Writing is supposed to be an exercise in creativity. But some students seem stuck in a rut: their stories are formulaic, lifeless imitations of model essays. Their language skills may be excellent, but their work seems to always lack the spark that would make it stand out. In this article, Ryan Ong highlights the skills they may be missing:


Writing man
Lifeless prose might not mean failure, but it does place a limit on a writer’s possible achievements.


The Consequences of Lifeless Prose

First, some quick reassurance: your child will not fail English because of lifeless prose.

There, you can let out a little sigh of relief.

Lifeless prose can, in fact, be written in great English. It can be free of spelling errors, have flawless grammar, and even show a huge vocabulary. But in spite of that, lifeless prose is not the sort that wins competitions. It can also form an impenetrable barrier between an A and a distinction, and it’s definitely not writing that gets published.

It doesn’t help that this topic is beyond a lot tutors and assessment books. Most of those cater to language difficulties, not to the elusive quality of engaging a reader.

The key is not more steps and model essays, but to focus on the reasons why the prose is lifeless:


  • Emulation of weak literary styles
  • Extreme conformity to rules
  • Insecurity in communication skills
  • Low energy levels


Sign reads "content unfit for human consumption"
If you want lively prose, read and expose yourself to lively prose. Learn from the best, not the mediocre.


1. Emulation of Weak Literary Styles

When I run StoryCraft courses, I incorporate a hefty amount of reading.

I may use novel extracts, parts of plays, poems, etc. but they all have one thing in common: they are among the best examples of their kind. Children emulate what they read, so think of their reading experiences as the soil their writing skills grow in. If their “soil” begins and ends with Captain Underpants, or they’re still reading Mr. Midnight past the age of 10, you can expect comparably childish prose.

And if all they read are model essays, then it’s not surprising their work ends up being anemic.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. A lot of parents ask me how their 12-year-old can possibly understand, say, Macbeth. My answer is: translate it. Re-tell the story in plain English. But when you see a bon mot or a famous line, read it word for word and then explain it. Besides providing better examples, this turns reading into an interactive event with your child.

Of course, it does mean you need to be well-read yourself. You will need to be able to take, say, a John Fowles or Emile Zola novel, and then re-tell it. If you can’t, it may be time to consult the family’s literature major or bookworm.


Man in a straitjacket
If school and exams straitjacket your child’s writing, make sure she has an alternative place to express herself.


2. Extreme Conformity to Rules

Some children labour under the impression that common composition plots (e.g. a house fire, returning lost wallets, vandalizing toilets) are as ironclad as grammatical rules.

They may be quite able to write livelier, funny or scary plots. They’re just not sure how acceptable it is in school. And at least half the time, they’re right: there’s a limit to the creativity some schools will tolerate. And the PSLE encourages creativity like like a fire hose does sparklers.

So the solution is to nurture their writing skills separately from the school context.

Outside of school, take an hour a week to play games with Rory’s Story Cubes. Or games like Weird Tales and Once Upon a Time. If your child can be encouraged to pen or type an actual story, help them put it into a printed anthology. And if you’re familiar with WordPress or Tumblr, you can also post their stories for friends or relatives. When they come across any writing competitions, submit everything. Do everything you can to nurture their writing skills outside the classroom.

It will become a simple matter of “switching modes”: going from school writing to actual writing. But if you fail to nurture your child’s imaginative side, school mode will be the only one she has.


Loud hailer in the ear
Attempting to make a message clearer can, ironically, make it dull and repetitive.


3. Insecurity in Communication Skills

This one applies mainly to Upper Secondary students. At that age, most writers are already capable of expressing unusual perspectives. The problem is, they don’t do so for fear of being misunderstood.

Or when they do, they belabour the point with excessive explanations, or even replace it. They’re afraid the reader won’t “get it”, and  underrate the ability of readers to “join the dots”.

But the best turns of phrase jump out at readers precisely because they require the reader to think. Take a line like:

We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.” – J. Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman

That’s the kind of line that would be destroyed by a subsequent two paragraph explanation.

This is why I like to look at my students’ raw drafts: I want to make sure they don’t delete occasional gems, and replace it with something functional. Sometimes, one or two choice lines are all it takes to make prose come to life.

Among younger writers, exceptional one-liners or turns of phrase are rare. But they can still benefit by streamlining their work. Here’s an example I encountered recently:

He sat down to do his exam. He put his water bottle in his bag, and then he could write on the desk.”

Why make the tedious second statement? The student was afraid that the reader wouldn’t figure it out (that the water bottle had to be moved to make space on the desk). This is the kind of cumbersome, worried writing that makes prose dull.


Tried kid
When a child is fatigued or distracted, it will carry over in the tone of her writing.


4. Low Energy Levels

When the writer runs out of stamina, or isn’t in the mood, the prose will reflect it.

The best advice I can give here is write to designated points (e.g. a certain word count or time), and then stop. Have your child take a 10 to 15 minute break after that, unless she indicates she wants to keep going. Never interrupt a writer who’s in the flow; you might lose your fingers.

But if you see a lot of abrupt endings, or summary statements, chances are the child’s stamina is waning.

Fatigue can also be diminished by pre-planning. A lot of exhaustion comes from devising stories “on the fly”. It might help to do the mental heavy lifting (devising plot and concept) before the writing, in an outline. This makes the writing process less draining. Just make sure that the writer doesn’t become straitjacketed by “the plan”, which will result in lifeless prose all over again.

It’s fine to deviate from the outline, if that’s where the story takes them. But do one at the start anyway. It could prevent a story from being, and reading, like a lifeless chore.

Image Credits:
University of Minnestoa Duluth, Suess’s Pieces, Wikimedia Commons, Brian Solis, Red Letter Christians