Seminar activity Ideas 9: Writing in the style of…

Seminar teaching

Advantages

Much has been written in recent years about the value of creative writing as a means of teaching students about the way literary texts work. Creative approaches have been shown to enhance critical responses. Extended bits of writing can be highly engaging and are sometimes accepted as assessed work but short writing exercises can be equally valuable, as a way of reflecting on the writer’s craft.

Here’s one example of how ‘writing in the style of…’ can be used to examine with a higher resolution lens the particular qualities and concerns of an individual writer.

What to do

  1. Ask students to identify key stylistic features of the writer or text you are currently teaching. This should be a brief discussion, perhaps using a grid such as those provided here as downloadable pdf files, for Poetry and Prose respectively, encouraging students to pull out the essential features of the writer – what makes them special and distinguishes them from others.
  2. Now ask students individually to choose a moment from any prose text they know well, or have been studying for another module, or perhaps even a children’s story or fairy-tale. Ideally, it should be a text that is well-known and therefore recognisable to other students. (If you prefer, you can bring in the opening paragraphs of several well-known novels of different periods and ask students to choose one to transform.)
  3. Next ask them to re-write this moment in the style of the text being studied, using the points recorded on the grid as an aide memoire and trying to incorporate features they identified as characteristic of that writer. This should be private writing and they should not reveal their choice of own text to each other. Part of the fun of the activity is recognising the text which is being transformed! This writing phase should take 15-20 minutes.
  4. Ask students to read aloud their versions. They should enjoy each others’ creativity and identifying the text that has been transformed. They should also spend some time commenting on which aspects of their studied writer have been successfully imitated, or suggesting any small amendments that might make it work even better.

Here is an example: the opening of Pride and Prejudice written in the style of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, together with an extract from The Road for comparison:

Extract from The Road

He studied the sky. There were days when the ashen overcast thinned and now the standing trees along the road made the faintest of shadows over the snow. They went on. The boy wasn’t doing well. He stopped and checked his feet and retied the plastic. When the snow started to melt it was going to be hard to keep their feet dry. They stopped often to rest. He’d no strength to carry the child. They sat on the pack and ate handfuls of the dirty snow. By afternoon it was beginning to melt. They passed a burned house, just the brick chimney standing in the yard. They were on the road all day, such day as there was. Such few hours. They might have covered three miles.

He thought the road would be so bad that no one would be on it but he was wrong. They camped almost in the road itself and built a great fire, dragging dead limbs out of the snow and piling them on the flames to hiss and steam. There was no help for it. The few blankets they had would not keep them warm.

Cormac McCarthy

Pride and Prejudice, in the style of Cormac McCarthy

A man had come to the neighbourhood. Alone. He wanted a wife, or at least that’s what the local people thought. The big house had been let and the woman found that interesting. She had heard all about it from her neighbour. She tried to interest her husband in the subject but he didn’t seem to want to know. She kept coming back to it: the house, the man and the man’s desire, his yearning for a wife. Again and again she told him. The husband grew tired of her words. She wanted him to visit the man but stubbornly he refused. He was weary and unwilling to go, out to the far side of the village, in the greyness, with the rain falling. The house and the man and the man’s desire for a wife – they were all as nothing to him. Finally, he thought that his one daughter might do, the second child. His wife had plans for the eldest. He felt more for the younger. The younger child’s quickness of wit matched his own. His wife’s temperament, by contrast, left him cold and her interest in the stranger was of no concern to him.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre.