Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Micro and macro level writing

I posted a message yesterday to the online student discussion group for the fiction writing course I tutor saying:

However, just a word both of caution and encouragement. So far in the groups I've tutored there has been virtually no correlation between the marks gained for the two assignments. So those who got a high mark this time certainly shouldn't think they'll automatically do as well next time. I've seen the second assignment go pear-shaped in a big way. And those who didn't do so well with the short pieces can make a very good come back on the second, longer assignment, which actually carries far more marks.

It was only today that it dawned on me why the fiction writing results are so completely different from the technology and maths and computing courses I've tutored, where the mark gained on early assignments is a good predictor of the mark achieved on later ones.

On the fiction writing course, the two assignments are testing different things. For the first one, because they've only been studying for about 5 weeks, the stories are assessed purely on the sentence level of writing. (They have to submit 3 short pieces of 500 words each.) They're mostly studies in description, of both character and setting. Students are suppsed to be producing Good Writing, which means we tutors are to look for sharp observations in the character and a strong sense of place in the setting. We're told to ignore plot and in fact, in 500 words, they don't have room to develop much of one.

The thing is, many of the ones gaining average marks on the first assignment do so because they haven't answered the question properly. The writing may be quite accomplished, but if they haven't done what was required and have, for instance, written quite a lively little story with likeable characters and some sharp dialogue, but not described the setting well, they won't score as highly as someone who can do the sentence level description. However, there's no guarantee that the one who can do the classy writing at the sentence level can write a coherent scene -- and that's what's required for the second assignment where they write a 1500 word story or submit the first 1500 words of something longer (plus synopsis of the rest of the story). So, the natural novelists who can't just describe a character without them jumping up and developing a whole complex story to inhabit do less well on the first assignment, but blossom come assignment two. So, having realised this, I can now focus my help and guidance more precisely.

Of course a few of them (1 or 2 per group) are just bloody good writers and do well at both the sentence level and in writing whole scenes. Those are perhaps the ones to watch, but I still feel that perseverance counts for more then a facility with words, over the long haul of a novel.

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