I was reading an article that popped up the other day when I was doing a search for something else (procrastinating as it happens, but not for once about writing- ironic the theme of the article was: why writers procrastinate). http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/

I got to the bit where the author said re authors: ‘We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class.’

And I nodded sagely and was about to pass on when I thought – ‘hang on I got a 3’

I probably need to clarify for those younger than me –nearly everybody – GCE O Levels, forerunners of GCSEs were graded 1-6 pass (GCSE A-C equivalent although you aren’t supposed to think like that) and 7-9 fail and then a whole series of other things about unclassified or too horrible to sully the markers pen. (Nobody softened the blow in those day – pass/fail/beyond the pale). I had been tipped for a 1, equivalent today of an A (I know it’s all about to change back to numbers again – plus ça change and all that).

Come the day of the exam however and I sat down and looked at the paper and answered the comprehension, and then the composition based on a drawing, and then a whole raft of other stuff, and my hand was flying. It needed to. As I looked at the clock, my calculations that this was going to be very tight, were proving correct. I finished, just, but my handwriting had been reduced to a horrible scrawl by then and my hand was in spasm.

As we walked away after the exam, the chatter was about what a fair paper it was. I was a bit bemused; I had thought it a complete *******. ‘Oh no, it was great!’ my friends said before asking: ‘Maybe you picked a different bit. What did you choose for Part II?’



I scrabbled in my pocket and turned to the relevant bit of the paper: ‘Choose ONE section only of Part II and write…’

ONE! I’d answered it all! No wonder my hand was doing an impression of the Monkeys Paw (Brilliantly scary little horror/supernatural story by WW Jacobs- if you haven’t read it yet: read it- preferably on a dark winter night by a fire side – but lock the doors first!).

I had a horrible summer waiting to find out the damage. There was a tale going around that if you ignored the instructions they failed you stone dead, without even reading the rest of the paper. Fortunately that turned out to be a schoolboy rumour on this occasion and they must have taken the first bit they got to, and could still read, as my answer. On the whole I thought a grade 3 for being an idiot and not reading the question was pretty good.

This was made all the more relevant because my daughter got her GCSE results last week (she heeded my dire warnings re reading the question – mostly! And is going to Sixth form next Monday)

I did have some very good advice in later years from a lecturer. If only he could have passed on this little acronym before my English O Level:

RTFQ: Read the Question.


PS: I like the idea that it is a fear of failing to live up to your natural standards that puts many writers off committing to paper/screen. I can definitely relate to that. The bit where it turns into yet another self improvement piece worries me. These things always turn into a ‘hard work will overcome all’ – ‘embrace failure to move on’ pep talk. This one does just that. It’s all about ‘Embracing Hard Work’. Now I’m not against hard work (I am but let’s pretend) but these pieces are so often part of an ethos that striving can achieve anything and (the sting in the tail) the unspoken (not always, sometimes its right out there) corollary is that if you don’t achieve you didn’t strive enough. Sometimes that may be true, but the impression (more than that – it’s the main thrust) of the attitude in these pieces is that you could have succeeded if you had ‘wanted it enough’. This ideology is so barren (apart from forcing people to work more for less).

People need to look dispassionately at why they are not achieving what they wanted. It may be impossible. It may be that they are using the wrong study method or approach. It may be that the advice they are getting is really bad.

It may be a case of RTFQ.

Smarter not harder.



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