Rethinking high school essay writing

Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Myke Bartlett interviewed by Helen Krionas

headshot of Myke Bartlett
Myke Bartlett

Author and educator Myke Bartlett spoke to WV’s membership intern, Helen Krionas, about rethinking high school essay writing.

How did you feel about essay writing when you were in high school?

I remember really enjoying it, but I think I was always looking for ways to be more creative. Indeed, one of the best marks I ever received in high school was for an essay that was probably the least academic one I ever wrote. I became aware that bringing a bit of creative flair to essay writing led to teachers reading my work more favourably and (perhaps) forgiving the lack of actual content. So, I was cheating, basically. Later, I learned that combining flair and content was an unbeatable combination.

Various essay structures are taught to secondary school students across the country. What is your approach?

I think a good understanding of structure is essential to an essayist. It’s like storytelling – you can’t tell a good story until you know what people expect from a story. At first, that structure seems limiting, but really it leaves you free to be imaginative with the language and the content, without worrying how to put it all together. When I’m writing essays now for publication, I don’t really think about structure at all, as I’ve internalised a lot of those lessons. I’m aware I’m taking the reader on a journey that should be as rewarding as a good book. As far as specific structures for high school essays go, I favour variations on the faithful TEEL [topic sentence, evidence, example, links].

Who is your favourite essayist?

The last book of essays I really loved was Michael Chabon’s ‘Maps and Legends’. That got me really fired up about the possibilities of the form.

Is there really room to flaunt your creative skills in an essay?

Absolutely. Once you know what you’re saying and the shape your essay needs to take, you’re free to find your own voice. Finding that voice is key to shifting your essay from a good piece of work to an excellent piece.

You had trouble finding the perfect title for your novel, ‘Fire in the Sea’. Are you having any difficulty naming its sequel, and when can we expect to see it on bookshelves?

Well, I had a very good title, which we all liked. But it was then suggested that the title might scare off male readers. I don’t actually think male readers are that easily scared, but it’s important to find a title that represents the sort of story I’m telling. It’s a darker, scarier tale than the first book, I think. As for when it might appear on the shelves … the first draft is written, my agent has read it, and we’ve talked about what needs to be done for the second draft. But I’ve been too busy with two other book projects (one of which is secret, one of which I hope to be talking about soon), as well as my journalism work, to actually write the next draft. It will happen.

About Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a journalist and novelist based in Melbourne. His debut YA novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. A former teacher, Myke writes extensively on film, music and cultural matters, with his work regularly appearing in The Weekly Review, Dumbo Feather, Screen Education and many other publications.

About Helen Krionas

Helen is a screenwriter and sometimes-novelist. Her article discussing contemporary YA fiction will be published in the July issue of ‘The Victorian Writer’.