boys/girls showed their work to younger children. They explained which activities they had enjoyed most, and why. There was a Q&A and a critical discussion afterwards.

29. Ekphrastic Writing

This involves writing a poem or a story based on, and inspired by another art work, such as a painting or a sculpture, or a piece of music

30. Detective Writer as Character

This activity involved reading a short story. But then the child  turns up in the story as a detective ...

31. Upright Creativity

Writing standing up or composing while you are walking around. Writing does not have to be sedentary. Some of our most prodigious and creative writers such as Charles Dickens were great walkers. And didn’t Virginia Woolf write standing up?

32. Chaos Notebooks

Many artists don’t have tidy notebooks. In fact, you can scrawl any crazy ideas in any way. Tidy writing and full sentences are banned. You can start writing in the middle of your book, or work backwards. We can stick in any pictures that we find. We make weird diagrams of machines and inventions. Creative notebooks are a space to be messy.

33. Secret productions

We use codes to keep an idea secret. This can involve pictures and symbols. This makes our writing feel precious. Its revelation is a gift to the world.

34. Creating our own Newspaper

Taking on different newspaper roles each day, we created a daily newspaper covering the celebrity gossip and gang warfare between the Montagues and the Capulets. The ‘Mantle of the Expert’ approach usually involves the taking on of a professional role that is acted out in an evolving ‘process’  drama.

35. Funny Character Names

We invented ridiculous, absurd, and memorable names for our characters. This approach also helps children to understand that characters are sometimes symbolic or allegorical, rather than attempt to create real-life people.

36. Character Catchphrases

We invented a catch-phrase for a person in a story. This activity helps children to explore and challenge clichés, or to think about the main quality/ruling emotion of a character.

37. The Living and the Dead

This was an opportunity to think about crazy ways of killing off characters and then bringing them back to life. These became our new stories. Gruesome and miraculous. Children love this rather brutal activity.

38. Word theft and remix

We cut up all the words in a poem and then remixed them to make shorter new poems.

39. Finding You way out of the Maze

This is a found poem. In this activity  we highlighted the words contained in someone else’s writing in order to create our own poem. Sometimes writers don’t know that they have a little  poem lurking in their prose.

40. The Espionage (Spy) Poem

This poem is written with invisible ink, so you can choose who you want to read it. It was also fun to hide poems somewhere in the classroom, in the school, or in the playground. Some have still not been discovered.

41. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

We make words and sentences disappear, and put new ones in their place. We experimented with turning sentences and ideas into their opposites. Reversal of expectations can have amusing and unexpected outcomes.

42. Parallel Universes

These verbal universes are like our known world but with very slightly different structural or theoretical principles, or arcane and odd rules. The game involves guessing or inventing the rules for the parallel universe. For instance, all words with double letter are banned in the World of Og; ‘in the World of Og ... they have forks but no spoons, windows but no glass.’

43. The Obstacle Challenge

Working in pairs, one of us maps out a character’s journey. The other person has to invent obstacles at each stage of the journey. These challenges test the strength and intelligence of the character. A map and pictures help to visualise/structure this adventure story.

44. Conflict role play

In pairs we tried out our skills in creative arguments. E.g. dialogues or conversation battles between father/son, mother/daughter, hero/villain, human/animal, hero/monster ...

45. Poems and Pen knives

We enjoyed carving words in wood and cardboard. Wordcraft.

46. The Flyting Match

This activity involve the use of insults and counter-insults in the form of a contest. This is a cruel and wicked creative game, but rude/offensive words are banned. ‘Flyting’ started in Scotland, but exists in many oral cultures. Basically it’s the art of creative quarrelling.

47. Sculpture poems

In this activity we learned that poems are shapes like sculptures, and that these can be made from any objects, and stuck together; they just have to be eye-catching. Think of this activity as three-dimensional writing.

48. Spray cans / Paint spray

This was a bit messy, but it was fun to create gigantic poems using lots of shape and colour and images. Creative vandalism at work? Don’t try this activity in your living room or kitchen unless you want a permanent record of children’s creativity.

49. Voting with our friends on our best creative work so far

We were a bit nervous about this at first, but everyone has one thing that’s their best work, and as it’s your friends deciding on what they liked best it’s not the same as the teacher stepping in and marking your work. Usually you know what your best work is, but sometimes there are surprises and something that did not start very well turns out to have a life of its own.

51. The Essential Gadget Show

We invented and described the gadgets that our characters can use on their adventures. Words come with a diagram and/or a picture, or a user manual.

52. Sharing and Valuing Our Work

We showed the younger children our work, and explained some of our tricks-of-the-trade. We took pictures of our works or scanned them to make an online resource and record of our achievements.


Further Information

Thanks for reading: I look forward to hearing about your experiences and to reading your views.

© Dr Ian McCormick 2013

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
This recent Guardian Education article is also worth reading.


Creative Writing: 5 Old Problems and 14 New Principles

Why are boys underperforming in English classes?

I am frequently dissatisfied with the resources on, and approaches to, Creative Writing in the Classroom.

Five of the Problems:

1. Traditional writing exercises are predictable and dull:

e.g.

Describe an interesting encounter
Make a story based on an overheard conversation
Write on a topic chosen by the teacher
Do a 60 minute exam essay.

2. Negative criticism from teachers just makes us feel embarrassed and reminds us of our sense of inadequacy. None the less, some creative productions are better than others, and children can be trusted to see this for themselves!

3. The disobedient curriculum. The creative activities outlined were exercises in being grammatical and were not a spelling test. It's so easy to pick on the tick and the cross, the right and the wrong. We need quality of expression rather than quantification of results.

4. There is a gender gap in English studies that needs to be addressed urgently. Writing exercises often fail to resonate with the boys. We must change this situation.

5. Writing tasks are too safe. We need to aim for risk rather than rules and restrictions.


My Fourteen Principles for Action

1. Work Out

We need to fry our brain, then take a break to recharge our batteries. Making full use of words is like doing a work-out.These outlines are based on short, intense activities, not week long topics and term-long programmes.

2. Locksmiths

Having fun with words is like having lots of keys to unlock the imagination. If we design our own keys we create poetry locksmiths rather than prisons.

3. Play


By having lots of different games and varieties of stimulus we turbo-charge our creativity. The play element is at the core of these activities, rather than performance in curriculum-specific, examined activities.

4. Aesthetics

The children work out the principles of success (good and bad rules) after they have seen for themselves what the best feels like. This approach involves trusting the child’s native, natural capacity for aesthetic delight in great creative work!

5. Freedom

Activities will not be based on the tedious repetition of skills; rote learning; copying; complex techniques; rhetorical jargon. These have their place, but not here.

6. Teacher's roles

Children are far more effective critics than teachers. But teachers can help by fostering creative environments based on diplomacy, decency, fairness, positive tone and pitch, timekeeping, and by helping to develop and manage critical and creative frameworks.

7. Brevity

Writers tend to work in multiple ways across time, and across the writing process. They seldom sit down and write 90-minute exam answers. In my creative activities, the “warm-up” IS the activity. In my view, multiple short tasks need to displace longer concentration-heavy solo activities. In my experience most writers (creative, critical, practical or academic – all sorts) work best in 10-15 minute bursts.

8. Randomness and Risk

Adopting risk means moving away from safe predictability to a capacity to embrace randomness as a starting point. This strategy runs against the grain of the current orthodoxy that builds on strict lesson planning, schemes of work, hard rules, tight instructions etc. I’ll be writing a longer, more theoretical essay on modernism and aleatory creativity at a later date. Suffice to say for now that in my view creativity is Empedoclean: between chaos and structure.

9. Pataphysics and Nonsense

 To become more liberated we had to risk taking a few steps away from sense towards nonsense. This is a paradigm shift. Edward Lear and King Lear have more in common that we imagine. Or, following Alfred Jarry, start to think with pataphysics

10. The Tools

Technology helps in many ways, but remember that it is only a tool, not a displacement activity. Shakespeare was not a genius because he had great hands.  Human interactivity is infinitely more subtle and varied than mechanical reproduction, and iterative simulation is always just what it is: a second hand experience.

11. Screens

Likewise, remember that we spend too much time looking into screens. The screen can become a prison house; recall that the screen/veil blocks out other forms of interpersonal encounters and experiences.

12. Unmaking

Turn the world/word upside down and back to front. Creativity is the power of making and unmaking. Worlds make words and words make worlds.

13. Age of Discovery

We have become obsessed with activities designed for a specific age or ability range. The Genius is a Child at Heart, and the reverse is also true. Some of the activities that I used I classes worked just as well with 5 year old children as they did with students in their final year at University.

14. Trust

While there’s quite a lot for the teacher to do as an experimental facilitator and inspiring guide, a high degree of responsibility, ownership and trust is ideally passed back to the creative learners.


Further Information

In the next blog in this sequence, there is a work in progress that outlines 52 Creative Writing Activities.

See also my blog on The Myth of Writer's Block.

Thanks for reading: I look forward to hearing about your experiences and to reading your views.

© Dr Ian McCormick 2013

Saturday, 12 January 2013

My five a day: writing poetry 1


Five a day! This has been a long-running campaign to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables. Less familiar, but perhaps more significantly, this health drive was followed up four years ago with the mental health campaign proposed and promoted by Andy Gibson:



mindapple (mīnd-ăp-´əl)n.
      a simple day-to-day activity that is good for the mind 

The idea was once again featured in The Guardian earlier last year.

It is difficult to quantify how much depression and mental health really costs the country, as there are so many ways to measure what it is, and quantifying its perceived impact is open to a variety of competing methodologies. But one estimate suggests that the cost in Britain alone may be more than $100 billion every year. That means that worldwide cost could be meausured in trillions of dollars.

My recently adopted mind activity is to write a daily poem.

In case this sounds elitist or exclusively literary, let me just be clear that my working notion of a poem resists tight definition. In fact, my daily poem does not even have to be written down. It can be spoken, or silently composed in the head.

But writing works best for me, and it's nice to have a record of my workout.

For me it's a case of making an effort to use language creatively and consciously every day; deploying it in a way that is different from writing undertaken for practical goals such as current projects at work.

So let's be clear: there is no need to measure lines, or to impose a pulse or a beat, or find rhymes, or divide your work into stanzas or verses. The word "Poetry " comes from the Greek poiesisποίησις —literally just 'making' or 'creating.' So I'm not going to be beaten down by notions of traditional forms of poetry, or feel alienated by the many poems, poets, and traditions that I admire and respect.

I'm also not excessivley anxious about delivering a finished product, or a clever idea, or a systematic thought. Just a few words will do. In  fact, I'm delighted with a glimpse beyond the unconscious, automatic use of language that rots our brains and oozes through our consciousness. But I'm wanting to be a tiny bit self-conscious, perhaps even with a faint glimmer of imagination or inspiration. That's enough. That's the limit of my daily work out.

Actually it's not that much more difficult that doing a Tweet, and that's how some people present their creative efforts to the public. There's also Facebook sites where you can post a poem. And some of them are quite good, I daresay. I write mine on scraps of paper, or in a range of notebooks. They are private productions rather than disasters in self-promotion. Each to his own.

But if I have to interface with social media, what I find works best is to take a random word or phrase from the social media flow, and make that my topic for the day. This means that there's no excuse to make a start, as you have a ready-made topic to hand.

I am finding that the randomness of this approach also means that parts of your brain, and the deeper parts of your mind start to unlock. I'm finding that my thoughts throughout the day are moderately more supple, subtle and alive.

Just like my muscles after the gym, in fact. I'll keep you posted on my progress.



Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

 (Quibble Academic, 2013)