Good Day, Parents of my students ! I have been asked to write my ideas about the pupils I have mentored, past and present, since I started working with Chinese students several years ago. Specifically, I’ve been requested to go over some of the common errors, identify tendencies, and highlight my strongest impressions of these students. So for the next few pages I will do precisely that.
The first thing that I should emphasize by way of introduction is that I have a PhD in creative writing from an American university and have published my work successfully. In America as a graduate student (or student doing a ‘post-grad’, as they might put it in Europe), I went through the academic gristmill and produced (as required) plenty of ‘academic’ papers: Very bulky, abstruse, heavily-documented, stuffy, formalistic papers replete with academic jargon, no personal pronouns, no small talk, metaphors, or similes – just long documents stacked with assiduously arranged 2nd source add-ons, presented in stilted, humorless, mechanical prose.
Believe me when I say that the only people who read this turgid, quicksand-of-the imagination, tenure-track gobbledegook are other academics. I loathe it, and I feel that there is no surer way to make children HATE the writing process than to subject them to this sort of thing at an early age. A twelve year old kid should be encouraged to experiment, to get to know himself/herself, to be spontaneous without fear or harsh ‘feedback’, and to learn to (or exploit innate tendencies). Above all, to love language.
相信我，阅读这些膨胀的、毫无想象力的、堆砌着无用的专业词汇的文章，往往是其他学者。我讨厌这些，而且我觉得让孩子们在很小的时候接触这样的文章非常糟糕，它会让孩子厌恶写作。我们应该鼓励一个 12 岁的孩子去尝试，去了解自己，他们不需要担心刻薄苛刻的 “反馈” ，这样才能自然自发的学习，也就是说用最真挚的初心来写作。最重要的是，要培养他们对语言的热爱。
Here I will offer a couple of disclaimers. There are many disciplines and in the science areas international journals will only publish correct, well-researched, academic style Standard English. These periodicals are interested only in the results of painstaking research, and the style of writing necessarily reflects it. I regularly work with an elderly Russian geologist of considerable renown. Her English is not the best, not the worst, but we always struggle to get it into acceptable form. So far we are ‘batting 100%’ (an American baseball idiom which means we haven’t failed yet to produce acceptable papers). The bibliography reads like a Greater Manhattan Area phone book. Endless. In Scientific research, the academic style is indispensable because they are dealing with empirical substance. The Humanities crowd try to copy it to validate their discipline as a ‘science’ – which it is not. The result is cadaver-cold and pretentious most of the time. And never anything less than politically correct.
Therefore, it is extremely important that my students learn two things (whether they are primarily writing students or history students who are expected to do some writing). The first is of course, the basic, classic essay format, which consists of Introduction, Two or Three Body Paragraphs, and Conclusion. Now it is interesting that two of the Big Exams – TOEFL and IELTS – give only minimal attention to the intro and the ending. They focus almost entirely on the body paragraphs. Their requirements (this is true of the whole exam) is very formulaic; therefore, the exam itself must be studied. Just being at an advanced level in English is not enough; you can speak English like a native speaker in the Diplomatic Corps and still fail the exam.
In real writing, the classic model is alive and well, as it should be. I try to impress on my students that writing is not a linear performance like a piano recital where everything is in its proper procession and if you make a mistake people know about it. Nor, in music, should you perform the 2nd Movement of the Concerto before the 1st. Everyone would be completely taken aback. WRITING, to use words I try not to use because they are over-repeated, is nonetheless something that should be thought of as ‘holistic’ and ‘organic’. By this I mean that the best writing is rarely pre-planned. It simply grows out of itself. That’s why brainstorming and other thought-generating techniques are so valuable. Creative writers start with what I personally call a “guiding impulse’. That is, something arises in them that needs to get out, like a bat out of a cave or a bird out of a cage. (I, for one, believe that a lot is learned in the cave and the cage, then another force sets it free.) If you don’t believe me, parents, try it yourself. Imagine a school teacher you either liked a lot or didn’t like at all - but, either way, who stands out in your memory. Now think about that person and keep the thought going. Think not just with abstract memory but with your eyes. Recall their physical shape, typical clothing, and way of addressing the class. Soon you will start to recall secondary aspects of them: how their face had a nervous tic, how some had very large or very small hands, and certain favorite expressions they would use. Then stand back and survey that classroom of years ago, and you will be astonished how the lost faces come back to life. Imagine what the school looked like and the streets surrounding it, or the woods or the factory closeby. How the school hallway smelled of lysol and old lockers. How your books felt in your damp rucksack on a rainy day.
It will all come back to you. But not at first; rather, by association and patience, by letting the setting and its long-ago people recreate themselves right down to the most minute details. (I tell my students all the time that “the truth is in the details.”) Try it, and you will be amazed at how much you recall, and how much of it comes back of its own volition. The living and the dead, they are all in a bubble just waiting for you to think of them again. And, lo and behold, when you do so they pop out and join you.
I have just described the writing process to you. Or most of it. The part I am leaving out for now is the importance of Rewriting. Authors much more accomplished than me are in unanimous agreement: WRITING IS REWRITING. The overwhelming majority of my students, it must be said, just don’t do it. Probably they don’t have time. But in real (and, alas, unforgiving) terms the essays are invariably no more than half-finished. First drafts that have been abandoned. That’s why, to be blunt, some of the papers are a mess when they come to me: the student didn’t follow up. To become accomplished writers they absolutely must develop this sort of conscientiousness. There is no other way.
But in terms of creativity, why should writing be a locked-in, pre-planned linear frog march carried out in the intellectual jailhouse of outline and rigorous formula? Only dull people do that, or those who dislike writing and just want to be ‘correct’ enough to muster a passing mark. Given that, why shouldn’t the Introduction be written last rather than first, considering that at first you really had no idea where the creative process was going to take you? What is stopping you? Think of writing like theater-in-the-round. Or like sculpture. The only thing that matters is the finished product and it doesn’t matter how chaotic the process might be. Like so many things in life, it’s the result that counts.
Accordingly, the Introduction and Conclusion are the most important parts of the essay, not the least, and miscalculating this is an error in judgment that many young writers make. But my suggestion is logical when you stop and think about it, isn’t it? If you go to a party and see someone interesting (maybe a prospective ‘love’ interest, maybe a business opportunity) aren’t the First and Last Impressions the most important? In other words, the idea is to get noticed, to find a way in, and to do this you have to make yourself interesting. Likewise, as the first meeting draws to an end with the hopes of a 2nd one to follow, you can’t louse it up by doing something stupid or saying something banal or offputting. Simply, you need to make a flourishing exit. So don’t start by saying “Do you come here often?” Or “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”and don’t escape by saying, “Well, here’s looking at you, kid!” Or (to the girl) “Can I please have a kiss before I go?”
Your essay is no different. First impressions (engaging the reader) and Last impression (giving the reader something to remember and think about) are critical. I have seen thousands of essays that began “In today’s fast-paced world” – and I can tell you that it is not only boring but infuriating, because it says that the student’s mind was too lame to think outside the box or just that they didn’t care what they said, it was merely an assignment. A torture to endure. Nor is a two sentence word-for-word repeat of a two sentence introduction going to score any points with demanding readers. With IELTS maybe. (Again, that’s ‘formula’, nothing more. But not with real life writing, including the academic variety.)
So, as I was saying, the work needs to be creative, and pre-written outlines may be helpful to some, but their worth is limited and they should not be followed rigidly if it gets in the way of some beautiful change of direction that the essay itself calls for (even beyond the conscious will of the writer). Form and Substance find each other in good writing. Writing is always a PROCESS. A journey, if you will. The destination is what you’re going for, naturally, but the journey determines what the outcome will be.This does NOT mean to proceed without discipline or direction.
I cannot of course speak for what goes on in the public schools across a nation of 1.4 billion people; however, it is indeed pleasant and a privilege to deal with youngsters who for the most part seem very much at home with the goals their parents have set for them, and who go about their work cheerfully and efficiently.
我当然不能代言一个拥有 14 亿人口的国家的公立学校的教育。然而，与这些大多数情况下对父母为他们设定的目标非常接受，并且愉快而高效地工作的中国年轻人打交道确实是令人愉快和荣幸的。
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