Monthly Archives: July 2007

Just the most marvellous book about writing!

There are so many to choose from, but let me suggest that teachers, senior students, and anyone interested in writing — even (especially?) bloggers — ought not to walk past Mark Tredinnick’s The Little Red Writing Book (Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006) without buying it. You will find page after page of sound advice and common sense, delivered with freshness and always with good humour, and plenty of exercises, none of them stodgy. But it is never shallow. Clearly much thought, reading and practice have gone into its making. Novelist and creative writing teacher Nicholas Jose says: “This is a book for every writer’s backpack.” I agree.

Writing is the art of making an utterance perfectly natural through the perfectly unnatural process of making every word and phrase again and again, cutting here and adding there, until it is just so. It is contrived spontaneity. What a writer wants is something just like speech only more compressed, more melodic,more economical, more balanced, more precise.

And this:

Every sentence names something and says something about it. This is the secret life of the sentence — the short story it tells. If that story is clearly told, the sentence will work; if not, it will not.

And finally this:

Why is it so hard to convince ourselves that writing is just a kind of talking on paper? I think it’s because we get told the opposite so early and so often. We learn, at home, on our way through school, and then at work, that writing is supposed to be different from speaking — less voiced, less plain, more impersonal, more circumspect, more polysyllabic, smarter, more proper all round. We get drummed out of us the one piece of wisdom that would help us all write better.

This all began the day someone told you to use the passive voice when expressing conclusions in an essay. When they told you never to write ‘I’ in your history and science papers — in any papers. That day happened the other week to my daughter. It’s the day you learn that you don’t belong anymore in your writing. The day when it all starts going wrong. Remember that day?

What they were trying to teach you was the virtue of disinterested inquiry and dispassionate expression. But they may not have made that clear.

Linguists — indeed my lecturers in the Grad Cert TESOL at UTS in 1998 — will cavil at much of that. And indeed it is true there is such a thing as a speech -writing continuum, there are differences, and there are all kinds of register variations between everyday speech and writing for specific purposes in particular contexts and communities of discourse. ESL teachers especially must often highlight such matters. Yet I do think Tredinnick is right too, even if he really is addressing native speakers or fluent and confident second language learners. Nonetheless, it is where we start going wrong when we overvalue nominalisation or the passive in academic writing, for example, or go to ridiculous lengths to avoid the word “I”.

What do you think?

Meantime get the book. There is much good advice on particular writing issues whether in “creative writing” or in more transactional tasks such as essays and reports.


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Updating and maintenance

Of course all links on this site worked at the time I first recorded them here, but the internet is always in flux. I have today been through all entries tagged “HSC” and made sure links are still working. Some links I have had to delete, others to put on hold for one reason or another. I have added some too.

If ever you find a dead link let me know on a comment, or in the guest book, or by email. Thanks.

On my personal blog there are some recent entries that will interest some readers.

  • Teacher Pride Rules!
  • Three uplifting stories.
  • The HSC English moanings of Miranda… This is a response to criticism of the latest HSC text list for NSW and includes some background material on English in the HSC and earlier.
  • Assimilation/Integration/Multiculturalism: policy and practice in Australia since 1966 1
  • Assimilation/Integration/Multiculturalism: policy and practice in Australia since 1966 2
  • For the record: the great SBHS race debate of 2002.
  • More on multiculturalism etc.

    Arthur Miller and The Crucible

    I have some students from China now studying this play in Year 11 in Australia. This is interesting, as Arthur Miller has actually written about how the play was received in China. For example, in 2002 there was a new production in New York directed by British director Richard Eyre, a review of which you may see here. Miller recalled the play’s first performance in Shanghai — which is where my students come from.

    Eyre often tells the story of having directed a production of “The Crucible” in Edinburgh in 1967, and meeting one of the students from that audience 25 years later: “He said it woke him up to the latent tyranny of a repressive society. He became a politician. His name was Tony Blair.”

    For Eyre, “This play thrives across the boundaries of history and geography, culture and race. It’s just as accessible in Lagos [Nigeria] and Beijing as in Los Angeles and New York.”

    Miller recalls when “The Crucible” was running in Shanghai in 1967. “The [Chinese] saw the play as being a complete analogy to the Gang of Four,” he says. “I later talked with a Chinese woman who had seen it, and there were tears in her eyes. She said the exact same interrogations took place under the Gang of Four.”

    He says that the real message of the play is “to keep God and the civic civilization separate, where they belong. Backing up the government with the imprimatur of the church, any church, is a catastrophe.”

    My students need a fairly simple guide to start with. I suggest Wikipedia is as good a place as any. There is a brief Act by Act summary, and some good further references.

    A site to support students who want to go deeply into the historical background of the story and of the context in which the play appeared is Understanding “The Crucible” which leads to much that is interesting.

    Here is an essay Miller wrote in June 2000: “Are You Now Or Were You Ever?”  That tells you a great deal about how and why the play came to be written.

    The Crucible is a really wonderful play and brilliant on stage. I have seen two stage productions, one really quite awful in a country town in NSW some years ago. Despite the level of acting I still found shivers going down my spine during the court scenes, and I still marvelled at the rich language Miller found for his characters.


    See also these YouTubes about Arthur Miller.

    Arthur Miller tribute film (part 1)

    Arthur Miller tribute (part 2) This includes The Crucible.

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    Posted by on July 17, 2007 in English studies, HSC, Media/Film studies, questions asked, student help, works/authors


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    Am I “indigenous” to Australia?

    A reader has asked me about the word “indigenous”. As far as I am aware “indigenous” (the word) comes from the Latin and means “in” “beget” .. or if you like, “the place where one was born (or conceived)”. In that case I, as were both my parents, and my mother’s parents – are indigenous to Australia, indigenous Australians .. though have to admit that am indigenous to southern South Australia, not indigenous to New South Wales. How many generations does it take to be referred to as “indigenous”?

    The first part of that is certainly true. Indigenous is from Latin, where the literal meaning is “born in”; it has been in English since the 17th century. As is often the case, earlier meanings don’t always help us: nice, for example, comes from nescius which means “ignorant”. So how is the word used now?

    Would you, for example, argue that Australian rabbits or feral cats are indigenous Australian animals? I suspect not. Clearly, the word now refers to those — plants, animals or people — “originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment” (American Heritage Dictionary) but has a strong connotation of having the earliest historical connection to an area or environment.

    So “indigenous” is not a true synonym of “native”. I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that I am a native Australian, but my being an indigenous Australian is — in my case — only partly and possibly true.

    See, and a very extensive discussion on Wikipedia.

    As says, aboriginal has been in English a few hundred years longer than indigenous. It is a close synonym. With a capital letter it refers specifically to some Indigenous Australians — and note too how Indigenous should also be capitalised when referring to the same people(s). But then it gets complicated: as Wikipedia says: The term includes both the Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal People, by which you may see that Torres Strait Islanders, while Indigenous Australians, are not Aboriginal Australians. The inclusive term, therefore, is Indigenous.

    And there is more to it than that…! See the Wikipedia article linked in the previous paragraph, check the Style manual for authors, editors and printers, the official word in Australia, and Pam Peters, Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

    It used to be that Aboriginal was properly the adjective (as in “Aboriginal art”) and Aborigine(s) the noun, though usage on this has always been disputed. The 2002 Style Manual recommends Aboriginal for both adjective and noun.

    Then there are other terms such as Koori and Murri, which have strict geographical limits…

    See also my Indigenous Australians Page.

    In some formal circumstances we get even more specific. Here in Surry Hills, for example, if we have a “Welcome to Country” or “Acknowledgement of Country” statement we refer to the original owners as the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation.

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    Posted by on July 9, 2007 in Australian, English language, questions asked


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