Updated: Aug 5
The time has come for celebrating Lent — so, what should you give up? Better still, what should you take up?
A question often posed to me by the parents of my students: “What can my son/daughter do to improve their writing?”. I get this from the mothers and fathers of GCSE students, of A Level students, of younger children, and of more mature learners.
“Well,” I usually respond, raising a scholarly eyebrow, “does she read for pleasure?” More often than not this is met with an unimpressed look, bordering on disdain. “Of course she does. She burnt her way through all the Harry Potters.”
“Ah,” I say, “and does she write letters?”
Lent is a time of year associated with giving things up. Another man in my position would urge students to stop watching television or playing computer games, but as a Jewish Atheist I’m not much interested in telling you what not to do. I’d much rather encourage you to take something up. Specifically, I want you to take up a new pastime: the art of letter writing. How old do you think Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, was when he wrote the following New Year’s greeting to his friend?
You are right in saying New Year's Day is stupid. I wish you a happy 1831, my affectionate greetings to your dear family. If you'd like us to work together at writing, I'll write comedies and you can write your dreams, and since there's a lady who comes to see papa and always says stupid things I'll write them too.
Any guesses? He was nine years old. Articulate little fellow, wasn’t he! This is everything a good letter ought to be: amusing, opinionated, and affectionate. How did he get to be so good at expressing himself through the written word at such a young age? Great writers of the past, from Cicero to John Keats, have always honed their writing skills by composing short notes to entertain their friends, and to spread news and gossip. In our time, social media sites, instant messaging, and the ubiquity of mobile phones, threaten to displace this historic form of communication.
Of course, it is a huge drag to gather together paper, pen, and stamps, to then look up an address, and walk down to a postbox. Not to mention the unpleasantness of licking the adhesive strip at the top of an envelope. I’d be the last person to blame you for thinking it’s not worth the effort. But thankfully our age has also made letter-writing easier and quicker than it has ever been before – we have emails.
So, this Easter, my advice to anyone who wants to improve their writing, whether they have an English Language GCSE looming over the horizon or not, is this: sit down at your laptop two or three evenings a week and write a thoughtful, lengthy email to a friend you haven’t seen in some time. Or a distant member of your family. The aim is to be as interesting as possible. Try to imagine the person you address is sitting in the room with you eagerly listening. Make it personal. Tell an anecdote that has recently taken place in your life. Talk about something you feel strongly about. Ask for your correspondent’s opinions on a problem you have. Think about what advantages the long-form email has over the comparatively short text messages, and make use of them.
Of if you prefer, just give up TV and video games, and spend more time reading.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.