Breaking the Rules When Writing

Part and parcel of children’s progress in writing is the emergence of seemingly obsessive use of word types or techniques. You may notice that your child is going through a phase of overusing complex connectives (also called conjunctions). Or perhaps they are including an adverb in every single sentence that they write.

This is perfectly normal, partly because of how we learn and partly because of how writing is taught.

Learning new tricks: we all love to practise our newly learnt skills. This is why children often excessively use certain words or phrases for a while. Like everything else, the urge to flaunt your new skill eventually subsides and moderation takes over.

How we teach: teachers need to drive those messages home so they will sometimes insist that a simple ‘and’ as a conjunction is “not allowed”, or they urge children to “use, use, use“ similes! Teachers are correct in doing so but the consequence is that children will overuse those words and phrases; for a while that is.

Breaking the rules: it is just as important that children realise how “breaking the rules” when writing is an essential part of developing and mastering your own style. Have a quick read of this extract from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl.

“All about him black metal pots were boiling and bubbling on huge stoves, and kettles were hissing and pans were sizzling, and strange iron machines were clanking and spluttering, and there were pipes running all over the ceiling and walls, and the whole place was filled with smoke and steam and delicious rich smells.” 

The incessant use of ‘and’ is a primary teacher’s nightmare. However, Roald Dahl consciously commits this literary ‘crime’ in order to portray the chaos in his setting. In the next paragraph he does the same but this time with the word ‘then’.

“He lifted a lid from a huge pot and took a sniff; then he rushed over and dipped a finger into a barrel of sticky yellow stuff and had a taste; then he skipped across to one of the machines and turned half a dozen knobs this way and that; then he peered anxiously through the glass door of a gigantic oven, rubbing his hands and cackling with delight at what he saw inside. Then he ran over to another machine, a small shiny affair that kept going phut-phut-phut-phut-phut…”

Roald Dahl was a master writer (not just of children’s books, you should have a read of his adult short stories). He did not make the above mistakes because he was writing for children. He chose to break the rules in order to create effect. Children need to learn about this too.

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