Reasons to Study English Literature: Become a Better Writer

The third in a series on A level English Literature; previous posts have covered the notion of pleasure and literature as a spiritual quest.

A Moleskine and a smoothly flowing pen always help the writing process.

A Moleskine and a smoothly flowing pen always help the writing process.

Reading and writing are at the heart of A level English Literature, and if you enjoy neither, you’re probably taking the wrong subject. But writing is more than simply churning out essays, and these days you will find creative writing playing an increasing role in most courses.

Often, Year 11 pupils make remarks which run something like this: ‘I really want to write; I enjoy being creative, and I love the kind of writing we do for GCSE English Language – that’s what I’d like to do at A level.’ It’s a view for which I hold some sympathy – not least because of my own passion for writing, and my own desire to be able to spend significantly longer writing – but the implication of what students say is that literary essays are somehow inferior as a form of writing.

Actually, most students of English Literature discover that the type of essay demanded in English Literature is one of the most academically rigorous they will encounter in all of their A level subjects. Band 4 essays – those likely to gain grade A or A* – are characterised by closely observed analysis of language, alongside a theoretical or conceptualised approach to the subject matter, evaluation of contextual factors, accuracy of expression and a command of style. It’s a tall order and excellent preparation for future writing, whether in English Literature, another humanities subject at university or in the world beyond education.

Just as important, however, is the fact that English Literature is a subject in which the opinion of the student really does matter. As an academic discipline, it is essential that the reader is able to justify their position, and the writing of essays at A level should never be a tick box exercise  – it’s about arguing a case convincingly, which is both intellectually satisfying and a highly marketable skill.

But let’s turn back to the issue of creativity. These days, many A level courses include a creative or re-creative response, usually as part of the AS course in Year 12. Some (generally from a position of ignorance) sneer at such exercises, questioning their rigour. But there’s no doubt that to capture the style and voice of a particular writer requires significant skill in the craft of writing as well as a deep understanding of the particular way in which an author writes. The very best candidates often relish this task; many others fail to recognise its complexity and often score very lowly. Mercifully, our course has a conventional essay option as well.

In fact, emulation of earlier writers has a long history as a way of learning to write. In ancient Rome, discipili (pupils) were trained in rhetoric by the magister (teacher or master). Rhetoric itself was a complex series of conventions and rules which governed the formal use of language in, for example, public speaking. Boys not only learnt these rules but studied great examples from the past, a pattern of teaching and learning which was repeated for hundreds of years, including in the early grammar schools. Privately, many writers have taken a similar path.

For many students of A level Literature, it will be the opportunity to study a breadth of writers which will provide the impetus and inspiration for creativity. Our A level course covers a huge range of literature, from Chaucer, Shakespeare and John Donne to F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, along with modern writers from the last twenty years. Coursework at A2 enables students to study at least one if not two writers of their own choice.

Sometimes, particularly when studying a poetry, I will ask pupils to write in the style of particular writer – or occasionally in a particular form such as the sonnet. Invariably, students produce highly creative responses: I’ve read odes written in imitation of the style of Keats, inventive parodies of Keats set in modern day Dartford and some truly depressing Larkinesque melancholic rants (the latter demonstrating a superb understanding!).  A level courses also offer the opportunity to read about how writers came to write, what inspired them and the ways in which they actually wrote. Successful students usually devour the type of articles which appear in the Telegraph, Times or Guardian on a Saturday, exploring different writers; they will also consider writing for a school magazine or other publications, perhaps keeping a blog or writing a diary. Writing will become in time a discipline.

And for those wishing to develop their writing the furthest, getting the most out of A level depends on a change of mindset when it comes to writing. My experience is that many pupils – accustomed to churning out timed essays at GCSE and in other A level subjects – fail to focus on their own writing closely enough. Learning to look closely at one’s own writing requires rigour, perseverance and a sharp eye for detail. Yes, whether it’s a comma, full stop or semi colon does matter. Did you really mean what you wrote? Does that word express exactly your thoughts on the matter? Can you rewrite the sentence, preserving the meaning but in half the number of words you originally used? Twitter’s strict character limit makes it excellent practice when it comes to writing, but for those students who want to learn deeply, refining writing can be an arduous process, verifying Samuel Johnson’s words: ‘What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.’

Moving beyond A level, in the last twenty years there has been a growing interest in some universities in creative writing: some institutions now offer honours, joint honours or at least modules in creative writing. Others, whilst not going down the path of formal courses, use creative writing by students as a teaching method. It remains a divisive issue in the teaching of literature in Higher Education, not least because of the difficulties of assessing such writing. But the experience of other subjects (such as Business Studies and Computing) as well as the United States would suggest that many professional writers will come from such courses in the future. The MA in writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has been long established as one of the ways for promising novelists to hone their craft. Supporters note that course’s first graduate was Kazuro Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I didn’t take a creative route at university. For a while in my later twenties, I lost the writing bug. I suspect my creative energies were being sapped into too much teaching but switching to the train for my daily commute gave me time to start journaling and write every day. I’ve learnt that regular writing – along with reading voraciously -is the way to develop my craft.

As Virginia Woolf famously observed, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. In other words, writing is not merely about inspired genius. It needs the time and opportunity to do it – like the long summer holidays only teachers and students get. And I would say the same also applies to men.