Writing about form for GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

Last time, I looked at the ways you can think about form when writing about poetry, and we took a look at Ezra Pound’s short poem, In a Station of the Metro in order to say something about form there. Today, we’re taking a look at a poem that is literally an explosion on the page, Study No° X by Pierre Coupey. This poem was a GCSE Anthology poem of the past and it foxed the best.  It gives rise to some lovely discussions about form.

So, just to recap – what are we talking about when we talk about form anyway?

This…

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

So, looking at the freakish and fiendish Study No° X, I’m just going to start as I always do by looking for interesting stuff.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this poem was ‘so interesting’ (yeah, I know that’s not the adjective you’re thinking of right now) that it’s be quite hard to narrow down but let’s have a go….

If you want practice instead of just reading my own blah blah waffle, before you read my bit, have a go at making a list of 10 or so interesting features of the form. Then look at mine; I bet we have more in common than you’d have thought.

13 things that I find interesting about the form:

  1. That first line, “che ama, crede : mother”, is just set right out in the middle, and so is “infanta! madonna! guernica! hiroshima!”
  2. The phrase “split pea skulls” is the most split up bit
  3. There are no capitals
  4. There IS rhyme and reason to those lines – it’s not just chaos
  5. Some phrases are grouped like “for there was no sex involved” and “)you are a catastrophe on the mirror of this earth”
  6. Some phrases are split over the lines like “(just/a/cosmos/of love) and “)you do not/let me/believe/(in hell
  7. There’s no end punctuation (full stops) but there is punctuation ; : ( and )
  8. Some of that punctuation is used conventionally according to the rules, and some of it is used unconventionally
  9. It seems to be one giant sentence with several dependent clauses
  10. There’s a title, which sounds like it’s part of a sequence (if X means 10)
  11. I want to talk about the semi-colons and the punctuation in this poem as well
  12. “Infanta! Madonna! Guernica!” (and then their not-quite right friend “Hiroshima!”) form a triplet/pattern, and there’s something going on with the sound of those words and their syllabic pattern – these are definitely the centre of the poem, or its climax, if you ask me
  13. Something is interesting about that “(in hell/only: )

Other stuff is starting to drift into structure (although the title is technically structure I’d say as well) so I’ll leave those for another day.

So, once I’ve looked at my crazy unseen poem, I then make a list of the weird things and oddities I want to get into writing about. In the exam, I’m going to go super-fast and really I only need a shortlist of 4 or 5 things about form that I might select 1 or 2 to write about.

Now, you know me. I’m a grade 6 girl at heart. Can’t select or narrow down for fear of betting on the wrong horse.

My internal dialogue goes a bit like this:

“What if I pick X, Y or Z and the examiner wanted us to write about D?”

“I really think it’s X but what if I’m wrong?”

And my solution, my lovely readers, is to try to write about ALL of them in the hopes that one of those thirteen horses will be a winner and will pay out with a grade 8 or 9.

Except… except if I do that, I’ll need approximately 7 hours to write my exam, just for the section on the unseen poem where I might want to write about form. Just as a guide, Teacher Me says that the exam is asking me to spend maximum of 45 minutes on the unseen poem. That means I have about 10 minutes to write about form. So unless I plan on speed-writing so hard that my hand ends up mangled and I have 6.5 hours of hand cramp afterwards, or unless I plan on describing 10 or so of those 13, it won’t be possible.

Yet so many Grade 5 and below students opt for the latter.

“I can see 10 things I could write about form. Therefore, I’m going to write about all of them in case 1 is right and 9 are wrong.”

That, though, is why they’re Grade 5 and not Grade 8 or 9…

You have to pick a horse to back. One.

But let me tell you a secret…

They’re ALL winners.

So how do I go about narrowing down, since describing ten things in ten minutes will only reward me with a very low mark?

When we look at form, we almost look at it as if it’s completely divorced from language and ideas. Except it’s not, is it? I want to think about the main idea in the poem – what’s it about? – and then pick out form aspects that relate to that.

Got that?

That’s the really important bit for those of you like me who can spot 100 features and can’t pick one sensible one to write a paragraph about.

So what’s the big idea of this crazy poem?

I’m going to let you into another secret…

I really haven’t the foggiest.

Ok. Bit of an exaggeration. I can a bit. But it’s fairly nonsensical, so it’s simply my own idea about what the central idea is.

But how do I know what the central idea is?

Often, the form or the structure will help me find it.

It’s the bit of the poem where there are lots of unusual things going on with the form. Like that line in Wordsworth’s Stealing the Boat that is 11 syllables, not 10… that line that is arrived at by a massive and lengthy build-up to the “horizon’s utmost boundary” that can’t restrict itself to the syllabic metre.

Look for the confluence of simple language, important structural devices (like beginnings and ends, or shifts in mood) and aspects of form.

For Study No° X, that brings me neatly to “mother… love… Infanta! Madonna! Guernica! Hiroshima! hell, flesh and dust” and I notice that we kind of start with mother and love (“chi ama, crede” means “who loves, believes”) and stops at towns completely destroyed in war, then goes to “flesh and dust”) so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb or being too wacky if I suggest it’s about life, death and everything in between. Creation and destruction, maybe.

So then I start to think about what aspects of form support that. And do you know what? It seems like it’s about the whole ‘explosion’ of the poem on the page, centred on ‘Guernica and Hiroshima’ but when it gets down to it, I think the poet seems to be telling us it’s all pretty random, lawless and unstructured.

And isn’t that what the form is?

I’m going to do the same as I did last time – switch the timer on and write about the form of this poem. You’ll see me start descriptively and then move into analysis rooted in evidence.

If it’s not rooted in evidence, by the way, it’s just speculation. I could say this poem was about nuns and pussycats if I wanted, but that’s just unsupported, unjustified speculation.

So, let’s have a go… start off describing, like we did last time and then move into an explanation of how that works with the content of the poem.

Study No° X by Pierre Coupey looks literally like an explosion on the page: the conventional rules of poetry have been broken, and the words lie chaotically across the page. Given that there are two towns that were completely destroyed by bombs, Guernica and Hiroshima, lying at the centre of the poem, there is a sense that the words themselves echo the remnants of those two towns, depicting the destructive forces that can obliterate the normality of life, just like the way the poem contains remnants and fragments of something recognisable. Chaos certainly seems to be one of the central themes of the poem, and is clearly represented by the rule-less, unconventional form of the poem. Perhaps though, this also picks up on another theme, how the rule-less unconventional form represents how life doesn’t follow ordered lines. Despite that, there is a sense of a chronology in the structure – a beginning that seems almost to hint at conception, “just a cosmos of love” and an end, “flesh and dust” and in that way, the poem could be seen to represent Coupey’s view of life, how it may start and end in fairly conventional ways, but everything in the middle is less predictable. There is a reference at the epicentre of the poem to “Guernica” which is also a famous painting by Picasso, a semi-abstract painting about the bombing of the town. The painting represents the destructive forces of war and in that way, we can see Coupey, a painter himself, using semi-abstract poetry to create something that emerges from chaos, not unlike Picasso did with paint. Whilst the poem seems to run from “a cosmos of love, there are also many images of violence, “split pea skulls” where the way the words in this phrase are fragmented across three lines, almost reminding us how fragile the human skull is, that it can be split as simply as a pea. Ultimately, it is no doubt Coupey’s painter background that helps us make the most sense of this poem: like many abstract works of art, it is left to our imagination: we make sense of the chaos presented to us. Whether you see the references to love and courage, or to Guernica and Hiroshima, what you take from the poem is up to you. 

As you can see, then, it’s perfectly possible to make sense of something more abstract and unusual. The orange bits are my description of what is going on, and then I’m just trying to explore how some of those things might relate to the big ideas within the poem.

Form should never be divorced from language.

You can see that you also don’t need to write unsupported speculation. Everything relates to evidence from the poem or from its context.

It did help me to know that the poet is also a painter, though, and to know a bit of his context and the context of some of those words. You wouldn’t have that in the exam. But then again, nobody is going to throw you a poem like this for your unseen poetry analysis, so you don’t have to worry too much. If you can make some sense of this poem, and some sense of In a Station of the Metro that we looked at last time, you’re doing fine.

Coupey’s painting Stanza 47

So don’t be afraid of poetry and don’t feel like you need to resort to cheap comments about how the poem ‘looks like’ something when you’re talking about its form. If you take Blake’s London as your baseline ‘rigid’ and conventional and Coupey’s Study No° X as your baseline ‘unconventional’, then you can look at every poem and decide how much it conforms to the rules, and what reasons the poet might have had to choose the form that they did.

You’ve now seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the brief and almost prose-like, and you’ve seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the crazy and abstract.

And if you want to have a bit of practice, why not get in touch?

Poetry need not be frightening or hideous!

 

Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.

Revise AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 3

This post is part of a series on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 to help you revise each question and prepare for your exams. You’ll also find posts on Question 1 and Question 2. If you are looking for materials on Paper 1 or the writing sections, you can find those by clicking here.

Essentially, Question 3 on Paper 2, also known as ‘the language question’ is similar not only in style but also in markscheme to Question 2 on Paper 1, also a ‘language’ question. Like that question, it was dogged by poor preparation and an over-reliance on subject terminology at the cost of evaluation. This question is worth more marks, and so there are some small but subtle differences that you might want to focus on.

How you prepare is exactly the same as you would for paper 1, and so a lot of the advice is going to be the same.

Let’s start by looking at the question.

So as you can see, it tells you to look at one specific source text, and refers to the lines you’ll need to stay within (on the two ‘live’ papers, at least – the last is from the specimen paper). It starts with how does [writer] use language to… 

After that, there are subtle differences which are dependent, I’d guess, on the purpose of the source.

The question is worth 12 marks, so look to spend between 12 and 15 minutes on it. I would be looking to write three developed paragraphs in that time.

The reason it asks you to stay within the lines is that the best and richest language use will be focused on those lines, so it is an attempt to help you, not hinder you. Don’t try to be smart and work outside the lines given. Put a box around the lines and make sure you stick to them.

Now let’s look at how you’re being assessed: what is it that you need to do in the exam to gain marks?

As you may know, there are four levels. These don’t mean grades. It’s meaningless to tell you ‘this is how you’ll get Grade 9’, because it depends on the year, the cohort, the test, maths, statistical analysis and analysis of standards which are waaaaay above most people’s tolerance for waffle. Roughly, though, you might want to think of it this way:

Level 1 = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

Like I say elsewhere though, that is absolutely my spin on it. You don’t get a grade for the question. You get a grade for the total mark across both papers. So I can’t tell you how to get Grade 9 on this question, and neither can anyone else. If they say they can, they are most probably a charlatan and a rogue!

But I can tell you how to get Level 1 (1-3 marks) or Level 2 (4-6 marks) and so on.

Let’s look at the assessment features for Level 1, right at the lowest end.

Now, like Paper 1, these bullets are not equally weighted. The first is the most important and it decides whether you come in at 1, 4, 7 or 10 marks. One comment could mean you’re 1 mark or you’re 10 marks depending on the quality of it.

If you make a simple comment, you’re Level 1, an attempted comment, you’re Level 2, a clear comment you’re Level 3 and a perceptive comment, you’re Level 4. It’s why you can write 4 sides and still be 3 marks, or write 1 side and be 12 marks. It all depends on the quality of what you write.

So, your comment is much of everything.

Why do so many candidates fail to get out of Level 1? Almost 20% of June 2017’s marks were 1, 2 or 3.

First, because they make such general, waffly comments that could apply to literally any text ever committed to paper. It makes you want to read on. It hooks the reader. It tantalises the reader. It engages the reader. It baffles the reader. It arouses the reader’s curiosity. You can be as fancy as you like, but if you really mean ‘it makes us want to read on’, you’re going to get stuck at 3 marks.

Second, because identifying synaesthesia, asyndetic listing, synecdoche or hyperbole isn’t what’s being assessed here. You could spot zoomorphism at twenty paces and still not get out of Level 1. Even if you’re right. And most people aren’t. To misquote TS Eliot, the naming of words is a difficult matter. It also won’t lead you to twelve marks. There is no hierarchy of language features. Nowhere in the markscheme is anaphora marked more highly than ‘the writer describes’.

This is straight from the examiners’ report, which is now in the public domain. So you don’t just have to take my word for it.

So how do you go about preparing for this question?

A lot of it is actually in the things you do before you answer. That comes down to your identification of ‘juicy’ bits of the text to explore. Believe it or not, given all those words, better candidates rely time and time again on a very narrow bank of useful quotations. They won’t mean to select from such a limited range, but by and large, candidates at the top end have unconsciously focused in on the exact same kind of quotes.

A lot of how you can prepare is in doing a double read through.

First, put a box around the given lines.

Then take a highlighter or pencil and underline absolutely everything that is interesting to you. You don’t need to be selective or precise. This is a lot how middle grade students read – they think everything is useful. It stops you focusing in on random things or things just from the beginning.

Don’t think about language features at this point. I promise you that if you go looking for similes or zoomorphism, you won’t do as well as you would with this method.

So once you’ve underlined everything that could be useful, it’s time to think like the most successful students do: narrow down and focus in on three or four really, really interesting bits. By and large, you’re looking for single words or short phrases, not huge chunks. It’s also generally true that the longer your quote, the fewer marks you’ll get. I want to see you focus in on a small number of words.

I’ll show you how here:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot there on my first go-through. Lots of those bits are interesting.

When I narrow down, you can see what I’ll focus on:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

Whilst I could happily have explored everything I’ve underlined, I’ve got to be more careful than that. Better candidates hone in on things, selecting. They are judicious and wise about their quotes. That requires elimination of the crappy quotes.

Once I’ve got my quotes, I’m ready to start answering.

I’m going to start with the words of the question, give a little away about what the writer is trying to show, use my quote, mention the language feature if I know it and then try to put it into my own words and explain the effect. Just like Q2 on this paper and on Paper 1, I’m going to use some of the following starters to get me going on my explanation:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

Let’s put that all together:

The writer describes how his son has changed, saying he “was a sleepy ball of scrunched up flesh” but “is now determinedly his own person”, with the tense change highlighting what he once was and  how he now is. It’s the way he described his son as having been a “ball of scrunched-up flesh” that is most interesting, with the “flesh” sounding like he’s almost not even alive or human, that he was unrecognisable even as a human being, but as he has grown older he is described as being “determinedly his own person”, which shows how he has grown up not just physically but developmentally, becoming “determined” which could suggest he is strong-minded or stubborn, certainly that he is has become an individual – and that he is almost driven to be individual – rather than that unidentifiable “ball” of “flesh” he once was. It sounds as if the writer is both proud and a little scared of how single-minded and obstinate his son is at being “his own person”. 

Those words were actually very juicy indeed, looking back on them! I certainly could tie it in easily to the next bit about his son throwing “his entire body” into barking “gibberish”.

If I want to take it further, I’d certainly look at that quote, as well as the sense of being “confronted by” the changes, which make the parents seem passive and powerless, like the changes are sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes amusing and sometimes terrifyingly fast, as well as a little heart-breaking, since the writer finishes by saying he leaves a little piece of himself behind with each milestone.

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

Next time, a look at Question 4 on Paper 2 to complete the series. Don’t forget, you can always find the full index here.

Advice and revision for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 2

Following on from the previous post about Question 1 on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1, this time I’m looking at Paper 2 Question 2 to give you a few revision tips and hints for the exam.

Let’s have a look at the question first of all.

This is June 2017

and here is November 2017

As you can see, some things change and some things don’t. Let’s look at the ones that don’t.

First, it says You need to refer to Source A and Source B for this question. 

That gives you your first indication of the marking. This is a question asking you to handle two different sources of information.

What follows is then a statement that focuses you in on a small part of both texts and tells you the focus point for those differences.

You’d do well to underline the subject and the focus point as this will help you narrow in on what to look for. After all, this question is actually asking you to look at a very small part of the text.

So I know I need to look for stuff generally to do with ‘the boys’ in both texts, and specifically ‘how they spend their time playing’. This second statement tells me how to narrow down and where to look.

The third bit has some bits the same Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences/different and then it repeats the subject ‘boy’ and the focus ‘activities’ and ‘enjoyed’.

So, it’s telling you in two different ways what to focus in on.

The final thing the question tells us is that it’s worth 8 marks. That means I need to spend about ten minutes on it. I won’t need extra paper and I don’t need to write three paragraphs or find four differences or any nonsense like that.

What I do next is locate everything to do with what the boy does in Source A. I underline all of it. This is a technique that I call ‘broad brushstrokes’ and whilst it means a double read-through, it really does help get to the ‘right’ quotes. So often teachers find that students who hit the top grades are really picking from a very small range of quotes available to them, whereas lower down the grades, it’s more hit and miss. Using broad brushstrokes helps you focus in and then narrow down.

Already you can see there is not much to work with – and that’s fine.

I do the same with source B and underline absolutely everything that the boy in Source B seems to enjoy doing.

Then I go back to Source A, having Source B fresh in my head, and focus in on the points that are connected or come under a bigger idea. For instance, both sources refer to the boys making noise, or their relationship with adults, enjoying contact with parents.

So I underline once again and pick out a few pairs of things that are different.

‘he throws his entire body into … bark[ing] gibberish’ vs ‘a habit of whistling’ and ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’

and then I do the same with another difference:

‘rests his head on my shoulder whenever he gets tired’ vs ‘holding his hand in mine’

But when I think about it, it’s the boy in Source A who initiates contact whereas the boy in Source B doesn’t. He bounds ‘away to school’ with ‘nimble feet’.

So now I’ve got some differences and some quotes, I’m ready to look at the markscheme and what it is I need to do.

Like other parts of the markscheme, there are three parts to this question. They are also not equally weighted.

The first bullet point is about the differences between the two texts.

The second is about your use of textual detail.

The third is about inferring meaning from what this tells us.

Some comment then from the principal examiner’s report that will help you understand what’s being assessed and what’s not…

This question is testing your ability to synthesise, as is Question 4. That’s crucial. You absolutely need to find those differences and bring them together. You are looking for connecting points. Weaker responses will mostly be making a connection and giving a quote, whereas better responses will be inferring meaning. You also need to remember that the focus of this question is very narrow – the boys and their activities – and so you’ll need to only look for those things and write about those things. You also need to make sure you aren’t mentioning language features. That’s Question 3 and can’t be marked here. It may be the very best language analysis that has ever existed, but it’s like you’ve started writing chemical formulations rather than answering about inferences relating to a specific focus. It may be the best chemistry that has ever existed but it’s not what the examiner is looking for. Also, don’t write more than you are being asked for. Two paragraphs is more than enough for 8 marks. Unless you have incredibly large handwriting, you don’t need extra paper to respond to this task.

Before we start writing, then, some final words from the examiner’s report, which is now in the public domain:

Students still aren’t moving past 4 marks on average though, which means you have a bit of work to do to make a clear inference.

We’re going to look at how you make those clear inferences today.

So, I had my quotes in response to the June 2017 question above:

I’ve decided that I don’t think I will look at the way they seek out parents as it’s not about how they play. I will however look at the fact the second boy in Source B plays loads more with toys and things, compared to Source A where the boy seems to rely on human interaction.

I’m going to follow the guidance from the examiners’ report and start with a difference, a quote, some inferences, then contrast, more quotes, more inference.

In Source A, the boy seems to enjoy making a lot of noise, as he ‘throws his entire body’ into ‘bark[ing] gibberish’ which suggests that he is so enthusiastic about this shouting that he does it whole-heartedly and without any reserve or hesitation. However, in Source B, whilst the boy also seemed to enjoy making noise as a child, as he had a ‘a habit of whistling’ and his mother mentions a number of noisy toys or behaviours such as ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’, it seems that he has a wider range of noises. Also, it may be that the ‘barking gibberish’ is related more to the fact that the younger child in Source A is ‘tired’ rather than actually enjoying it. It could be frustration rather than pleasure which is causing this behaviour. 

So here, I was trying to follow a loose formula …

a) In Source A [subject & focus from question] and make a point, followed by a quote.

b) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests.

c) Contrast with Source B [using subject & focus from question] and make another point, followed by a second quote.

d) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests and how that’s different from Source A.

e) Add an ‘also’ and take it further, explain the difference more deeply or give reasons for the difference.

Making inferences is the tough bit. You’ve really got to think about what it suggests or what it means. I like the following phrases for doing this:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

These are all really useful ways to explain or draw an inference from the text. Pick four or five that you feel comfortable with, and keep using them!

Next up, revision tips for Paper 2 Question 3.

Don’t forget you can find links to all my free material on 8700 AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 and Paper 2 here. All you could ever need, and more. Why not book a lesson if you want individualised support that’s focused on your own performance?

AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1 revision

If you’re revising for AQA GCSE English Language, you’re probably not spending much time on Question 1, although it’s definitely worth a quick look and a bit of revision.

You can find guidance on Paper 1 Question 1 here. They are different in some ways although they are assessing the same skill. If you ask me, Paper 1 Q1 is harder. Most people get three or four marks on both questions, though. They’re both designed to ease you into the paper and so they shouldn’t be too terrifying. Paper 1 Q1 can be a little bit harder because you’re not given the phrases, so there’s more potential to go wrong – to pick quotes or details from the wrong part of the passage or to make a poor inference – but Q1 on paper 2 presents challenges of its own.

Let’s look at a sample question, from June 2017.

First, you’re asked to look at a bigger section than Paper 1, so there is more reading to do. That means it can take you a little longer than you might expect.

Second, most of the problems on this question come from not following the guidance given you. It tells you to shade the circle if you think it’s true. If you make a mistake there are things you need to do, but shading a circle for the true statements is your first thing.

That looks like this:

It doesn’t really matter if you colour in the lines. It matters if you use black (you should) and that’s all you need to do.

But over 10% of June 2017 students did other things instead…

Like this:

Now AQA aren’t going to fail you for doing this (although SHADE THE CIRCLE is simple advice) but you can see the problem of this script – and I’ve chosen a font that is a bit indecipherable. For most people T or F are quite distinguishable, but if that horizontal line though the F is not very long or clear, then it could be a T. And this is an examiner headache. Examiners aren’t paid to peer at your scruffy handwriting and try to work out if you’ve done an F or a T. That’s why it says SHADE THE CIRCLE. That way, we don’t need courses in Advanced Graphology to decipher your hieroglyphics.

So shade the circle. Don’t. Do. Anything. Else. Just shade the circle.

That said, it looks like far fewer students made that mistake from June to November if you read the examiners’ reports (available online) but it’s worth remembering.

Now if you are anything like me, you are fraught with uncertainty and doubt. Does the statement mean exactly this? Is it a trick? Will I fail the whole paper if I get this wrong?

To help you more, there’s a rough sequence to the statements

It’s not like you have go hunting back and forward around the text. So if you are of an anxious disposition, you can always highlight the text as I have done.

You may also then want to write T or F IN PENCIL down next to the letters before you shade the circle in pen and rub out the T or F so as not to leave any doubt. If you’re not sure, you can always use a question mark.

So do this:

And this:

Before you do this:

Although that may take you a ridiculous amount of time for what is just a 4 mark question. 5 minutes max.

This is an easy question, but don’t be hasty. There are some inferences you’ll need to make. Some are straight deductions. Sometimes they swap a ‘has’ in the text for a ‘has not’ in the answer, or use loose antonyms like ‘quite hard’ and ‘easy’ in the text and answer booklet. Sometimes they’re just rephrased. But don’t overthink it. It’s not that tough, honest!

Next up, a look at Question 2 on Paper 2

An analysis of the context of War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy

It’s not often I spend a full post on context, but I think this will cover much about the role of the artist in documenting history, warfare and tragedy, as well as thinking about the role of patriotism in the Power and Conflict poetry, so it seemed like a worthwhile detour. It picks up on aspects of power & conflict from OzymandiasMy Last DuchessCharge of the Light Brigade and War Photographer.

Images of conflict have been around practically as long as art and conflict have co-existed. If we think about why art exists – and I’m going to take poetry as a part of that – some of it is wishful thinking, visualisation or creative imaginings. Some is record-keeping: it is a narrative designed to document significant events. Some of it is planning. Some of it is celebratory, designed to celebrate this or that god. Art can tell stories or express a truth, just as poetry can. It can imitate reality or can even inspire reality.

We first come across art in Ozymandias: the sculpture of the long-dead king. The statue is at once a symbol of his might and power – or at least Ozymandias’s own thoughts about how big and mighty he is. Lots of that early art is very good at capturing “Look how great I am!”

Much of that ancient Egyptian art is about preservation of the past and it reflects the beliefs and values of those who commissioned it (by which I mean the people who paid for it or commanded that it be built). Just because Ozymandias thought he was an unholy terror who should make other kings tremble in their togas doesn’t mean the sculptor did. That said, it’s the traveller’s opinion that the sculptor captured “those passions” and emotions very well. Egyptians were also very good at using size to show value. I am big therefore I am important. And the bigger my stuff is, the more important I am.

Art also starts to indicate wealth. If you have an empire that can employ artisans, sculptors and musicians, then you were an empire who was doing pretty well. By the time words came along and ways of preserving events on paper, civilisation had already got pretty good at documenting things and exaggerating their own importance, especially if you were the victor.

Lots of early art was commissioned. Much of it was a way of remembering or memorialising events or as offerings, or even as a way to mark graves. Sometimes they represented an idea or an ideal. In that way, we’re already seeing the early commemoration that art (and poetry) can be, as well as a way of representing an ideal.

So you go from the ‘Look how absolutely marvellous I am!’ to the ‘Look how rich I am!’ to the ‘Here’s an idea in a statue form’ kind of stuff.

And then you’ve the obligatory ‘Look how many people we quite literally trampled on!’ stuff.

Not to denigrate the Romans, but I’m pretty sure they added very little to the genre. No offence to any Roman or anyone who has spent their life in pursuit of understanding the Romans. A huge generalisation, I know, but the Romans weren’t great at artistic innovation.

What happened next in Western art is the rise of Christianity and religious art. This reflected the kind of Europe-wide changes going on and in turn influenced what happened with the Renaissance – the birth of what we may consider to be ‘real’ art. Religious art didn’t contribute much to the artistic representation of warfare, so you have almost a thousand years where the West had very little in terms of either empires or full-on takeovers. Between the Scandinavian Vikings – not particularly known for their military art history or their contributions to literature – and the Church, more focused on buildings and religious art, surprisingly little happened in the world of Art & Literature in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance.

Where the Romans might not have added much value to the history of art, the Renaissance certainly did. All those big names you may know, from Michelangelo to Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli and Raphael. What made it happen comes down again to money, and we move from the artistic world of Ozymandias to the world of My Last Duchess. Because of Italy’s (and more specifically Florence’s) structure, it meant that there were a number of rich merchant families who’d profited hugely from Italy’s central position in the Mediterrenean and who could turn to that good old tradition of employing minions to churn out stuff that made them look cultured. Not a world different from the Kardashians really. Have money but no talent? Hire talent and show off to your friends. And what happened in Florence was then copied by lots of other city states in what we now call Italy. Poetry changed. Music changed. Art changed. And then Italy exported. The Renaissance found a home in France and in England.

Nothing much changed with art when you get down to it though.

Have more money than sense? Get someone to paint a portrait of you so everyone will know how marvellous you were when you’re dead.

Want to leave a legacy behind? Find an architect, a sculptor or an artist and get them to commemorate stuff for you. Build an enormous statue. In fact, think bigger. Build a castle. Build a church. Build a university!

Art didn’t deviate much from its original purposes: commemorate, remember, preserve; show off, boast, brag and posture; imagine perfect ideals to which we can all aspire; frighten your competitors and see off your rivals.

Post-Renaissance Europe didn’t change much. The Dutch masters liked to paint naval battles and you start to find artists who actually specialised in battle scenes or in naval battles. It’s the first time war gave artists a job to do. But guess what? Those Italian merchant families also paid for a lot of the specialist art too. Who pays for military art is always interesting.

So you get the general images of victors vanquishing their enemies, trampling them underfoot (and which gives rise to some discussion for Checkin Out Me History) and that continues at a happy pace throughout the European wars from the 1600s right up to Napoleon in the 1800s.

The Napoleonic Wars changed the way conflict was depicted no end. You start to get bloody scenes of loss that are much more realistic and less about bragging and looking marvellous in battle dress. You also find some paintings by “the vanquished” – the nations who lost or who lost heavily.

Soon, everyone was at it. The Spanish were depicting how Napoleon’s troops sliced and diced them – in scenes reminiscent of Macbeth with the carving of passages through battlefields:

Art takes on two roles here: commemoration of the successes and victories, portraying the soldiers as glorious and noble when faced by swarthy adversaries, and depictions of the realities of war – the lootings, plunderings and such like. You can loosely term these as ‘propaganda’. Two sides of the same coin: glorification of war vs the realities of war.

Want to make your enemies look like immoral sadists? Get someone to paint a picture of it.

1824 brings a major change in depiction of war with a four-metre-long frieze of Greek citizens in the aftermath of an attack from the Ottoman empire forces painted by Eugène Delacroix.

The invention and development of photography as an art form changed things a little. First, we all know that art isn’t real. Nobody sat around posing for their painting after they’d been stabbed on the battlefield. Art is construction. It is about representation, and how the artist (or the patron/country/organisation bankrolling it) wants you to see things. It’s a staged mise-en-scène, theatre designed to evoke emotions, designed to bolster beliefs.

Photography was more ‘real’ – or at least it offered the opportunity to be so. You can’t depict (well, you couldn’t as easily in the days before Photoshop) things that weren’t there. You can stage it, certainly, but photography is instant and easily portable. Some of Great Britain’s Victorian wars started to make use of an employed photographer – not least because lots of those battles were in faraway places like China and India, Prussia and Crimea. Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs had no way of knowing how the war was going. It wasn’t like you could just step outside your door and see with your own eyes.

An 1862 photograph from the American Civil War.

War photography, then, less good at the ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ and pretty good at revealing the horrors or realities of war. Not much of a shock that people’s views about war and death began to change around the same time. Hard to say if this was influenced by images that captured the realities of war but it’s pretty hard to imagine soldiers as fine, strong, heroic victors when you’re looking at photos of them with their heads and limbs blown off.

By the time we get to the Crimean War, and Charge of the Light Brigade, war photography was a well-established genre. The more portable and accessible cameras became, the less of an artist you needed to be to use them. Still, some of the most powerful and most moving images of war have come from professional war photojournalists.

We move then into considering the role of a photographer, or a photojournalist. What is it that they are doing? For some, they are clearly there – paid for – to capture material that can be used as propaganda for either side. Whether they’re showing the atrocities of the enemies or glorifying acts of bravery, much is designed as propaganda.

Some are there to present the realities of war or conflict Even that comes with a ‘why?, a ‘who for?’

Often that can be something as simple as ‘to raise awareness of what’s happening’ or ‘to show people what’s going on’, but there is the knowledge that the ‘right’ image can change things for good.

What they are, though, is trapped behind a camera with a job to do. Your job is to document and to preserve, maybe to raise awareness.

Just as a side note, by the way, this is clearly a topic that interests me. I love photography and did a lot of hours in darkrooms in my youth. I even have a full darkroom kit, though I haven’t used it in ten years or so. Photoshop takes the fun out of chemicals and hanging around in darkrooms. I’m also the photographer for the animal shelter where I’m a trustee. It’s my job to photograph things that happen, so I’m more than aware of the power of the photo. I don’t, for instance, take adoption photos of our dogs with the kennels in them. Whilst getting a bleeding-heart adoption might be okay for some, it’s not ethical for me. I don’t want people to adopt a dog because they feel sorry or guilty. That way is a way to massive problems. It’s also manipulative and cynical. I don’t share photos of wounds or where I’ve had to document the condition in which animals arrive. Those photos are to document impartially and they go to court to help the judge decide what should happen in abuse or neglect cases.

But taking those photos can be hard, and you’ll often find me weeping. I have to take photos of wounds, of starving animals, of animals near death, or even animals who have died. I have to catch them at their worst without being emotional about it or trying to do anything other than be impartial.

That can be hard when you want to punch an owner in the face and you want to take a dog home with you because it’s clearly suffered so much.

And I have NOT to intervene. If I see maggots in ears, I can’t stop to clean them out. I just photograph them and move on to the next thing to photograph. In fact, if I start cleaning and treating the dogs, it stops me doing my other jobs. Sometimes, it is horribly emotional and I have to stop.

And I’m just talking about animals in a shelter, not children in a warzone.

Sometimes you’ve got to consider the ‘greater good’ and forget trying to help at all, knowing that you can help more by sharing.

Sometimes, with humans, you have to photograph them or document them, take their stories, when they are at their very worst. You have to remain impartial, and that means not intervening.

But that is very hard and you have to try to compartmentalise. The camera becomes almost like a protective bubble that stops you seeing things first hand. The camera protects you and acts as a buffer or a barrier between what you’re doing and what you’re seeing. It’s like you lift that camera up and you have a job to do.

Video comes into this too. When I was 10 or 11 or so, the BBC showed video of what was happening in Africa – the same footage that inspired huge interventions for famine relief such as Live Aid and Band Aid, Comic Relief and so on. You know, when you capture these things, that you are having more of an impact by sharing than you can ever have by intervening.

1984 changed everything for me.

If you ever have the chance to read Michael Buerk, Kate Adie or George Alagiah writing about reporting on war or catastrophe, it’ll really give you such a good insight into their roles and how they feel about it. George Alagiah, in particular, in A Passage to Africa in the old Edexcel IGCSE anthology, writes much more emotionally about his feelings about documenting tragedy. He writes about how ‘ghoulish’ he felt, preying on the tragedy of others to ‘make news’ (which is often profitable, too, don’t forget). He writes too about how he felt innoculated against what was happening – how he came to feel impassive and unemotional because he’d seen it so many times. You become habituated to it and almost immune. Seeing it that often, not being able to do anything practical and knowing you are hunting for that ‘one’ image that will sell papers can turn you into a hardened cynic.

He says, “The search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it. Pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next. This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life. It’s how we collect and compile the images that so move people in the comfort of their sitting rooms back home.”

I think that is probably the best explanation of the feelings behind being a journalist or photojournalist. It’s your job to ‘move’ the people back home, but they too become immune to the images so that you are constantly searching for something more shocking, more horrible.

You can read the full extract here and I would recommend it since it describes in detail how it is to be caught up in a tragedy.

Of course, these are not about warzones.

War photographers and journalists have a good deal of power, although they too must realise they need to search for more and more shocking images to get the reader to feel anything at all.

I want to finish by talking about what you HOPE will happen…. and a story about an image that changed things for many of my friends.

It’s the photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy dead on a beach in Turkey.

He drowned in 2015 as his family attempted to escape war in Syria. The family were refugees hoping to find safety in Europe.

Now there is always hostility towards refugees. I can’t begin to unpick that. We rich, civilised Europeans in our safe and secure countries, with our spare bedrooms and our shiny cars, our iphones and our First World Problems feel righteously irritated that some other people – whose skin is different than ours or who wear different clothes than we do – want to save their children so much that they’ll uproot them from everything they’ve ever known and take them to a place of uncertainty, where the only thing they can do is put all their pride and dignity aside and ask for shelter from strangers who hate them. You go anyway, leaving everything behind that you can’t carry – your past, your present, your souvenirs, your photos, your family – even though you may have already had asylum applications turned down, hoping against hope that you will find safety there.

I think many of us who do care had a rude wake-up call with that photograph. It reminded us horribly of the brutal truth of what was – and is – happening. On the day the photo hit the news, many of my friends here in France decided to do something huge and positive – to do what they could. Some went up to the migrant and refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk and Paris to see what was needed and what could be done. Three years on and their efforts still roll on. That photo changed their lives forever. It reminded us of our responsibilities. It reminded us that we are all “one body” and all those things the Inspector says in An Inspector Calls. Donations surged. Practical help surged. A few politicians here and there started making noise about it. And that photo, slowly, changed views. It changed hearts and minds. It changed political policy. Even the refugee-hating Daily Mail recognised how powerful the image was at painting an image of the human costs of the war in Syria. It comes to something when you can make a scurrilous, inflamatory rag like the Daily Mail take a step back and have a little sympathy.

The photo was highly debated. Some commentators thought it was manipulative – that there’s something ethically wrong with showing photos of dead children on beaches for whatever purpose that may be. You might think so too. A lot of people find images such as this disgusting and manipulative, or sick. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with the truth. Do refugees die in attempts to get to safety? Certainly they do. If you can’t stomach the reality, then you need to get involved and change reality.

I don’t know what your feelings about such photographs are. Personally, I see a huge value in them. We shouldn’t live in ivory towers protected from the reality of the world around us. Sure, I skip past some – we’re now into the seventh year of conflict in Syria and little has changed. The photographs dry up as does people’s interest. When you tap into people’s emotions, you have to understand how hard it is to remain emotional. It’s hard to be angry or frustrated or sad at the same intensity. But you can change beliefs and values, and that’s what I guess most photojournalists or photographers would aspire to do.

That, or it’s a way to make a living. I can think of better ways to make a living as a photographer though, when you’ve got people who’ll pay thousands for a wedding photo package, or pictures of their newborn. One of my photographer friends does nothing but photograph the interiors of buildings. He makes a good living. Whilst the cynic in me would agree that for some it’s a ghoulish way to make a living, there’s got to be some deeper motivation there somewhere – some desire to change the hearts and minds of people in their comfy armchairs enjoying a pre-lunch beer.

Capturing conflict and power through artistic means – be that sculpture, art, photography or poetry – has changed significantly from those early epic celebrations of heroism and the use of art as a way of demonstrating power. We move from those huge statues in the desert and cryptic relics of powerful, long-dead civilisations, or brash attempts to show off to your future wife’s family, or recording feats of glory and strength in the face of adversity to seeing things from the perspective of the artist themselves: a way to leave their own legacy and make a difference that has a huge emotional cost and leaves them often in an ethical quandary.

Next up: structure and form in War Photographer

GCSE English Language Writing: Organisation and Links

This post is part of a series about AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2, focusing specifically on Question 5. I’ve been taking you through aspects of the mark out of 24 for content and organisation, specifically looking at appropriate register and form.

When awarding a mark for content and organisation, we have a number of things to consider in order to arrive at a mark. In fact, you wouldn’t believe the intricacies of the things that are considered.

No wonder my head hurts when I’m marking… and no wonder students forget things.

As you can see, we’re making decisions about all the aspects here. I’ve spent the last few posts looking at things that help you create the right register, as well as ticking a few boxes for structural features too. I’ve also looked at development, and ways you can extend your ideas.

Next up is organisation and linking: how you can reach the top marks. I’m specifically looking at three things: paragraphs & cohesion, discourse markers and links between ideas

I’ve separated these strands out for you:

There is one about links and ideas: how well the ideas are linked to each other, ranging from ‘not at all’ at the bottom to ‘really well’ at the top.

Then there’s a strand about how coherent your paragraphs are, ranging from ‘no paragraphs’ to ‘fluently linked paragraphs’

These two strands are what I’ll roughly term ‘links within paragraphs’ and ‘links between paragraphs’. We used to call these things cohesion and coherence, but I’ve not seen those terms for a while, and those are kind of vague and confusing words anyway. They both kind of mean similar things.

Links within paragraphs (what I’d call coherence) is the way the parts of a thing fit together as a whole. That could be, of course, at a whole-text level, about your whole thing, but it can also be on a paragraph by paragraph basis.

There is a very nice definition here:

Coherence is the bridges between words, sentences and paragraphs

What I’d call the glue or mortar between the pieces or ‘bricks’ that make up the ‘wall’ of an essay. They’re the things you do when you write that connect your ideas together.

So when I get some writing, I look at it and I think ‘how is this idea connected to the next/last?’ – ‘why does it need to come in this order?’

It’s the things you do that make your writing connected and that make it ‘flow’, or make it fluent. You see things in the markscheme about it being fluent, about it being integrated, about it being seamless.

Basically, at the bottom, ideas in paragraphs aren’t joined. At the top, ideas are joined in so many interesting ways that you are amazed by the beauty of that glue when you get out your red pen and look at it carefully.

I’m going to show you both ends of the scale: what writing looks like without any links and what it looks like with very secure links. I’m going to take an adapted task from Writing Connections (Pearson) that I wrote some years ago.

A national TV channel is planning a new programme called ‘Britain’s Got Heroes’, asking the public to nominate their favourite famous hero. Write a letter to the programme organisers in which you give your nomination and explain why you think your hero should be included in the programme.

What I’m going to look at first is some writing where the links are less than clear. You’ll see what I mean straight away.

Dear Sir or Madam,

He was born in Switzerland and is a tennis player. I am a student in Manchester. I will definitely be watching your programme. I am writing to you to nominate my hero Roger Federer. My brother likes Roger Federer and we agree that he is a very good sportsman. He has four children. He got to the quarter finals of Wimbledon in 2001. I really like tennis and so do a lot of other people in England. Roger Federer has a lot of determination. Many people like to watch Wimbledon in the summer. He does a lot of work for charity and he is married to tennis player. He has won many prestigious awards for his tennis playing. He is a very resilient person. I think he should be nominated for your award because he sets a good example.

He has had a very long career and he has a charitable foundation. They would like to see a tennis player win. Roger Federer has had a number of illnesses and injuries. I think it is really admirable when people can remain cool under pressure.

His best tennis year was in 2006 where he won many awards. He supports a lot of charities in South Africa. Tennis is very popular. Roger Federer has been playing tennis professionally for almost twenty years. He did a lot of work after the earthquake in Haiti to help raise funds for the people there.

Thank you for considering my nomination,

Emma

I had to really, really try to make this bad. As you can see though, it is a jumbled mess. Let’s start with paragraphs. Well, this has paragraphs. Does this person (me!) know how to use paragraphs? Well, it doesn’t look like it!

I’ve attempted paragraphs, but they’re still random and accidental.

Let’s think about those first and then move into the smaller bits.

What do paragraphs do? A paragraph is more than a bit of space before and after a block of writing. It’s about what’s in that block of writing as well. Let’s look at one of those paragraphs and I’ll tell you why it’s ‘random’…

He has had a very long career and he has a charitable foundation. They would like to see a tennis player win. Roger Federer has had a number of illnesses and injuries. I think it is really admirable when people can remain cool under pressure.

So… the first sentence is about his career AND his charitable foundation. Not really two linked ideas, but let’s see if either of those is picked up in the second sentence?

No. The second sentence is about how popular a tennis player would be as a winner (of what?) and who knows who ‘they’ are?

Are they picked up perhaps in the third sentence?

No. That’s about illness and injuries, not about his long career or his charities, or about why tennis is popular.

What about the fourth?

No. That’s about what the writer finds admirable.

Four completely unlinked sentences. Those ideas have no business being in the same paragraph as each other.

What else is wrong with it?

First, there’s no sense of who ‘he’ is. It’s usual at the beginning of a paragraph to re-state the name or something to make it clear who or what is being talked about. Pronouns are best left for later in the paragraph. There are also connectives like ‘and’ but there is no reason to link the first idea and the second. Then there’s another pronoun, but it’s not clear who ‘they’ are, except it might be referring back to someone outside the paragraph maybe? Again, pronouns are best used when it’s clear who is being referred to – and if in doubt, make sure they’re in the same paragraph. It would be nice to see his name used before the third sentence.

So how could anyone put this right?

The first is by having a plan for your middle paragraphs, and deciding on the order.

Let’s say I go with ‘Who I am – Who I’m nominating’, then I go with ‘information about Roger Federer’s tennis career’, then ‘information about his charitable work’, then finally I have ‘my reasons to nominate him’.

As I’ve said in other posts, three to four main ideas that are then expanded into paragraphs or sections is a good number to ensure detail and development as well as a range of ideas.

My plan doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.

I will also decide in my plan which ideas are going to come to best explain why I’ve nominated him. Is his charitable work actually more important than his tennis? Or do you need to know about his personality through his tennis record to understand his charitable work?

Thinking about it, his charitable work sounds more like a quality for nominating a hero than playing tennis. He could play tennis and be an evil villain who keeps his millions locked up in a mansion with his seven wives, all of whom he beats.

Spending two minutes deciding on the main ideas I’m going to include and then deciding on the order those ideas would be best to go in will help me no end when it comes to writing in a clear and organised way.

To help me do this, some of the ways to develop my paragraphs are going to help. I think, once I’ve made my point, I might use a series of questions, and then some examples, a little explanation, maybe even some numbers to show just how generous he is. I’m remembering too that I’m writing to explain rather than to persuade, and so I may be more reasoned than I would be with a more pressing purpose.

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about his work in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi? What about his donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? His involvement in Rally for Relief to support victims of the 2004 tsunami? Whilst his own charitable foundation focuses mainly on education, where he has changed the lives of almost a million children, he also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them involved too. 

So, this is my first attempt. Let’s look at those links. Red shows threads related to Roger Federer. Orange is to do with what people know about him. Green is good stuff he has done. Purple are things to do with his global presence. Bold is a development in the idea – that he gets his friends to join in and influences them too.

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about his work in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi? What about his donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? His involvement in Rally for Relief to support victims of the 2004 tsunami? Whilst his own charitable foundation focuses mainly on education, where he has changed the lives of almost a million children, he also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them involved too. 

That gives you a fairly good idea of some of the ways you can link ideas. It’s so much more than the occasional discourse marker or connective!

#1 Direct repetition. Some of this is probably something you missed, like ‘get involved’. You can do this much more subtly by keeping them fairly far apart, and modifying them slightly to make them less noticeable.

#2 Synonyms. These needn’t be single words. ‘Across the globe’ and ‘around the world’ work like that.

#3 Pronouns. This just means substituting ‘he’ for ‘Roger Federer’ as and where suitable, along with all the other variations on that.

#4 Reference chains. This is where you use a combination of synonyms, direct repetition and pronouns to refer to ideas. There aren’t many in the passage, but Roger Federer – the tennis ace – this generous sports star – he – my favourite sports personality – the Swiss tennis player and so on would be a reference chain. We use reference chains not only to secure links and avoid too much repetition, but also to build up bias.

#5 Lexical fields. There are two ways to build up a word group. One is through picking out one word – like support- and building up the other word classes around it. Support in this case is a noun: ‘the support he offers’, so I can use other words from the same family: to support, supporting, supported, supportive, supportively, supporter, and so on. The other type of lexical field I can use are ones in the same group, sort of like synonyms or linked words, but I can also think of the sense of the word. Do I mean support as in he is a foundation, something structural? Because I can imply that he’s a cornerstone, a foundation, that he’s created an infrastructure, that underpins things, picking out lots of words to do with building. Or I could also mean financial support, like aid. I like the idea of him building something, that he is creating something sustainable, that will last when he is gone.

#6 Anaphoric reference. This is just a posh way of saying referring back to ideas or words you’ve used before. You’ll use #1-5 to do this. You can also use deictic reference. And that’s a posh way for terms like this, those, these, here, there, then, now. It also includes pronouns too. It helps make writing strong and avoid repetition because you have to have already explained what ‘this’ is, so it’s making your subsequent sentences depend on the first, like its roots are in previous sentences and the idea grows from that base.

#7 Discourse markers. This is the exam board term for words and phrases that not only link forward and backwards, like so, then, and, next, consequently, moreover and so on, but also words and phrases that indicate what something is. Words and phrases like for example, for instance and such as indicate an example. Then you have ones that indicate comparison and contrast, like similarly and alternatively. You have ones that identify explanation, that identify something is additional, that indicate logical order or to introduce summary. In the real world, many of you may find these things called ‘connectives’ or ‘conjunctions’. Dr Ian McCormick in his book, The Art of Connection: The Social Life of Sentences’ (see I told you Pop Non-Fiction likes colons in titles) explains a lot more about how sentences connect, if you’re a complete language boffin and you wish for more. For normal mortals, however, you can find good lists of helpful connectives.

Just a note on those helpful connectives: please don’t stuff them into your writing. I’ve seen students using one every single sentence. Also, consider where you put them. They don’t always have to go at the beginning.

So, if I’m looking back at my first example and at the markscheme, I’m definitely ‘coherent’ in my second paragraph, but I don’t think I’m fluently linked. They’re also clear, connected ideas too. That leaves me room for polish. I’m going to use some of the things from my list of 7 types of linking devices to smarten up and tighten up my writing.

So let’s polish…

Most people are surprised to learn just how much Roger has done to support disadvantaged children across the globe. Who, for instance, knows about the financial aid he gave to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Or his organisation of the Rally for Relief to offer economic support to victims of the 2004 tsunami? But it’s not just about the money. Through his connections and position as sports’s most well-known humanitarian, this compassionate tennis ace has founded a legacy that goes beyond cash donations. The Roger Federer Foundation has been pivotal in South Africa and Botswana, Namibia and Malawi in building an infrastructure for educational development that will impact generations to come. It has already changed the lives of almost a million children. Perhaps most commendable are his efforts to encourage others to contribute as well. He also regularly invites his allies and his on-court enemies to get involved in charitable events to raise funds for emergency relief around the world. It’s the fact that he does so much to widen the impact of his work and to ensure its sustainability that makes him such a good candidate for your programme: there are few philanthropists who rattle the collection bucket around their wealthy friends and supporters in order to get them to pitch in and participate too.

So I’ve made some small changes, including moving one idea further on in the paragraph. I thought, looking back at it that it should go: financial aid – building a sustainable foundation – involving his rich and famous friends. If I were starting from scratch completely, I’d probably go from financial aid to involving his friends and then to the wider foundation. It makes more sense in terms of logical argument. Himself – his circle – a wider, global network. But it was a bit late to tinker. I’ve tried to add in some phrases that mark an increase in importance of the ideas with perhaps most commendable. Some of the changes I’ve made are small, like adding an or before the second question just to make it a little more clear that it is a different idea. Some just add a bit more variety, like changing ‘get involved’ to pitch in and participate as well as encourage others to contribute. I’ve got a little bias in there as well with the reference to him as this compassionate tennis ace. I changed the bit about his charity to give it the full title – because when I looked at it, the Roger Federer Foundation also picks up on that idea of cornerstones, support and building. Maybe I picked that up by diffusion and it was kind of sitting in the back of my head waiting for me to notice it.

In being more conscious of how your sentences build on one another within a paragraph, and in trying to use those seven linking devices between paragraphs (especially between the opening and the ending), you’ll find your writing is much more tightly structured. Linking your ideas is SO MUCH MORE than simply using a random connective here and there. I told you that it was intricate, and readers notice these things. You may not have understood how they work exactly, but you know when it’s wrong (like in my random first attempt) or when it’s awkward or random. Making solid links within and between paragraphs will help you move up that ladder of assessment, but don’t leave it to chance. The best writers start each sentence picking up ideas from earlier in their writing and consider before they writer where they are going with an idea. I have the luxury of editing. You’ll be writing on paper in an exam. Whilst I had the ability to chop, cut, paste, edit and amend, you will be much more restricted. Even more important, then, that you consider those intricacies of organisation!

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Article

Last time, I was looking at what features make up a letter, trying to define the ineffable qualities of ‘letterness’ so that you aren’t relying on simply sticking an address at the beginning, along with a Dear Sir and hoping for the best. Today I’m looking at the qualities that make up an article – the conventions, style and register – so that you can make your writing sound more like an article.

Now this is one I have actual paid expertise in, as opposed to letter writing. I write regularly for a number of magazines and I can describe much more confidently the way that an article sounds. Back in my comfort zone.

To look at students’ articles, though, you’d think many people had only a vague grasp on the qualities of article writing. They have some thoughts about how it looks, but little idea about how to make it really sound like an article.

There may be a heading or title of a sort. Sometimes there are sub-headings. Occasionally, students write in columns (please don’t!) as if that gives it some semblance of an article. And very occasionally, students put a space in where a photo or illustration is supposed to go. Please don’t do that either.

And those visual features (well, some of them) are all well and good, but other than the headline, they aren’t particularly ‘article-y’. Some of them aren’t really even to do with writing. How do I mark something that is a box and says ‘Photo of Child Looking Sad Here?’

What you’re looking to do, then, is not try to replicate how articles LOOK, but how they SOUND. I’m taking articles to mean a) newspaper articles b) magazine articles and c) online articles.

Let’s have a look at a couple. If you haven’t come across Issuu yet, get across there. There are lots of magazines on there, both commercial and home-made. It’ll give you plenty of free resources for you to get to grips with how articles sound. Some of them, it must be said, are more photos and filler or adverts than they are content, so pick carefully. I’d have been cross, back in the day, to have spent 50p on my copy of Just Seventeen to find it filled with photographs.

By the way, although I like photographs, for this article I do not care about them. I care about the words. Think of it this way: I write my articles as a Word document. I send them off without pictures or columns. That’s the job of the designer to put all my words in a way that looks interesting. It’s my job to make them sound interesting.

So, let’s have a look:

Let’s see what we have…

We have a lovely big photograph and a column, sure. Nothing for you to emulate there. Then we have a title, “BY THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE”.

Headlines or titles are great. Something you should definitely try at home. Just as a tip, I leave a space for my headline and then I write it last. The reason is that I fixate on it and it takes me ages to decide, which is time I definitely don’t have. I let my brain work on it whilst I’m writing.

Often titles are kind of useless. By the way, in print media, your title can be much more cryptic. The photo grabs attention, not the headline or title. I don’t even know what this title means. But in non-print media, you’ll often find “Search Engine Optimised” titles which are much, much less cryptic. It’s their job to grab attention and people soon leave web pages where the title doesn’t match the content. Worse still, they never visit if the headline isn’t in some way helpful or promising. Web writers work to different rules, because they want headlines to pop up in search engines. If you want expert advice about web-based articles, you can do no better than checking out Darren Rowse’s site Problogger. It’s written for non-writers who are writing articles (aka blogs) for the web, and it’s so very, very useful for ideas. You’ll actually find some great tips on there for students writing articles, such as this one about openings, and this one about endings. I often find them readable, user-friendly and great for GCSE or A level writers when they’re about the actual writing, rather than the internet-y tech-y kind of stuff.

You’ll find a lot of functional, searchable titles like ‘how to’ or ‘why you need to’ or ‘five ways to’ though – titles you don’t find in print media as regularly. I mean, just look how meaningless that ‘BY THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE’ is. They aren’t even in a jungle. Were that article online, it’d have a title like ’10 UNMISSABLE SIGHTS IN THE MASAI MARA’ or ‘WHAT TO DO IN THE MASAI MARA’

Okay, a little technical!

But I’m interested mainly in this bit:

The more you look at news, magazine and web articles, the more you notice these summary straplines and a ‘by A PERSON’

Some are long… some are short. Sometimes they’re in the form of a question. Sometimes they’re a statement. They’re usually at least a sentence, and more literary articles will have two or three sentences:

See? One that’s practically the opening of the text about Bangladesh, and a very simple summary for Mr Nick Baker there.

They summarise what the article is about and sometimes they say ‘A PERSON’ (in the 3rd person) and then a verb in the present tense:

Nick Baker reveals…
Carl Safina investigates…

And the more you look, the more you find!

They’re in print media like the ones above.

And they’re in web media like this one below:

To be fair, that’s ‘fake’ web media since online magazines and newspapers often have the same features and style as their printed siblings.

But that little summary strapline is a fabulous example of ‘articleness’.

And it has such a teachable format.

It summarises the whole of your article in one or two sentences, or acts as a little teaser for what’s to come in the article.

Then it has another sentence that introduces you in the 3rd person (even though you write it yourself) and then you have a present tense active verb summarising what you’re looking at or exploring or explaining in your article.

Let’s take the task from June 2017 for AQA:

‘Parents today are over-protective. They should let their children take part in
adventurous, even risky, activities to prepare them for later life.’

Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper in which you argue for or against
this statement

So, I’m going to leave the headline for a bit. For my plan, I’d have three or four big ideas and then develop them, but for my opening and ending, I want to make sure they’re really ‘article-y’.

AQA are vaguely helpful when it comes to guidance about stylistic features that may constitute a sort of articleness, saying that at a minimum, an article may have a headline and some paragraphs (because ‘normal’ writing doesn’t have paragraphs?!) Better articles may include:

 a clear/apt/original title
 a strapline
 subheadings
 an introductory (overview) paragraph
 effectively/fluently sequenced paragraphs.

So, let’s do that strapline and introductory paragraph…

For an argumentative article, I write three ideas. The first sums up the opposite view to the one I’m going to explore. The second summarises my view. The third is my ‘Emma Lee argues…’

Are our children coddled and cossetted? Pampered and at risk of being smothered? Without a sense of adventure or ability to take risks, the next generation are in danger of growing up filled with unresolved anxiety or, worse, constantly seeking thrills that put their lives in jeopardy. Emma Lee believes that parents’ attempts to protect their children are creating unnecessary problems.

You can see how that sort of thing establishes the sense of ‘articleness’. A couple of questions to engage the reader, a bit of a controversial summary statement and an outline of the ideas I would go on to explore.

But what about the ending?

Newspaper stories worked on a ‘bottom up’ editorial approach in the past, perhaps why so many of them seemed to drift into nothingness. Your editor would say, “Emma, I want 500 words”, so you’d write 500 words, only for them to chop off the last 100 as a bigger news story needed more space. When you write for magazines and newspapers that will go to print, you have to be conscious of the fact you may end up being asked to cut 200 words out. The order of your ideas was a pyramid hierarchy – start with the who-what-when-where and add the why and how. The rest was filler. Find some quotes. Possibly spend the last bit of your paragraph as a trailer for what might happen next. Making links between your paragraphs was pointless if you were going to have to chop out a full paragraph and then remove all the cohesive links to and from that paragraph.

The internet changed things though.

No longer would an editor ask you for a certain number of words. There might still be a sensible limit – some of the online content I write is around 1000 words. Some is less. But it’s less exacting than print.

Truth be told, in the past, articles fizzled out more often than they came to a kind of conclusion.

Today, we’re a little better at it. You may find things like a call to action. These are useful in print as well as online, and useful in all sorts of transactional writing as an ending. What do you want the reader to do? Where can they find out more?

You can see from this one that if you enjoyed the article about wolves, you might want to read the book.

You can also see the biography at the end. That crops up more often than you’d think. It is used across print and web-based articles as a way of giving you credentials and authority.

And another one. Can you see the call to action? You’ve got an imperative verb “See him…”

Even in printed media, we find ‘Find out more…’ sentence that has a hyperlink to a website.

Those things also happen on pseudo-printed media, like news story sites

I’d like to make a distinction though between news stories and articles in newspapers – what we may call editorials or opinion columns. Although news stories certainly have a bias – even from the very selection of news to share with you – editorials are different, so make sure you’re clear on the style differences between the two.

News stories tend to have that WHO – WHAT – WHEN – WHERE – WHY – HOW pyramiding, where they include a lot of that in their headline and in the first paragraph, where articles do not. News stories are much less personal – you’ll find few personal pronouns other than “he/she/it/they” – and certainly, you’ll never find an “I” or a “we”, but you will find them in news editorials/opinion articles.

You can see these four news stories give you some of those answers even in the headline. Who is involved? What happened? Where? When? (which is often implied that it’s recent, otherwise it wouldn’t really be newsworthy) with the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ answered in the actual story. This is so we can ‘short-cut’ to articles that interest us. Editorials have no such requirement.

So, how am I going to end my own article for our fictional broadsheet newspaper?

  1. I’m going to have a summary of what I said that links back to my introductory paragraph/strapline, mentioning some words directly and some as synonyms. I want my main idea there.
  2. I’m going to include a call to action using imperatives, but gentle ones. I don’t want to alarm people!
  3. I’m going to include my editorial byline and biography that gives my expertise to comment on this situation, which I may very well make up!

Those bylines – the bit that says who wrote the article and gives some biographical information about the writer – are always tailored to the expertise you’re giving. So in one of my articles in a French Lifestyle magazine, where I write about language, my byline is about my language expertise or interest. In ones I write about things you can do with your children to keep them busy, it mentions my educational background. In ones I write about dog training, it mentions my work as trustee in an animal shelter. You don’t want your full CV on there – just the bits that make you enough of an expert to have an opinion.

So, I’m very specifically looking back at my opening:

Are our children coddled and cossetted? Pampered and at risk of being smothered? Without a sense of adventure or ability to take risks, the next generation are in danger of growing up filled with unresolved anxiety or, worse, constantly seeking thrills that put their lives in jeopardy. Emma Lee believes that parents’ attempts to protect their children are creating unnecessary problems.

And then I am very specifically going to answer those questions or pick up words and phrases from there (don’t forget, there will be a full article between, so it won’t look as horribly noticeable, and it should be both subtle enough not to hurt the examiner with my lack of skill, but noticeable enough that they realise I’ve done something there to link them up.

It’s time we give our children a little space, develop their sense of adventure and teach them to take calculated risks. Give your child a little leeway and you may find a happy solution to many of those childhood doubts and anxieties. 

Emma Lee is a child psychologist, author and writer. Find further guidance on her website http://www.blahblahchildstuff.com 

I was going to finish with a question, “After all, what’s the worst that could happen?” but then that could possibly have repurcussions if parents let their children take risks and they end up in some terrible accident or with some permanent disfigurement after making home-made water cannons. But you can see my main advice tying into the opening paragraph about risk and adventure. You can see I mentioned problems in the introduction and I mention solutions in the conclusion. I also mentioned anxiety directly.

Those biographical bylines, by the way, seem to love pairs of experiences or triples. I could have just said I was a child psychologist, (completely made up – not something I’d do in the real world beyond GCSE English!) but I like the additionals.

For many of your tasks, being a teenager actually qualifies you to talk and to have a voice. Newspapers and magazines love hearing teenagers’ perspectives.

Were I a 16 year old student, I could write:

Emma Lee is in Year 11 at St Bernard’s High School, Woodbury. She is a member of her student council and a representative on the Parent Teacher Committee. 

Can you see how it’s back to that weird third person voice again? I don’t always write about myself in the third person, I promise!

Be aware that what comes in your article may have different purposes. You could be writing advice (like the photoshop ‘How To’ stuff) or you could be writing explanation. It could be persuasive or it could be argumentative. AQA say that there are four purposes you could be asked to write for: to explain, to advise/instruct, to persuade or to argue. All four are different, although there is crossover between them and you may find yourself using similar linguistic features in them, but you will need to understand how they are different and have some idea about what you can do to meet those different demands. I’ll be looking at linguistic features of those purposes in other posts.

Next up: speeches. How you can make your writing more speechy.

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Letters

Many, many years ago, a young teacher sat at the back of a room surrounded by fellow markers for our annual markers’ briefing. The chief examiner at the time was an almost mythical figure: passionate about the fact we must award the ‘right’ marks and be dedicated to giving the students the marks they deserved, and unsympathetic towards examiners who didn’t do their duty. He was as humorous as he was terrifying, but you dared not be the one to ask the wrong question.

The task that year was a letter. I don’t know what it was about, but I remember that it was a letter. One examiner stood up to ask how we should penalise candidates who had not written an address or matched up their ‘Dear …’ salutation with the appropriate and corresponding ‘faithfully’ or ‘sincerely’.

What happened next changed the way I thought and taught forever.

“Well, you mark it as you would mark any other response…” came the reply.

“Yes, but it’s not a letter…”

“It IS a letter. It just isn’t addressed. Don’t concern yourself with whether it looks like a letter. Ask yourself if it sounds like a letter.”

As it turned out, there were few of us who could put our finger exactly on the qualities of a piece of writing that made it sound like a letter. We kind of knew, but none of us could say categorically: “it does this, this, this and this.”

What followed was a 20-minute blasting about ‘letterness’ – the style, conventions, register and tone – and I’ve forever followed the guidance that, if you took the address off, the ‘Dear blah blah’ and the ending, and it doesn’t do anything else that is remotely ‘letter-y’, then it’s not very letter-y at all. An address, a Dear Sir and a yours faithfully do not a letter make.

So what is this ‘letterness’ business and why are we so bad at it?

As a 24-year-old examiner, I’d written precisely three formal letters. Two got me an interview and one got me a job. I’d never written a letter to my mayor. I’d never written to my headteacher. I’d never once written to the local council. I was quite remiss in my correspondence, it must be said.

I’d written lots of letters, in the days before email and Whatsapp, just not the kind that you’d ever write in an exam. I had a friend called Paul in Salisbury and we wrote bitchy letters about townies and Cabrini jackets. I also wrote to my friend Pam when I should have been doing GCSE History. I had a boyfriend who lived in Bury St Edmunds who wrote me letters, and then one who lived in Crewe who did the same. When I moved to Sheffield to start university, my friends wrote to me religiously. We wrote about various lads we liked and various things we’d done at the weekend. They were in equal measures funny and cringeworthy.

What they weren’t were the kind of letter-writing practice that would be in any way useful for GCSE letters.

And despite my extensive repertoire with informal letters to friends, I still hadn’t written a letter to a headteacher, a mayor or a local town council. Nor had I written one to a newspaper. I had never been Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells.

By the time I got to the examiners’ meeting in 1996, I lived in a land without formal letters or formal letter experience. Practically, anyway.

In 2018, I still don’t write letters. I write some emails, and I get a lot of emails. Many of them sound a bit like letters. None of them look like letters, though, which would horrify that examiner back in 1998, who wanted to give E grades to anyone who left off an address.

And you, dear reader, do you write many letters?

Maybe I’m underestimating you, but I would hazard a guess that for most of us, we neither receive many letters nor write them. Worse in the Age of Technology than in the Age of Ink. My 15-year-old self knew it would be funny to write a letter addressed to “Miss Pam Fairhurst, esq.” and asking if she could do me “the courtesy, nay, the honour” of joining me on the monkey bridge by the pie shop at breaktime. I ‘got’ formal letter style, though nobody had ever bothered to teach me. And she knew how funny it would be to reply, “Dear Bunts (informal, perhaps a touch blasé)”. We played around with those salutations ranging from the formal to the casual “Oreet?” (which passed for a greeting back in 1980s Lancashire) in ways that showed we really understood formality of letters, even if we’d never written one.

You may well be the same.

That said, times have changed. Letters were the only mode of written transactional communication back in the day. Thirty years on, are we busily hammering out notes to our friends at the back of History lessons? Why no, dear students, you are not, because you are not as naughty as Pam and I were, and you value your results. My result spoke for itself in that subject (decidedly average) and I shall not embarrass you by assuming you’d be so silly as to write notes in class. Besides, we had a fair few intercepted and read out as punishment, which clearly was ineffective as it didn’t stop us at all, just made us more crafty.

Those thirty years in between my teenage years and yours have changed the way we write forever.

That makes it pretty hard, then, for the average person to know what ‘letterness’ entails anymore. Plus, our correspondence is much more immediate and open-ended. Gone are the “Hi Mum” letters, because my mum and I have been in an open-ended conversation since, well, about 2008. We very rarely have to open conversations anymore, and we are even rarer in having to finish them off. Our transactional writing is open-ended and much more in keeping with spoken conversations. In 1991, I would happily write ten-sided letters simply because a) I had too much time in the world before selfies and Facebook, and b) you might as well, since it cost you the same to send that as it did to send three sentences on one side of writing paper. When was the last time you wrote a ten-sided missive to your best friend?!

It’s no wonder then that ‘letterness’ has become even more of an old-fashioned notion.

Luckily, I have two guiding lights. One is that twenty-minute explanation of what letterness entailed from our former chief examiner. The other is a delightful book called ‘The Timewaster Letters’ by Robin Cooper. In this book, Cooper writes to many agencies, shops, associations, clubs and individuals with a variety of unusual propositions or suggestions. Not only does he have a wonderful handle on ‘letterness’, but he also included the responses, which showed that everyone else seemed to as well.

It seemed from this glorious documentation of many, many series of correspondence, that there is a loose understanding in society of the style, register and formality of letters. A bit of light-fingered pilfering allowed me to pick out the main stylistic features of letters (and emails) to share with you to help you understand letterness too.

With that in mind, I’m going to use some of the openings and endings from The Timewaster Letters as well as a couple of emails from people in my correspondence list to elucidate for you what ‘letterness’ is really made up of, so if you are struggling to make something SOUND LIKE a letter, you’ll have a bit of a clue.

My advice is this: chop off the address and the date, the ‘Dear Blah Blah’ (and definitely the ‘I am writing to you…’) as well as the ‘yours faithfully’ at the end, and ask yourself what else am I doing that makes this sound like a letter? If there really is nothing in there that’s very lettery, this article is definitely for you.

If the answer is ‘very little’, you can brush up on that today.

Just to make it clear about WHY you might want to bother doing that, I’m going to talk you through the levels on the markscheme.

Remember that the levels are what we use to mark. They aren’t grades. When I say level 4, I don’t mean Grade 4.

The markscheme is split up into 4 levels. You already see the problem that there are 9 grades.

When I write about level 1, I am writing about what will roughly be Grades 1-3. Level 2 is roughly Grades 3 – 5, Level 3 is roughly Grades 5 – 7, and Level 4 is roughly Grades 7 – 9. The exact boundaries depend on so much maths that it makes my head hurt, and anyway, they change year on year, so it would be redundant. To make it more fun, each level is divided into sub-levels. So I’ve taken the description for each one for our lovely table.

I’m focusing on the part of the markscheme that is about audience, purpose, register and response to task. I’ve shortened it a little and put in the marks available, but as you can see, at the bottom, a candidate will have occasional sense of audience and purpose (does one or two things that shows they know someone is reading it and that they’re not writing a story) whereas at the top, it’s not only a ‘convincing’ letter that sounds appropriately letter-y throughout, but it’s also so compelling to read that I actually want to read it.

What follows, then, is a bit of an exploration of letterness, then a list of some lettery things you can do. It’s not a checklist or ticklist. It will also be moderated by the audience and it will be affected by the required level of formality, so you can use these features as and where they fit. Don’t use them all. That would be horrible.

Let’s start with identifying some lettery things.

I’ve taken these two from Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters.

The first is his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dear Archbishop,

I hope you are very well.

I am writing to you for your learned advice.

I am thinking of starting up my own religion. Unfortunately, I’m a bit stuck on a number of issues, such as what we should believe in, how we pray, what to call ourselves etc.

As a religious man could you perhaps give me a few tips as to the best way to set up an entirely new world religion.

I look forward to your response.

Best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Robin Cooper.

So, this is what I mean about appropriate. There are bits that just aren’t. For instance, “I hope you are well” is kind of inappropriate. It sounds as if Robin Cooper personally knows the Archbishop. I also, personally, hate “I am writing”. Of course you are writing. That much is evident. I would like to ban this phrase completely from all letters.

Of course, the content is also wrong.  You shouldn’t ask the leader of a world religion for advice on how to set up a new world religion. It’s just not done.

But there’s some nice bits you can use. I do like the fact that the letter tries to establish a sense of a relationship. “I hope you are well” invites response. We should never forget that letters are a transaction. They are like a very long written communication. So therefore they need the same politeness features we would expect at the beginning of a conversation. You can’t just come in with a: “Can you tell me how to start a religion please?”

All the same, you can’t use conversational things easily because they’re not formal enough.

What I like to do is have a bit of a warm-up by explaining why I’m writing to them at that moment focusing on our shared interest (the subject of the letter)

The very fact that I am writing to them shows they can do something for me, or I want to do something for them. That something is our common link.

Let’s have a look at a sample question:

“Subjects in school today are based on things that are no longer useful for us. Education should be relevant to the lives young people will lead.” 

Write a letter to your headteacher in which you explain your views on this subject. 

So, I’m guessing I’ll share a common interest about education with the headteacher.

Letters, too, have a special kind of tone, even if you were writing to complain (which isn’t something you’ll be asked about) or if you are trying to persuade the recipient of a different view. Politeness is crucial and even if you strongly disagree with the views the recipient might have, you don’t ever want to threaten or be rude. Letters are the last bastion of polite manners.

If you think I’m joking, you should see how French letters end. Even my electricity bill comes with distinguished and cordial salutations. I forgot to pay once and I got a menacing letter that even finished with a very polite, “please accept our distinguished salutations”.

Seriously, you are going to be verging on obsequious and obnoxious good manners.

Let’s look at how the Archbishop of Canterbury could have replied to Robin Cooper.

Dear Mr Cooper,

Are you &”%*ing kidding me? Have you got some kind of undiagnosed mental illness? What on God’s good earth makes you think you can start a religion? We’ve had two thousand years’ practice, and that’s nothing on our Jewish friends. Work out your own religion, you thieving swine! Either that, or you are seriously taking the mick. Get a grip, you timewaster.

Best wishes, 

Despite the feelings of whoever opened that letter – be they amusement, anger or scorn – the reply went like this:

Dear Mr Cooper,

I have been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to thank you for your recent letter, the contents of which have been noted.

I am sure that you will not be surprised that Dr Carey is unable to advise you on how to found your own religion. If in approaching him you are seeking the help of the Church of England to meet your own spiritual needs, the Archbishop would advise you to approach your own local clergy, or other Christians in whom you have confidence.

Yours sincerely,

See… polite even if sensing mockery, scorn, rudeness or a complete lack of understanding.

So, in my letter to the headteacher, am I going to start:

Dear Mr Brown,

I am writing to you to tell you how pointless and outdated education is?

or:

Dear Mr Brown,

Have you ever thought about what a colossal waste of time school is for us today? We can find everything you teach us on Wikipedia. Education is pointless. 

Nope. Not in the slightest.

So I’m going to:

  1. state who I am and my reasons for writing
  2. express our common ground
  3. be polite
  4. explain what prompted me to write now

So it might look like this:

Dear Mr Brown, 

As a student in Year 11, I listened with interest to your assembly about planned changes to the school building to make sure it is ready to cope with students’ needs in the future. I share your enthusiasm for high-tech laboratories and art spaces that will help St Bernard’s students prepare for life in the real world. At the same time, I had some thoughts about how the subjects we are offered in school may perhaps be developed alongside these structural and physical changes, ensuring students have the most competitive edge when entering the workplace. 

So you can see I say who I am first off. It saves the reader having to read to the end of the letter to find out who they are and why on earth they’re writing.

I do a little thing to explain why I’m writing now – it is in response to an assembly. I made that bit up. But it is there to show why now.

I do a little making of common ground, with the ‘sharing enthusiasm’ bit.

And when I write my purpose, I’m so mild and gentle that nobody could mix that up with hostility and confrontation. I have a discourse marker that is non-confrontational. It’s not an ‘on the other hand’, but an ‘at the same time’, as if what I want to say is an extension, not an opposition.

Ones to avoid are ones that mean ‘but’: on the other hand, in contrast, despite this, nevertheless, for all that, in spite of and so on.

Why I avoid them is they are confrontational. They are ones for the middle-end bit where you have got your reader listening.

I don’t want to say, “Dear headteacher, your ideas are rubbish.”, not even if I dress it up prettily and politely.

I’m trying to make out that my challenges are in fact only small modifications, a slight detour or addition. Not that I think he’s wasting his time and money completely on technology that will be obselete in five years. Soften the blows.

I’ve got conditional modal verbs: may, might, could, would be.

Keep your forceful obligations to yourself with your musts, have tos and shoulds. They have a place in persuasion, but not in explaining my views unless I want to aggravate this poor headteacher.

Add some softeners: perhaps and possibly add another level of speculation and politeness.

Extend your contractions. “I am” is more formal than “I’m”. It’s not a time to show off your apostrophes for omission.

And say please, but don’t beg.

Some examples:

  1. I would be very happy to explore these ideas with you further.
  2. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss these ideas further.
  3. After long consideration, I feel that…
  4. I hope that…
  5. I would suggest that…
  6. Could I suggest that… ?
  7. Do let me know if…
  8. I enclose further details that may be of interest…
  9. Some ideas that may possibly be of interest…
  10. Perhaps the following ideas may be of use…

See? Helpful, friendly and subtle.

How we finish letters is also interesting. I like to always leave them open to response, and we often say things like, “I look forward to your response.”

I do like that. I like “I very much look forward to your response.”

“I await your response” – now that’s cold and unfeeling!

For the very final line, we’ve moved on from “Yours faithfully”, and sometimes “Kindest wishes” or “Warmest regards” can set a more friendly tone, especially if you want something from them.

True story: once, my editor changed, and my new editor finished his first email to me with “Best”.

“Best what?” I thought. How rude! Are you really so busy that you can’t even be bothered to write “wishes”? Needless to say, I was prickly in response.

Let’s have a look at an email enquiry I had about lessons (because emails follow many of the same conventions as letters)

Dear Emma,

I have followed your blogs with interest for some time now and they have been very helpful for my son, who will be entering Year 10 in September. They seem to have hit the right note with him, which is an achievement in itself. I know you may not have any tuition time available at present, but would it be possible to book a series of lessons from September? He is currently working at Grade 5. 

Best wishes, 

We’ve moved beyond the 80s, and it’s fine to address people by first names (sometimes) unless they are more powerful than you. No first names for anyone who is in a position of power, eg headteachers, mayors, leaders of councils. It’s just rude. Hello and Hi are fine if you are writing to a friend. Dear Sir can be sexist and Dear Sir or Madam suggests you haven’t got the foggiest who I am. If you’re writing to a friend, use their first name by all means.

You never lose anything with a sentence of pleasantries at the beginning of a letter. Honestly. It stops you sounding too formal. You may want to add a little bit that shows you’ve been following them (in a non-stalker, non-weird way) and this is especially true if you’re writing to someone you already know.

Take this email to a colleague. I wanted some Paper 2s from her.

Can I write:

Dear Janet,
Please send me all your Paper 2s. 

Best, 
Emma

No I can’t. It’d be rude. Well, I could, but Janet would reply “Dear Emma… Bog Off. Love, Janet.”

To use “Dear” with someone I know is a bit rude these days as well. It’s okay. Bit formal.

“Hello Janet” sounds odd.

“Hiya Janet” sounds like I’m from Coronation Street.

“Janet” sounds like I’m angry at her.

“Hi Janet” is where I’m going. It’s friendly, if a little informal.

Now she knows I want something from her; I don’t just write random emails. Sometimes it’s just to know if she’s okay, what she’s up to, or to catch up on the gossip. But it’s just nice manners to say:

Hi Janet,

Did you have a good Easter? How are the children?

But if I write that to someone I don’t know… well, it sounds weird. Is it appropriate for the headteacher, the mayor or the local council? Not on your nelly.

Dear Mrs Burton,

Did you have a good Easter? Hope the children are well!

Creepy and stalkerish.

So what kind of things work for those ‘why now?’ moments?

Things like:

  • I recently read your review of … and I wish to…
  • I recently attended your speech about… and I would like to…
  • Having listened to your recent talk about… I would like to…
  • In light of recent interest in… I wondered if I could…
  • As a [person or role], I was very interested to hear your thoughts about [topic] recently
  • Your recent post about [topic] mentioned…
  • Having recently [something you did], I thought it might be…
  • In response to…

And here’s how they look in practice with that example task:

  • I listened with interest to your talk in assembly about how our school will be changing in the future. Knowing how you always try to take on board the views of students, I hope you will permit me to share my thoughts on this important subject
  • As a Year 11 student, how our schools will change in the future may not seem like the most vital of subjects. I found, however, your recent assembly to be very interesting and thought I would share my views on the topic.
  • Having recently participated in the student council about education in the future, I hoped that you may find some of our key ideas to be of interest.
  • Your recent school newsletter mentioned that you were seeking comments and ideas about how our school may develop in the future. As a Year 11 student, I have a great interest in being part of those developments, as a legacy for our younger students.

Nope, they’re not brilliant. They’re not persuasive. They’re not Martin Luther King having a dream or Nelson Mandela having a long walk to freedom. But they sound like letters. And that’s the important bit.

A bit of politeness and letterness at the beginning, followed by all your ideas, then a bit of letterness again at the end, and you’re on to a winning formula.

What things work to finish a formal letter off?

In the internet and print world, we call it a ‘call to action’… what you want them to do. Do you want them to get in touch to discuss further? Do you want them to consider and reflect upon your ideas? Do you want their support? Do you want their practical help? Do you want an interview? Do you want them to call you?

What do you want them to do, urgently, the moment they finish your letter? Hopefully not say, “well, that’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back!”

These are not always a direct call to action. They’re not a ‘buy my book now’ kind of thing. They’re using conditional verbs and no contracted forms.

  1. Thank you for considering my ideas. I would be delighted to discuss these further if you find them of interest.
  2. Many thanks for having taken the time to read my proposals. I very much look forward to your response.
  3. Do let me know any of my thoughts are of interest. I look forward to your reply.
  4. Thank you, in anticipation, for your support on this matter. As you can tell, it is a subject which I feel strongly about.
  5. I would be grateful if you could…

So, if you’re a teacher, pick up a copy of Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters and explore their wonderful examples of appropriate and inappropriate style with your students. And if you’re a student, brush up on those openings and endings to letters that go beyond addresses, Dear Sir or Madam, and whether or not you should put yours faithfully or yours sincerely. 

Letters are so much more than just a nod towards stuff that might help you post them and get them opened by the right person. Sure, they’re a blast from the past, but such is life. Remember, this is ONE style of letter writing –  a formal style. None of these things would be appropriate if you have a different audience who require an informal style. What goes in the middle may well ressemble an essay or an argument, but what goes around the edges tells your examiner that you know the conventions and appropriate style for a letter. You don’t need hundreds of these stylistic elements, but a handful would certainly show you understand that elusive ‘letterness’.

Next up: articles

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: Sentence Forms Part II

In the last post, I spent a while exploring all the different types and forms of sentence that you have available to you when you write.

To recap,

  • simple sentences
  • compound sentences
  • complex sentences
  • sentence fragments
  • compound-complex (and maybe complex-compound – who knows in these turbulent and anarchic times?)
  • declarative sentences
  • interrogative sentences (a.k.a. questions)
  • exclamatory sentences
  • imperative sentences
  • and negative versions of all of the above.

And if you are unsure what they all look like, you might want to take a trip back to the previous post, where I’ve provided examples and explained what they are. To be frank, it’s a rather constrained caper – less a fragrant romp than a smash-and-grab. But I appreciate not everyone has the stomach for a more exhaustive exploration of the peculiarities of English sentence construction… and so we move on today into exploration of how writers can use them.

I’m going to be looking mainly at a passage of narrative from best-selling author Lee Child and a piece of purplesque description from Angela Carter to explore sentence forms for effect in narrative and descriptive writing. Next time I’ll look at a bit of opinion from David Mitchell so you can see how sentences for effect work on Paper 2. Between them, you’ll see how writers are using a range of sentence forms for effect…

You know me well enough by now to know that I start with identification, and you can find that in the videos below.

Then some discussion.

And then a little application.

First is an identification of what type of sentences Lee Child uses in an extract from one of his action novels. You can explore the passage with me here:

To summarise, if you can’t be bothered to watch, he uses lots and lots of fragments, a lot of short sentences and the occasional ‘slow-motion’ complex or compound sentence where he breaks all the rules to really slow the action down and break it into pieces whilst at the same time giving it a sense of continuity.

One of my favourite fragments has to be this one:

You can tell I love it because I do a silly voice.

Technically, you don’t really want a full stop. Alone in the dark describes how he waited – it’s a complement of the verb. Alone is actually a way to describe ‘he’, so you have an adjective and then an adverbial that completes it, where he was, ‘in the dark.’

But if I’d seen it written, “Then he waited alone in the dark.” or “Then he waited in the dark”, or with a comma after waited, then he would have a complete sentence.

So why that full stop? Why that fragment?

It just builds up the drama. It makes you focus on that word Alone because it’s now after a pause. It just has the effect of highlighting that fragment, drawing attention to the content and reminding us that Reacher is a one-man army. The pauses before the paragraph and after the paragraph – all that empty space – adds emphasis to those two sentences. And then the full stop adds a break so that you’re really having to emphasise Alone.

The sentence that follows is also pretty cool. Seven actions – three complete and four participles…

Perez stepped into the night, turned to close the door behind him and Reacher swung, arms extended, hips twisting, driving forward off the back foot

You might ordinarily think that a long sentence slows things down and detracts from the tension. Whilst this slows things down and we get the minutiae of movement, that one sentence has seven actions in it. The fact that they are not separated by full stops makes them continuous. All that detail has the effect of going into slow motion so that we get a sense of a lot happening in a short moment. At the same time, by giving us all the details and all the movement, we are delayed from knowing whether or not he was successful.

The short sentence fragments that follow tell us that he wasn’t.

No Good. Late. 

He’s really playing around with the momentum, speeding us up one moment, slowing us down with a baseball metaphor. We have pairs of simple sentences started off by coordinating conjunctions:

But Perez’s head was not a baseball. And the G36 was not a bat. 

Before he takes us into the graphic compound sentence:

The sight block caught Perez in the temple and punched a shard of bone sideways through his left eye socket and on through the bridge of his nose and halfway through his right eye socket.

So why a compound sentence here, and why all those ands?

Firstly, compound sentences are long – and without punctuation, to use a cheesy cliché, they flow. There is a sense of unbroken movement. And that’s what this is describing. An unbroken movement. Although the actions ‘caught’ and ‘punched’ are chronological, by using a compound sentence, there is a sense that the ideas are equal too. It’s slow. It allows us to go slow-motion again and imagine the path that the shard of bone took. Were we of an unnecessarily violent disposition, we may savour that moment and appreciate those graphic details. It also has the added effect of not letting us know whether that stopped Perez or not. We’re still waiting to know what happened next.

In fact, Lee Child dedicates a full NINE sentences to that ONE blow. That’s a lot of detail for one action. We have a metaphor about baseball. We have a simile rooted in speculation about a soft-boiled egg.

That one hit with an assault rifle is evaluated in more detail than you’d probably expect, before we reach the conclusion:

Messy but effective. Perez was dead long before …

and I don’t even care what happens after we’re told the conclusion.

So why get that nine-ways-from-Sunday description and those compound sentences, that detail, the brutal figurative language?

Because otherwise it would read like this:

Reacher moved to the building. He could hear Perez inside on the telephone. Reacher waited. When Perez came out, Reacher hit him with the assault rifle. Perez died instantly. 

Not very exciting, suspenseful or interesting, is it?

But it’s the interplay between all those fragments that makes it interesting. It’s the use of that long compound sentence with that list of actions, the compound sentence that describes the impact of the blow, the parallel simple sentences… and barely a complex sentence at all.

That works beautifully for the action bit of your narrative.

I’m a big fan of using interplay between simple sentences, fragments and compound sentences in action writing. The compound sentence in particular is a nice way to make a lot seem like it happens in unbroken continuity. Fragments and simple sentences speed us up through the rollercoaster of action and increase tension.

They are definitely things you can use yourself.

As for the Angela Carter example… it is the opposite end of the spectrum. Fancy-schmanzy vocabulary, airy-fairy semi-colons. Poetic diction in purple prose. It’s too rich and elaborate for everyday use, but she’s playing with those sentences too.

So… what do we have here?

I’m not even going to get into categorising these sentences!

The first bit is fine. I can manage that. Up to the semi-colon, we have a simple sentence, and the semi-colon makes it into a compound sentence. The ‘but’ suggests an extension of that compound sentence. So three simple sentences spliced together with the embedded ‘not quite yet’ stuck in there.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. 

Oh, okay. Already I have a problem. We have a main verb ‘is’. And then some other bits with verbs, one of which is clearly an infinitive and doesn’t count. And one, ‘smile’, which is another infinitive? Waaaaah. If they are both infinitives it could still be a simple sentence.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile.
It is not yet the saddest time of the year.
Plus the embedded bit *not quite yet*

That suggests then that there are three simple sentences spliced into one compound sentence. One of the splicey things is a semi-colon. One is a FANBOYS.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet the saddest time of the year.

And then when I put that embedded bit back in, I’ve got my full sentence.

Let’s say compound it is then. Happy to take your sentence parsing in the comments and amend, by the way, if you are a better linguist than I am. Or if you are braver than I.

The next sentence is ALSO a compound sentence with a tacked-on ‘only’ and another embedded addition.

There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being.
The year turns in on itself. 

Phew. A little easier. You can see the simple sentences here.

And then a verbless fragment to finish it off.

Introspective weather. A sickroom hush. 

The main thing is that she’s using these compound sentences in the same way as Lee Child is. Yes, really. They stretch out that moment and extend the idea. They slow things down and add detail. She’s using the embedded bits and stick-on words to slow it further. The final fragment changes the pace a little.

Think of it if she’d written it like this:

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being. The year turns in on itself. It is introspective weather. There is a sickroom hush. 

That fancy vocabulary allows it to seem more lovely than it is. Let me make it more simple:

The trees look thin. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending. The year turns in on itself. It is thoughtful weather. It is as quiet as a sickroom. 

NOW we can really see what’s going on. See how average it sounds without some of that flash ‘imminent cessation of being’ (don’t get caught up on fancy-schmanzy, though… no jubilant adulations, please!)

So how does she take it from these decidedly average seven sentences?

First, she uses two semi-colons. Not to be rude, Ms Carter, you being a published writer and all, but personally I find two semi-colons in two adjacent sentences a bit rich for my taste, but it just goes to show that you can do what you like. I wouldn’t, but then that’s me.

She doesn’t just use the airy-fairy. No. She also has a simple FANBOYS. But.

She sticks on a word, ‘only’.

She adds a couple of embedded details in ‘in turning’ and ‘not quite yet’. That ‘not quite yet’ makes up for the semi-colon abuse use. I do love a little purposeful play with almost-quite repetition, especially when it slows things down so thoughtfully.

Then there is a gloss of lovely words, of course, but even without them, you can see how she’s using sentences to control the pace.

The trees look thin; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Thoughtful weather, a sickroom hush. 

Not quite so fancy when you get down to it, is it?

So… some stuff for you to try:

  • Use the heck out of those simple sentences. Get your money’s worth. They are very overlooked as a great way to shift the pace and speed things up in narrative or to change the pace in descriptive writing.
  • Add some fragments but please don’t put them in a single-word paragraph. They look ugly and it’s the writing equivalent of punching me in the face. Single-word fragments look fabulous at the beginning of a paragraph, add spice in the middle and add a bump on their own, but if I see another ‘Silence.’ floating on its own in space, I’m going to end up bursting my innards with angry frustration. They are dramatic enough without floating in space, dangling between paragraphs. Soften them a little, please.
  • Don’t overlook the compound sentence. Just because those FANBOYS seem to be things you’ve been using forever, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
  • Variety is the spice of life, but be purposeful. DECIDE what sentence length or type you are going to use before you put pen to paper. Stop at the full stops, lift your pen and make a decision before you venture forth into the next.
  • Don’t play before you’ve got the basics right. If you regularly put commas in where full stops should go, it’s like getting out the machine tools when you can’t use a spanner. Put them away and be comfortable with the basics.

And just because I can’t resist, I’m going to leave you with two more beautiful passages of description. One is from Bleak House and it is my most favourite set of sentences of all. The other is from The Great Gatsby. 

That one is from Dickens’ Bleak House. How you use sentences to make the fog seem like it’s everywhere. We’re not all Dickens, but we can learn from his style.

Now those sentences are pretty special, but they’re ways in which candidates looking to move up to the top levels might want to think about how to play around with their sentences.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how you can use a wide range of sentence forms for Paper 2 writing.