John Larkin was signing copies of his latest novel when the question came: “How do I get to be a writer?”
Quickly followed by, “But I’ve got to tell you, I’m not a reader.”
The incongruity struck him – “writers must be readers” – and the anecdote has become part of a larger narrative for this celebrated author of young adult fiction.
Larkin is the recently appointed writer-in-residence in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney.
His brief is to help teachers become effective teachers of writing by themselves becoming strong and confident writers and being able to tell good writing from bad.
“My philosophy is if you’re going to teach students how to change the oil in a car, for example, you need to know not only how to teach it but how to do it.
“It’s the same in teaching – we need to be teaching teachers to be practitioners of writing rather than just telling students how to do it,” says Larkin, who teaches writing at Knox Grammar School in Sydney’s north.
“There has never been a more important time for students to be able to write well. The impact of social media means we’re all writers now. And for those who can do it well – the world is your oyster.”
Larkin has taken up the writer-in-residence post after joining UTS senior education lecturer Dr Don Carter in a small research project with teachers employed by the Catholic education office in Wollongong.
Their aim was to boost students’ critical and creative thinking through developing their writing skills. The first step was to teach the teachers how to be writers.
“People are nervous about their ability to be writers. ‘I can’t do it’ is the default position for most people, and that includes a lot of teachers. There’s also a fear of being judged,” says Larkin.
To return that earlier question, what does it take to be a writer?
Keep it simple, Larkin says, just like the great writers do.
“Good, polished, clear, keeping-it-simple writing – the beauty of language should wash over you, not stick in your throat.
“Aim for brevity. Be wary of adjectives and adverbs; don’t overwrite. There is great beauty in simplicity.”
Larkin’s role at UTS will be skewed towards professional development for teachers as well as collaborating with Carter on a textbook about the craft of writing.
Dr Carter says he looks forward to developing a program of workshops at UTS that will help teachers educate students to be highly literate, deep thinkers and enthusiastic writers beyond their school years.
“We need to remember that literacy tests such as NAPLAN focus on a limited range of skills and do not address important dimensions to writing such as attitudes to writing and good writing habits,” he says.
“Teachers need the space to teach the curriculum – this is what they’re trained to do and paid to do. Literacy tests tend to render the teaching of writing as formulaic and reliant on writing drills. Our schools are in danger of becoming testing factories.”