...but I think you don't know what trash is until you have to write something and get someone else's opinion of it.
Well, you could be right, of course, but my experience is quite different to the case that you give.
When I was preparing myself for GCE "O" Levels at secondary (high) school, and because most of my teachers didn't seem up to much (like many teachers, I suppose), I spent a lot of time in independent research aimed at gaining familiarity with doing/passing the exams
- mostly by practicing - i.e., working through model answers to past exam papers/years.
However, that seemed to be good mostly for papers (exams) in fact-based and logical subjects like science (chemistry biology, physics), maths., and English grammar, where one could get by if one simply understood
the facts, principles and related material, but it didn't help too much for papers where one had to basically write intelligible and concise explanations of something - e.g., (say) an essay in English, or the steps in a chemistry experiment.
Then I came across an excellent and most useful book - it was called "How to Pass Exams Easily"
, or something, and was written by a teacher who had also been an examiner and who had examined and marked many exam papers from students. I studied this book and re-read it a couple of times, practicing what it directed. Some of the main points that it made included (from memory):
- that exams in several/most subjects required the student to have decent essay-writing skills.
- the essay was thus the student's opportunity to use and communicate his/her knowledge in constructive, entertaining and intelligible fashion, which demonstrated competence to the intended audience (the examiner), and for which marks were correspondingly awarded.
- examiners get sick and tired of ploughing through students' boring, rote-based repetitions of knowledge, and will tend to give higher marks for interesting, well-crafted essays that demonstrate competence.
- thus, if you couldn't write a good essay, then you couldn't communicate your competence as well as if you could write good essays, and so you would gain fewer marks, and vice versa.
I thought this all through long and hard, and put it to empirical test by experimenting with my homework to my teachers.
We were occasionally required to write essays on stuff that we had dreamed up out of our heads - e.g., for English homework and economics - and I noted when and why this got a positive response from my teachers and when it didn't. Empirically, I found that the advice in the book seemed to hold good - i.e., it seemed to be generally true - but the real
test would be in what I wrote as an anonymous student in a GCE exam paper to an examiner whom I did not know.
When I was doing my English GCE "O" Levels, they gave us two hour-long exams for Eng.Lang. - one for language/grammar, and one to write an essay - which latter had to be based on one of several subjects
that they gave us at the start of the exam. The list they gave at my exam looked as dull as ditch-water. I spent a couple of minutes thinking and looking at it in disgust and then picked "Camping". Being a country boy and an active hill-tramper and ex-Boy Scout, I knew a lot about and was well-experienced in camping and hiking over the hills, but I recognised that a factual, descriptive essay, though easy for me to write, would probably be ho-hum for the examiner.
So I decided to write a fictional story. It was a diarised first-person account of a reporter attached to a rather depressing Himalayan expedition that was trekking up Mt.Everest hoping to recover the bodies of the missing members (nobody had returned) of an earlier expedition. The reporter was writing his diary recording events to date - the climb to the base camp location, the setting-up of the tents and his involvement in that, and his thoughts about the missing expedition members. He was writing this whilst he was sat safe in a tent in the base camp. He had been left there on his own whilst the expedition team proper (he was no mountaineer) went up to search the first leg of the dangerous route that the missing expedition members had been taking. The uncertain weather had held up well and remained good for the search.
My imagination, under pressure, suddenly popped the story, plot and all, into my head. It had a surprising twist at the end. My sole purpose - what I thought it would do - was to interest/entertain the anonymous examiner whom I imagined would be reading it. I wrote it all down, reviewed it, and finished with some time to spare. It seemed complete and sufficient as it stood at that point, so I tried not to worry about using surplus time to pad the thing out.
I won't describe the story any further here, but when I was at dinner that evening, my housemaster asked me what exams I had done that day and I told him that it had been the Eng.Lang. essay. He was an English teacher (not mine though) and, being interested, asked what I had written.
Well, you should have seen how his face fell
as I told him!
"Oh dear. I don't think it was a very good idea to write that.
" he said, and more along those lines.
So, I left the dinner-table feeling a bit wretched, but told myself, what the heck, it was done now and irrecoverable, and just maybe my housemaster, being a teacher and a likeable idiot, was wrong. We would see, one way or the other.
I should stress here that I was my English Lang./Lit. teacher's bête noire
and he had predicted in no uncertain terms that I would certainly fail the Eng.Lang. paper, and probably only scrape through Eng.Lit.
When the results came through a few weeks later, I had to smile. I only got a "1" for Eng.Lang."O" level (which included the essay paper and a grammar paper) - which is the best (top mark) a student can get. And I got a "3" for Eng.Lit. - a respectable pass.
I suspect that my Eng.Lang. essay (story) wasn't so much a good
story as it was a welcome breath of fresh air for the examiner doing the marking - a slightly imaginative sparkle amongst the greater mass of hundreds of dreary essays that he/she had to plough through and mark.
The point I would make here is, not that I was a particularly brilliant student (I don't consider that I was), but that if a motivated child can do it (I wanted a high pass mark for the exam), just by following and practicing
some good, tried-and-tested advice and by focusing always on the intended outcome - i.e., the intended audience's potential receipt of and welcome response
to the written material - then so can any child/adult. Practice makes perfect.
In the end, all one needs is a half-decent storyline to apply and practice with.
It's arguably a bit like painting by numbers. I reckon that Isaac Asimov (whose writing I have always enjoyed) did much the same with his SF, except I often wondered whether he padded out some of his writing unnecessarily, as though he were being paid by the word, or something. I don't know whether he did that in any of his textbooks though (I don't recall that I ever read any). Of course, the difference with Asimov was that he had such an amazing imagination for complex storylines - and I have read probably most/all of his SF output, and most of that at least twice. It was his story-telling that was practiced, and if you read them in order from oldest to latest, it was rather as though, with each successive story that he wrote, the better they seemed to get as he went along, over the years.