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Monday
Jan242011

Why an Audience of One is Bad for Good Writing

By Leslie Tan, School of Film & Media Studies

 

When I was young, my parents encouraged me to keep a diary. My sister, who was 5 years older, had already been keeping one for a couple of years and, like most pesky younger brothers, I would have walked through poison ivy to have a peek into that book.

 

Privacy. Exclusivity. Secrets.

 

I wanted it too.

 

So I started my diary but in the end, it only documented three-and-a-half days of my life as an eleven year old.

 

My question then - and still is today - was “why write it if no one was ever going to read it?

 

Self-reflection, some might say.

 

Catharsis, exclaim others.

 

Sense of achievement. Writing practice. Documentary proof.

 

The list goes on – but what was the point?

 

Writing For An Audience

 

One of the major discussions (or arguments) I have with students in my Storytelling Techniques class has been based around this simple question:

 

If you wrote a story and no one read it, would it still be a story?

 

For me, the answer is a plain and simple, no.

 

I think that any form of art is defined by the audience’s reaction to it. The Greek philospher and poet Aristotle said that a proper tragedy invokes both pity and fear in the audience. The audience relates to the story through pitying the characters and fearing their situation.

 

Notice how Aristotle never said you need an audience for a story. Why? Because it’s understood - the audience is always there and you are always writing for an audience.

 

So when I was writing my diary, who was going to pity me and fear my situation?

 

An Audience Of One

 

When I started teaching the Storytelling Techniques module in the Digital Visual Effects course and then for the Film, Sound & Video course, I found myself confronted by journaling once more.

 

The Journal Assignment was one I “inherited”, along with the module, from the previous module leader. Students were required to keep journals of their progression in the art of storytelling. These journals consisted of writing exercises as well as their own weekly reflections on the things they learned and how it was applied. They were compiled in folders and done on paper, handed in at the end of the semester.

 

hand written reflection

 



An example of the paper-based journal entries I was receiving.

 

The first time I read the journals, I realized most of the entries were written for my benefit, as the students knew I would be marking it.

 

Being a writer myself, I was acutely aware that a writer’s greatest reward is the response you get from people when they read your work. Currently, these students were getting a response from a grand audience total of one – me.

 

Essentially, I was their audience.

 

Just me. One person.

 

No wonder they didn’t care.

 

A Perfect Fit

 

As the new semester drew near, I discussed this issue of lack of an audience with another lecturer who had been co-teaching the module with me. This was where the idea of a blog emerged. As it turns out, he had been exploring the option of using a blog as a journaling tool.

 

The blog, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “a Web site on which an individual or group of users produces an ongoing narrative”.

 

We had a group of users (students) and we needed them to produce an ongoing narrative (stories).

 

It was a perfect fit.

 

Getting Heard

 

The introduction of blogs at the beginning presented some challenges. I had two weeks before the start of semester to become an expert on blogging and I hadn’t even blogged before! But, like most things we have to do, I did it and at the end of the two weeks, I became some sort of a blogging guru, writing posts, putting up pages, changing themes and embedding video at the touch of a button. I started to write weekly posts, because I thought that if I expected my students to blog regularly, I would have to lead by example and do it myself.

 

When I introduced blogging in the first class, I received collective moans and groans – an almost immediate resistance. At first I was taken aback – had I made a wrong (or worse – uncool) decision? In spite of this, I persevered, instructing them on how to start a blog, how to create pages and how to post. Then I told them how their writing exercises and weekly reflections would be posted.

 

My students need to check my blog weekly to get their assignments and they then need to complete such exercises using their own blogs. I then read their blog entries and mark them while giving comments. In addition to the weekly exercises, they also have to write a post – I call it a reflection but I don’t limit the subject matter, as long as it’s not objectionable (vulgar, discriminatory, overtly sexual, etc.)

 

freedom song

Screen shot of one of the first long posts I received after making the paper-to-blog transition.

Surprisingly, as the weeks went by, the groans and moans I heard in the first class never resurfaced. The students got into the habit of writing and I was getting reflections that were five times as long as I did when I used paper journals.

 

 

They were still acutely aware that I was reading and marking their work but they were also conscious of the fact that their classmates were also reading what they wrote. I think it was because of this awareness that made them more meticulous and insightful in their own writing; I began to see a marked change in the quality of the reflections as well as the work submitted.

 

Then the comments started.

 

It wasn’t a flood of comments but just one or two, here and there, on some of the blogs, from people they didn’t know. Some students panicked and told me that strange people were reading and commenting on their writing.

 

To them, it was inconceivable that someone would read what they wrote, who didn’t have to.

 

As word got around the class that certain people were getting external comments, I found the general standard of work in the class as a whole getting better. At first I couldn’t understand why this was happening. Then it hit me. The ones who had no comments were trying to get comments to their work while the ones who had comments wanted to get more.

 

They were finally writing for an audience.

 

Getting Better

 

One of the questions people always ask me is, “Does blogging improve writing?” As someone who used to write for a living and now teaches it, I’ll always say this: writing improves writing.

 

There’s no better way to improve your writing than to write and get it out there; essentially, blogging is writing. Getting students to blog is, in a way, getting them to write without them realizing that they are learning how to write and that’s the beauty of it!

 

Just look at this first entry from a student a few years ago.

 

 

Now compare that to his entry just two weeks after.

 

 

Of course, my first thought was … plagiarism! But after speaking to him, he told me that when he realized people were reading it (albeit from his class), he wanted to make the best impression he could. So he had to improve his writing. Amazing.

 

Here’s another example of a student who was surprised at having received comments. She confessed to me that she never thought her writing was good, much less good enough to incite any sort of comment or discussion.

 

life in FSVcomments

A good reflective piece about facing one’s past… and the six comments she received. [See post]

 

4 Blogs, 67 Posts, 43 Comments and 12 Pages Later …

 

national service jitters

A funny piece on pre-National Service jitters. [See post]

photo blog

A student’s blog which is now his award-winning photo blog.

 

It’s been about 3 years since I started my first blog and sometimes I still surf idly into my old students’ blogs.

 

Obviously, in the fast-paced world that our students live in today, the number who maintain their blogs after my class finishes is low, but whenever I chance upon a new post from an ex-student I will always take the time to leave a comment. Whenever I see that I’m no longer the only one who’s commenting on their work, it always brings a smile to my face.

 

As for me, I now have 4 blogs, which I try to keep updated on a regular basis. Obviously, there are the ones for school but there’s also one I have devoted to my experiences riding a Vespa, another on my obsession with Mickey Mouse and also a personal one I like to call my “dumping ground”.

 

Blogging has helped me tremendously in my Storytelling class and I highly recommend it.

 

In this age of blogs (and now micro-blogs, for example Twitter), journaling has taken on a completely different meaning. The lines between what’s public and what’s private are blurring and although much can be argued on those grounds, you can’t argue the fact that the Internet is a ready audience for anyone who wants to be heard.

 

As one of my professors in university once said, “There’s no better way to learn to write, than to write to learn.

 

Seek me out at Redpants and while you’re there, please visit some of my students’ blogs (you’ll see the links in my Blogroll on the right of the page) – they need all the audience they can get.

 

Excerpts from student blogs

 

These excerpts demonstrate some of the student writing output for the story-telling module.

 

The first one is an example of a 50-word story.

 


She Who Loves Strawberries


A girl who loves strawberries recently transferred to my school. She eats them all the time. Since she’s pretty, boys woo her with gifts to do with strawberries, until one day, she tells her best friend, “I never thought the day would come when I would be tormented by strawberries.”


[Nadiyah: 50 word stories]




Students have shared not only stories, but personal frustrations and triumphs, as in:

 


People seem to think that if they just enjoy and play they’ll be happy, but the truth is, it’s the accomplishment of what’s important to you that gives you real joy. And that’s what I’m feeling right now.


[ClareCheon: I’m writing this now because I’m bored…]




There’s even a Polerick (which is “less intellectually challenging than a poem and more fun than a limerick”):

 


The Nintendo Polerick goes something like this

Its starts on a sunny day with Mario and his Miss

Princess Peach is pregnant– her bellies so fat

Mario’s so happy as he shakes his red hat

“I love you Peach!” he says with a smile

The Princess just grins and laughs for a while.


[Theodorex: The Nintendo Polerick for round 4]


 

Author

Leslie Tan Wee Boon
Leslie Tan Wee Boon, lecturer,

School of Film & Media Studies, Ngee Ann Polytechnic

 

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