top of page
  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

Ask for power words, not techniques

Whenever you put your foot on the accelerator, there's a bang from the engine as the car goes forward. You take it to the mechanic, and he says, 'You've got a crack in your B-pillar.' You ask him to show you, and instead of popping the bonnet, he points to the plastic bit that separates the windows.

'That's unfortunate,' you say, 'but I'm more concerned about the bang from the engine.'

'Yeah,' he says, sucking his teeth, 'You've got an iffy brake bias. See how it favours the back wheels unevenly? That's bad, that is.'

'The bang. From the engine. Do you know what is causing it or not?' You say.

Clearly, he doesn't. The major effect that's concerning you isn't something he can talk about, but he's going to throw all his weird and wonderful rev-head terminology at you until you just pay him for knowing that stuff.

I won't 'show the sun with a lamp' as Thomas More said. The parallels between Barry the iffy mechanic and what students think passes as analysis are clear. Maybe because the texts are often quite straightforward, Standard students are even more determined to find weird and wonderful technique-names to hang from innocent bits of the text. It doesn't matter whether these techniques have any relevant effect: it's a name and it seems to show some level of expertise. Why do we pay this in literary analysis, when you wouldn't put up with the same thing in a tradie?

Some effects in a text can't be tracked down to any single line or frame. Analysis is more than simply a quote+technique.

If you imagine a text like this:

We read in an upward direction. You have to get through the individual sentences to the whole text. We accumulate meaning. But we analyse in a downward direction: you locate meaning.

You can't do a decent analysis unless you know what the whole meaning, or whole effect is. You're just doing a Barry, standing there are pointing out daft irrelevant technical stuff.

Here's an example from Robert Gray's poem 'Flames and Dangling Wire'. ...all the air wobbles

in some cheap mirror.

'That's onomatopoeia,' says Barry, sucking his teeth, 'wobbles sounds like wobbling'.

But really, so what? We could just as easily say 'some cheap mirror' is an indefinite determiner paired with a common adjective and noun. And are we any closer to locating the effect of the line? No, Barry, we're not.

Instead of doing a fingertip trawl through innocent texts for techniques lurking on the corners of words having a quick smoko between meaning things, try banishing the word 'technique' entirely. At the risk of sounding like English at the Movies, ask how the text or text section makes the student feel or what it makes them think about and then ask them for the 'power word'. Once you've located the words which effect the meaning, then you can stick a label on them if there even is one.

Here's another example, from Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

I thought she was going to pick the dog up herself, but she didn’t. Perhaps she noticed how much blood there was and didn’t want to get dirty. Instead she started screaming again.

I put my hands over my ears and closed my eyes and rolled forward till I was hunched up with my forehead pressed onto the grass. The grass was wet and cold. It was nice.

1. How does it make you feel?

It made me feel intrigued because there's an obvious incongruity between the shock and mess of a murdered dog, and a boy enjoying the cold wet grass on his forehead.

2. Where did you start feeling this?

With 'nice'. Everything up til then has been traumatic and shocking, but consonant with a traumatic event. Then he says 'nice' and it seems extremely strange.

3. OK, so that's the power-word. What else can you say about it?

Well, not much (Barry). It's an adjective. It's a really anodyne adjective - 'nice' could mean many things. But what's powerful about it, what effects my feeling of confusion and intrigue, is its contrast with the rest of the passage. Especially because it's at the end. It seems like a sudden shock. That's it: 'nice' is used contrastively with the lexis of the passage, and it engineers a sudden shock which is going to become typical of how Christopher's voice sounds.

TL;DR - ask students for the 'power word', not the technique. It's easier.

75 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page