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Everything I Know About Writing (extract)

by John Marsden

Some people collect thimbles, some collect old cars, some, believe it or not, collect telephone cards, but the person who wants to be a better writer has to be a collector of language.

The English writer A.S. Byatt put it like this: ‘You can’t speak your own language properly if you don’t have a store house of singing things in your mind.’

All good writers and readers, consciously or unconsciously, are aware of language. They respond strongly when they see or hear language used beautifully, cleverly and effectively. These are the ‘singing things’ referred to by A.S. Byatt.

And they respond strongly to language used in an ugly or clumsy or confusing way — a badly chosen word, an awkward image — just as a gardener winces at the sight of weeds choking an orchid, or a farmer is distressed to see footrot in a mob of sheep.

You must develop this sensitivity, too, and become a student of language! Then you will start to realise what works and what doesn’t, what’s fresh and what’s stale, what’s beautiful and what’s not.

The process works like this: first you take an interest in language, after a while you become sensitive to it, finally you become expert in it. The aim is to use words with facility and skill. Just as the good gardener can spot a weed at a hundred metres on a dark night, and the good farmer can tell at a glance which sheep in the mob are not walking easily, so the language expert can immediately identify the failing sentence or the unsatisfactory word, and correct or improve it.

Being a language-collector is a fun hobby! Yes, even more fun than collecting telephone cards, if you can believe that. I’m constantly writing down examples of good and bad language in my notebooks. This means eavesdropping at bus stops and in supermarkets, reading billboards and street signs, listening attentively and critically to radio and television.

I’m not sure how this interest developed. I remember enjoying the sound of the words in some of the poems I read as a child:

Jonathan Jo
Has a mouth like an ‘0’
And a wheelbarrow full of surprises;
If you ask for a bat,
Or for something like that,
He has got it, whatever the size is.

That was one favourite. This was another:

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the Guards.
‘A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’
Says Alice.

They’re both by A. A. Milne, from When We Were Very Young. My father used to amuse us with snippets of funny language:

Q: What’s the difference between a duck?
A: One of its feet is both the same.


A queer bird is the pelican,
Its beak holds more than its stomach is able to.

One of the reasons we found this funny was that it avoided saying ‘belly’, which in those days was considered a rude word.

I loved rhythms and rhymes. By the age of nine I was haunted by the poignancy of Irene McLeod’s ‘Lone Dog’:

I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone;
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own;
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly sheep;
I love to sit and bay the moon, to keep fat souls from sleep.

On long boring car trips I amused myself by reading the clever language of billboards, so often based on puns, onomatopoeia or alliteration:

Better late than dead on time.

Next to myself I like BVDs best.


Better buy Buttercup Bread.

These days, if you walk into my house you won’t have to look far to realise my interest in language. On a bookshelf conveniently placed within arm’s length of the desk are thirty or forty dictionaries, most in constant use. They include dictionaries of quotations, proverbs, idioms, foreign languages, phrases and fables, synonyms, abbreviations and Australian English; and etymological dictionaries. I have seven dictionaries of slang and colloquialisms. By taking such an interest in language I’m sure that I’ve improved my English; it helps me lift my standards and avoid making the mistakes that, although easy to make, are so damaging to one’s writing.

The English language is my number one hobby!

It is a useful exercise to write a personal history of your involvement with the English language as I’ve done briefly here. Go back to your earliest memories of words and phrases, and consider the effect of different pieces of language on you. Continue your essay right through to today, quoting recent examples of language that has made an impact on you.

Good English

To some extent what we call ‘good’ is a personal response. But often there’s general agreement, when most people who encounter a particular group of words are impressed by them.

Certainly though, not everyone would agree that the informal language used by school students is ‘good English’. I think it often is. It can be fresh, colourful, poetic. It’s changing all the time too, and if you don’t keep up to date you can feel that you’re not a member of the group.

This shows us one important function of language: that it can determine who’s in a community and who isn’t. For example, most private school students call their canteen a tuckshop. Most government school students call it a canteen. If you were to change from one system to the other, you’d have to learn the language of the new school. Until you did, you’d be branded an outsider.

Hundreds of the examples of language I’ve collected over the years come from schools. Here’s one from a bus-load of Year 12 boys I was driving to a tennis match. The conversation went like this:

Jeff: ‘Are you still with Sarah?’
Matt: ‘Oh no, mate, I crashed and burned so badly Saturday night.’

Crashed and burned! A perfect description of what happens when you wreck a relationship! A few weeks later, the expression had been abbreviated to ‘c. and b.’:

‘How’s Teresa?’
‘C. and b. mate, c. and b.’

Poetic and succinct. There was a craze a while ago for giving names to people who were thought to be unpopular: names like Scott (for ‘S’cott no friends’), Wes (‘Wes all your friends?’), Neville (‘S’cott no friends and Neville will’) and Nigel. I never worked out where Nigel came from.

Other students’ words I liked were ‘strap’ for cheating (‘She strapped my essay’), ‘lag’ for dobbing (‘He’s such a lagger!’ ‘Did you lag on me?’), and ‘pussburgers’ for those meat-and-cheese-covered-in-breadcrumbs concoctions they sell in supermarkets.

A favourite word in a boarding school where I taught was ‘maggot’. A social maggot was someone who gossiped all day and never did much else. So conversations like this were quite common:

‘Have you seen Tom?’
‘Oh, he’s such a social maggot, he’s probably on the library lawn again.’

After a while the students started using it as a verb; for example, ‘I think I’ll go maggoting for a while.’ As I was going into the staff room for morning tea a student called out, ‘Happy maggoting, sir!’ I heard one girl say, rather poignantly: ‘My parents sent me to boarding school so they could go maggoting in Melbourne.’

Some of my favourites have been ‘one-offs’. A girl complaining about her teacher said with a sigh: ‘She’s such a stress monster.’ One time I walked past two girls, one of whom was hesitating about approaching a boy she liked. Her friend was encouraging her: ‘Go for gold, Tori! Go for gold!’ I used that line in a book. I remember a boy called Pradeep, looking at the wreck of a model plane that had crashed, and saying, with a sympathetic click of the tongue, ‘Oh! Crumpulations, dudes.’ And a Year 9 girl trying to get some boys to move, finally complained to me: ‘They’re being such boy-y people.’ On each of these occasions I’ve rushed for my notebook.