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,


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: Essays & Development

You may have arrived here looking for support on how to write essays for AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 2 Question 5 – the non-fiction writing question. Today I’m going to look at how you write an essay (which will also be the main bit of an article, letter or speech with a little adaptation) and how you can develop your ideas.

This post is the fifth in a series looking at letters, articles, speeches and leaflets.

So how do you write an essay (or the main body of the other bits)?

Very simply, you have time to write about three to four developed paragraphs or sections.

Why three to four?

The exam gives you about 50 minutes for planning and writing your response. Take 10 minutes off for thinking, planning and checking and you have about 40 minutes. Take off your introduction and conclusion, and you have about 30 minutes. On a good day at degree level (where I’d peaked at speedy essay writing!) I could manage a side of wide-lined A4 every 8 minutes. I’ll assume you are a little slower, so you’re looking at a maximum of three sides of fairly large handwriting, maximum. I guess I can write a good paragraph in about 7 or 8 minutes, which gives me time to write 3 or 4.

Why else three or four?

Partly, because you need a range of connected ideas to get to 13 or above out of 24. That’s around the Grade 5 boundary, possibly. A range, if you’ve not read this from me before, is not two. Two things are not a range. A range is a minimum of three. So you need three ideas in your response. If you go with the ‘new topic/idea = new paragraph’ approach, then that’s a minimum of three.

To get 16 or above you need a range of clear connected ideas. Ok – still three, just linked better. We’ll look at links next time.

To get 19 or above, you need a range of developed complex ideas. Now, if you are going to be developed and complex, you think that one idea that’s fully developed is enough. It isn’t. You’ve still got a range in there. Now, you may have 27 ideas but if you have 40 minutes to write, you’re looking at possibly 90 seconds on each. If you have 6, you have around 6 minutes on each. 6 minutes does not make for a lot of development.

So for me, it’s a minimum of three points, ideas or reasons, along with development. A maximum of five means you won’t have to sacrifice development.

What if you want to slip into the elusive Grade 9 territory? Those ideas have to be convincing. Other than that, it’s the same really as you’d be doing in the 19-21 band.

That is my secret formula for how many ideas/sections you want to be thinking about for good grades. You don’t want to sacrifice a range, but neither can you sacrifice development. This way, you know you’ve got a range and you know you’ve got time to develop your ideas.

Now most of the students’ work I mark at the lower grades – say Grade 4 and below – do not suffer with a lack of ideas. They’re the kind of papers where there are 27 ideas. None of them are linked and none of them are developed. Students at this level write paragraphs (or notional paragraphs, where there are clear places paragraphs should be even if they’ve been forgotten or left out) that are one or two sentences long.

Let’s take the sample assessment material question as an example:

‘Homework has no value. Some students get it done for them; some don’t do it at
all. Students should be relaxing in their free time.’

Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper in which you explain your point of
view on this statement.

A Grade 3 student is going to be writing a bit like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. 
People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.
There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class.
It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

Can you see? Four ideas, no development and no links at all. They could be in any order at all.

It might even have looked like this:

Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class. It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?

That’s what I mean about having notional paragraphs. There are places you want to put a paragraph break, but the student either has forgotten, hasn’t bothered or didn’t know.

The biggest problem students have moving up is learning how to develop their non-fiction paragraphs. Organising them can be pretty challenging too.

So, today, I’m going to give you NINE ways that you can develop and extend your paragraphs. They are not a checklist. You don’t have to do all nine. Some will be appropriate and some might not fit. Some might work and others won’t. And definitely don’t do all nine in one paragraph. That would be hideously unnecessary.

So, let’s take one of those ideas and give some examples of each of our nine things. I’m going to pick the clearest argument, that if you do it wrong, you’ve wasted your time, and then I’m going to have a play around with the nine ideas as examples.

#1 Explanation

This has got to come in at number 1, since this question is often going to be asking you to explain your viewpoint. An explanation is just you telling me why.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. 

As you can see, all I’m doing is explaining why it’s a waste of time. An explanation, by the way, is a good place for a colon. If you’ve read my post about colons, you’ll know why.

#2 Analogy

An analogy just means explaining something using “it’s like…”, kind of a bit like a simile. It points out the connections so that a reader can understand a difficult point and puts it in an image that is more clear for them. My analogy builds pretty nicely on the bit I just did, so I’ll continue:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. It’s like if you learn to cycle with your knees pointing out – you’ve practised it so often like that it just becomes natural to you. Even when people point out that you need to keep your knees in, it’s really hard to do it especially in the heat of the moment. It’s the same way with much of what we learn. The more we practise those errors, the more fixed they become.

So you can see me using a mix of analogy (the bit about the bike) and explanation – why homework is like that. I like to always finish an analogy by coming back to the central idea that connects the two, and explain why X is like Y. You might find that overkill, but I think it makes my writing a bit more neat in terms of organisation.

#3 Examples

Examples cover a broad range of ideas, some of which I’ll expand on by themselves. They help put things into practical terms, and work especially well for abstract ideas. Let’s take that first topic sentence again and expand it with an example:

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. If you keep making errors with commas, for example, and you just keep practising those errors, all that will happen is you’ll make those errors so many times that you think they’re right. There’s no way all your teachers will pick up on all the times you make mistakes with your commas, and so the more you make, the more you’ll think that’s how it’s supposed to be. 

Rather than being airy-fairy, examples are easy to imagine. They give weight to your explanation and make it into a real-life situation so that your reader can see the value in what you say. They help make the hypothetical or speculative into a somethingn that is easy to grasp. You can also use some discourse markers, like such as, for instance or for example to help make it clear that this is what you are doing.

#4 Anecdote

An anecdote is a specific form of example: one that is a personal story. It doesn’t have to be personal to you, but that’s one way you can do it.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. In Maths, for example, I did five hours of quadratic equations one week. By the time the teacher marked them, I’d really thought I had the process perfect. I did the factoring all wrong, but I practised it so many times that by the time I got my homework back with 0%, it wasn’t just demoralising for me, but it was also really hard to learn the right way of doing it because I’d practised it badly so many times. 

Anecdotes are the opposite of statistics in many ways: where statistics have lots of numbers involved (usually!) anecdotes are individual and personal. They’re useful though because once again, they put things in practical terms. They’re also useful because when you describe it and give that little bit of narrative, I can really see what you mean.

#5 Facts (and assertions)

A fact is something that can be proven with evidence – although you might not always have the evidence there. I ask myself whether or not your statement can be verified. If it can, then it’s a fact.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. It makes it very hard when you’ve done things wrong for a long time to then do it right. 

The last bit of this is a statement that sounds like a fact. Can it be verified? I’m guessing someone somewhere has done an experiment with mice to show that if they’ve always run through a maze one way, it makes it hard for them to then change the habit. It sounds like a fact, for sure. In the exam, you don’t have access to back-copies of scientific studies and lab results, so you will have to make things up. Facts make you sound authoritative and scientific. An assertion, by the way, is a statement that sounds like a fact but isn’t really, or there’s no real evidence for. It might be right or it might be wrong. Assertions are what you’ll mostly be making in the exam. That said, many writers make assertions in arguments or persuasive writing and write so authoritatively that you think it is a fact when it’s not. In the real world, I hate this. It’s a bit of false expertise. For instance, those who say ‘text speak and emoticons have a negative impact on spelling’… well, no study has been done on that, and it’s not shown in exams. Assertions make you sound like an expert. Many people give away their assertions by saying things like it’s a fact that or it’s true that and turn their opinions into facts. Say, for instance, I say “I believe that homework is unnecessary”, I can make it into a false fact or assertion by removing the “I believe that” bit. Homework is unnecessary. That sounds like a fact. But you and I both know that it is not. If I want to sound even more confident, I might add “It’s a fact that homework is unnecessary” which is my last-ditch desperate attempt to convince you that my opinion is a fact.

#6 Numbers and statistics

This is one I actually hate and I find it can be the one part of writing that comes across as really ridiculous. You’ll have lots of lovely argument or explanation, and then it’ll all be ruined by a number or statistic that is utterly unconvincing, even if it’s true. Too big, and it seems unrealistic. Too precise and it also seems unrealistic.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 83% of students make the same error in every single homework they do. 

That sounds ridiculous because it is too precise. It’s also too big. But if I make it too small, it seems silly.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 3% of students make the same errors time and time again. 

As if that’s a reason to get rid of homework!

Getting the balance right is hard. It has to sound sensible. Most statistics and numbers don’t, particularly for students at Grade 4 – 6. It can be the one ugly, niggling little detail that makes something sound inauthentic.

So, if you must use them, err on the side of caution and generalise.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. According to a recent survey, almost a third of students admitted that they make the same mistake in every piece of homework, but they don’t know how to change. 

One of my students in the week was writing a Paper 2 piece about teenagers, in which he’d made up a nice statistic about 20% of teenagers having been wrongly arrested. That sounded a lot, but it also sounded a bit made up. It might have been more believeable to say that for teenage arrests, almost 90% went without charges being pressed. We did a bit of research and found 74,588 young people (16-17) in 2008-9 were convicted, reprimanded or warned. There are about 1.5 million 16 year olds in the UK, so you could work out actual statistics, especially if you had numbers for people taken into custody – which is what I would do were I really writing an article about false or unproductive arrests for teenagers. However, as soon as I get specific with big numbers, like saying “There are 1504788 16 year olds in the UK”, it sounds immediately made up. Newspapers and magazines, alongside speech writers, round up statistics all the time to make them more palatable. Can you imagine even trying to say 1504788 in a speech? “There are one million five hundred and four thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight sixteen year olds in the UK.” After five hundred, I bet you were scratching your head. Too precise statistics sound ridiculous. Round up and sound real.

Just as an aside, I went through the ten most-read opinion articles in each major paper today, and only two had a statistic in them. Numbers, sometimes, like 202 people were killed in the Bali bombing in 2002, or 9 of the 11 countries with the best equal rights records are in the EU. They aren’t used as often as you think they are, I promise. If you’re going to use them, get them right, and avoid if not.

#7 Series of questions

These are not rhetorical questions, always, but just questions. You may well go on to answer them. Remember, I’m not such a fan of rephrasing the question to start off your answer (simply because I remember one year on an old, old paper where it seemed like everyone had done it – and it was really, really annoying after a while).

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? 


Especially URGH if you’re going to do this afterwards:

Have you ever got frustrated with homework? I have.

But done properly, a row of questions can make a nice point.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. What’s the point in making error after error? Especially if it rarely gets corrected? 

Two felt like a good number here. But three or four wouldn’t be unreasonable. I just didn’t have any more questions that seemed to fit. These questions are really good at making it obvious that there is no point at all in making error after error, or never being corrected.

#8 Imagine ifs…

An “Imagine if” is a good way to speculate about a future or a situation which isn’t currently the case. It’s a ‘best case scenario’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ where you put forward all the possible good things that could be the case IF your suggestions were put into place. It’s the ideal, the possible, the dream scenario.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there’s a better way to learn? A way in which students get fairly immediate feedback that they can act on quickly. This may seem like a wild dream, but it happens already. In-class oral feedback, whether it’s from your peers or from a teacher, is a much better way to avoid endless repetition of error that just makes them more and more hardened. Guided writing, peer writing and small group work is a way to take pressure off teachers and enable students to become better appraisers of not only their own work, but also that of others. Isn’t that the ideal we’re all working for?

By putting forward hypothetical best-case scenarios, you’re presenting all the positive reasons to do something. It’s non-confrontational, it’s celebratory and it’s inoffensive. Who could criticise you for wanting to change things for the better? If you’re writing to a school to ban homework – part of the very institution of schools – you’ll win more votes with blue skies than with tellings off, I promise. It works very well when you pile it up with number 9…

#9 Worst-case scenarios

If you’re using blue skies and possibilities to imagine a better future, it’s nice to contrast that with the flaws of the current system. It’s particularly nice if you imagine those flaws from the perspective of your reader – ones you know they’re going to admit to.

What isn’t nice is if you turn it into a big list of selfish moans.

Homework is the bane of our lives. It makes us miserable. We hate it. You only do it to torture us, or because you think OfSTED think you should, or the parents complain if you don’t give us something to do. It’s cheating us of our lives and turning us into mindless drones. I don’t even get a social life because of it. I hate homework!

Imagine what your audience would criticise it for and then describe it from their point of view.

It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there are better ways to spend your evenings than poring over exercise books – homework half-completed, tatty, lacking in application or effort. Is there anything worse than the sinking sense of déjà vu that you’ve marked their/there wrong in every single piece of Billy’s homework since the day he started in Year 7, and he still hasn’t got it? You tell him and you tell him, but nothing changes. It’s a waste of your time and a waste of your effort. But why is it that Billy still isn’t getting it? Is it because he just hadn’t understood at all? And if writing a big long explanation underneath each time isn’t helping, what will? Studies show that the best feedback is immediate: five minutes working with Billy until he has that lightbulb moment might be all it takes. That’s surely got to be one of the best reasons to put an end to the monotony of marking? 

In that final bit, you can see how I’m blending series of questions, made-up anecdotes, facts (made-up ones), examples, worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, explanation… Those nine things help me really build up my paragraph into something beyond those simple topic sentence paragraphs. Is that a developed, complex idea? I like to think so. Is it convincing? I’ll leave that to you to decide. It’s convincing to me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Two more paragraphs like that, along with the appropriate tailoring for whatever text-type you’re writing, a genre-specific opening and ending, and you have yourself a well-rounded GCSE English Language non-fiction response.

In the next post I’ll be looking at ways you can organise and link your ideas more securely to improve your marks.

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Leaflet

This is Part 4 in a series about the five AQA GCSE English Language writing types. You can find the other posts on letters, articles and speeches if you click on the links. Today it’s number 4: the leaflet.

Unlike the other three, which will have largely different openings and endings, and largely similar middles (with a few special tweaks), leaflets are kind of different all the way through. They have some features of articles, and their content is largely based on what the purpose is, but most students get a bit stuck when they get to leaflets.

Once again, they fall into the trap of what they look like rather than what they sound like, and that means most students fall a bit short of the mark when it comes to whether or not you can create an authentic, realistic piece of writing.

If you remember:

With the 8 ‘bands’ of marking roughly equating to 4 levels (upper and lower) which are then sorted into 9 grades. Seriously, you couldn’t make that up, could you? Only English teachers could devise a situation like that.

Anyhow, if you’re aiming for a 5, think about 14 or 15, and if you’re aiming for Grade 7, think about 18 or 19. If you want a Grade 9, think 22+. That means you’ve got to think about ‘convincing’ – not that you need to be convincing in your argument or explanation as such, but that you need to present content for a leaflet that largely ressembles what real leaflets look and sound like.

Those are all rough estimates, because a lot depends on the paper, the complexity, the spread of marks and about a dozen other factors that decide – once you’ve done the paper – whether 18 is a Grade 6, a 7 or an 8.

Back to leaflets…

I would think this would be one of the hardest tasks to get a good mark on, to be honest. When was the last time you read an ‘assured and compelling’ leaflet?

If you did, I bet it was the pictures that captured your attention.

Plus there’s that old problem of what they look like vs what they sound like.

Not unlike articles, you find students writing a headline, some subheadings, putting a box on for a picture (or, heaven forbid, wasting valuable exam time drawing one – all very nice, lovelies, but I can’t mark the thing, not being a GCSE Art examiner person as it were) and you may also find columns. Again, don’t bother with the columns. If columns and a box where a picture is supposed to go are all you know about leaflets, well… it’s a very good job you’re here!

So, what do AQA say leaflets might look and sound like?

At the bottom grades, you’re working on things like:

 the use of a simple title
 paragraphs or sections.

And if you’re aiming for better?

 a clear/apt/original title
 organisational devices such as inventive
subheadings or boxes
 bullet points
 effectively/fluently sequenced paragraphs

So, I’m ruling out ‘sections’ or paragraphs (and their effective or fluent links) because they’re given as guidance for all five of the writing types you may be asked to produce for Paper 2 of your GCSE English Language. Not a feature of leaflets alone.

Titles or headlines may be similar to those you’d have on an article. You may also want to use subheadings in both.

You MAY see boxes and bullet points then. Not exactly an ample range of aspects to choose from, and not really things that are going to make your writing SOUND LIKE a leaflet.

There are, to be honest, a bountiful number of features in leaflets (as with articles) that relate to presentation: colour, font, size, logos, italics, underlining, bold, capitalisation… I could go on.

Most of these are the realms of a designer, not a writer. They are not things for you to do on your GCSE paper: I don’t care if you’re trying to emulate the clarity and simplicity of a sans serif font, or if you’re using colour (Don’t! Not under any circumstance!)

But if you were to underline words or go over them to make them bold, or use capitals, well, I wouldn’t be averse to that.

What I care about most, though, is whether or not you can write like a leaflet writer.

And once you’ve removed the old columns-colours-and-pictures bit, where does that leave you?

A headline?

Some subheadings?

Surely then that’s also the same as an article?

No wonder it’s such a headache!

So, how do you write like a leaflet?

The main thing is that it is usually (and it depends on the task) 3rd person. It is the anonymous third person throughout. Articles, letters and speeches usually have some ‘I’s in there somewhere – it wouldn’t be inappropriate. And they may have the occasional writer biography, which you know I am a fan of. A letter and a speech SHOULD have you giving a little away about yourself. They are transactional. They invite transaction or reply, a response. A leaflet is not always a transaction. It is often a closed bit of a thing that doesn’t require a response. Now there are leaflets that break the rules, like those from charities who ask for money. We’ll look a little at those.

This is why you so often find them paired up with informative writing, though. Doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, hairdressers, supermarkets, banks, waiting rooms, tourist information offices … Wherever you are, you might find yourself some lovely informative leaflets, telling you about heart disease or where you can go if you have a cough, information about colouring products for your hair, information about diet or products, where to go if you want to see historic buildings in your area…

They have a lot in common with websites, by the way, especially the static kind where the information doesn’t change much. In fact, you could largely take the text off many websites and put happily into a leaflet without much of a change.

But you do find persuasive ones too. Often they come through your letter box as junk mail. They are a little different, and we’ll look at those too.

So the content and style is affected by the purpose for which you are writing, but those things have less of an impact on organisation.

Let’s look at organisational aspects of both kinds of leaflet.

First, you have a screenshot of part of a leaflet from an old Edexcel GCSE source text from the RNLI about beach safety

What you’ve got here is effectively the back and the front. So what can we see that you can use to help you sound leaflet-like?

First, a simple CLEAR title.

You won’t have photos to depend on to attract the reader. Depending on the task and the purpose, you could use an imperative:


Or a statement about what they’ll find in the leaflet:


But simple is best. BEACH SAFETY wouldn’t be the worst title in the world. ON THE BEACH is clear and simple. Your heading should be too.

You’ve also got a summary strapline: “Your guide to a safe and fun time at the seaside”

That’s clear – and if your heading is cryptic, you’ll need a clear strapline. It’s simple. The language is simple. It says exactly what it is. Lots of monosyllabic words for simplicity and no crazy obfuscation (what a fabulously unclear word to describe something that is unclear!)

Two things, then, that you can do to start you off. You’ll notice that, unlike articles, there is no waffly build-up. It is simple and clear. That’s because the purpose is to inform, advise and maybe to persuade you a little.

To finish, there is a yellow call-out box (posh name for information/advice in a separate box to make it stand out because it’s important) which is something you may wish to do too.

Boxes are on the AQA list of stuff for leaflets. It is also a “Call To Action”, which we’ve seen can be an effective way to end an article or a speech. It’s speculative: “if you see… then do this…”

And you can see, unlike a letter, it has the address at the bottom with all the other ways you can get in touch.

You can see now why I said leaflets are not unlike websites:

This one hasn’t got a strapline. The heading is just ‘Bike’ (aids searchability on search engines – which leaflets don’t have to care about) but there is a call-out box (or circle in this case)

And guess what?

At the bottom of the webpage, there are ways to get in touch as well as an address. There’s an imperative call to action: “Sign up for…” and a logo.

Not in any way different than the RNLI one.

So, that’s your “top and tail” – your opening and ending.

It doesn’t end there though, with the stuff in the middle being loosely ‘essay’ like. Nope.

Let’s look at the middle pages:

Subheading: “True Story” – so a lengthy anecdote then. On the right, there is another box with a subheading, “RIPS”, and a diagram. The anecdote is simple enough. Again, you might find something like that in an article. Notice how it’s got the third-person introduction, “Carolynne Yard will never forget”, and then it goes into 1st person with the whole thing framed in speech marks?

But the bullet points are a new thing. We may find them in an article. Not likely to find them in a speech. Fairly unlikely to find them in a letter.

You’ve got a mix of speculative “if you…” points and imperatives, “Stay… Keep… Raise” which goes with the general inform/advise purpose of the leaflet. Bullet points are good ways to give a lot of information clearly and simply. Like the call-out box, it’s another thing specifically mentioned by AQA as a feature of leaflets that you might want to use. You can also see the bold too. Colons can be used to introduce a bullet point list, as you can see here. You can also see the first introductory informative sentence.

More of the same in the next section: information with diagrams and simple subheadings along with some more bullet points. Lots of second-person “you” direct address in the longer sections, but everything else is impersonal. There is no sense of who is writing this. No personality. No humour. Nothing that can be misunderstood. Leaflets are impersonal to the extreme.

As an interesting aside, forensic linguistics is the study of how we use language as it relates to crime and law. One of the things they do is look at idiosyncratic or personal styles of punctuation, idea-organisation, spelling and writing to find the ‘fingerprints’ in our writing. Whilst our personal style is useful in articles, letters and speeches, there shouldn’t be a single whiff of it in a leaflet. If you’re a regular reader of these articles, you know I have my own ‘turn of phrase’, which, whilst not exactly unique, helps create my own fingerprint. Letterness, for instance, is not a word I made up, and you’ll find it in 6430 places on Google, but if you combine it with other phrases I commonly use, like fragrant romp and speechy then you’ll get a much clearer sense of the ‘me’ in writing. Indeed, search for letterness + “fragrant romp” and there is precisely one page listed on Google: mine.

Couple that with my preferences for semi-colons, hyphens and dashes and if I wrote a ransom or kidnap letter, you’d be pretty likely to be able to work out that I was behind it.

As a further aside that is probably only interesting to me, this is how they work out if Shakespeare is really the author of his plays and how they’d work out if a play turned up that someone thought was really a lost work of Shakespeare.

A digression, I know.

Leaflets should not have any of these unique peculiarities, any of these personal peccadillos. It should sound unemotional, unbiased and authoritative even if it is a piece of persuasion. Nobody should be able to see YOU behind the curtains in the execution of a leaflet.

Let’s look a little closer at that impersonal style.

As you can see, from the beginning it sounds namelessly authoritative. “Swimming is one of the best…” and you can see clearly there how impersonal it is. No I think or we believe. Just cold hard assertion or assertion-as-fact.

It’s also got lots of second person direct address.

The paragraphs are fairly short – what I might call tabloid paragraphs. There is also a call to action at the end of the section. Simple, clear vocabulary and simple, clear sentences. There are few contractions, no it’ll but the dash instead of a colon on the second line, and the you’re in the third paragraph, are slightly less formal and a little more chatty.

Whilst there may not be any personal tone or pronouns, there is often a big biography to help add authenticity and validity to the leaflet. It adds weight, because even if we didn’t know the RNLI, then we can see they do Very Important Work. It is one of the factors that makes them sound genuine. In this section, you see the general first-person pronoun ‘we’. Other leaflets may have that we outside this bit, but that depends. This is where you’ll find facts and statistics, numbers, dates, wikipedia-type stuff. Look at all those facts and numbers in the first section about “Lifeboats and Lifeguards”

The call-out on this page is very different, with much more development. Again, it explains the mission of the group. It finishes with a call to action, “donate now” and what was informative on the other pages has now become a direct attempt to persuade you to donate.

Most charities seem to have made a shift to information-sharing rather than out and out appeals for money, so there are not so many examples of hard-core selling these days. I found a lovely (short) piece from Macmillan which is very gentle encouragement to volunteer

You can see a lot of the organisational features remain the same… heading, subheadings, the bullet point list, the call-out box with a call to action, the call to action at the end with the imperative verbs and speculative ‘If you need…’ with the usual multiple “couldn’t be easier” methods of contact. In the headings and subheadings, you can see those questions (which are then answered in the text), the imperative Make… the direct address, a colon introducing a list.

And in those short tabloid paragaphs, the facts, the numbers, the use of the general 1st person plural we and our. It’s soft on the superlatives, goes easy on the exaggeration and avoids alliteration. Not a triple, tripartite or rule of three to be seen.

As a final note, I will say that although tabloid paragraphs are entirely appropriate and easy to replicate, it’s one convention of articles and leaflets that I’d steer clear of. The reason is that you are asked to develop your ideas. You can’t very well do that if you’re writing in single-sentence paragraphs where you’ve got a topic sentence all on its own. When I mark work, if I don’t know the student, I have no way of knowing that the student can develop their paragraphs or not, and markers can’t just go around inferring that the writer can or can’t. When there is no evidence of development, it makes a little hard to tick a mental box to say the ideas are well developed.

Likewise with order. Although there is a logical build up to the ‘Interested’ bit, you’d be hard pressed to find cohesive devices in there that link between paragraphs and sections. I’m not sure how I would be able to show my leaflet ideas were ‘fluently linked’ if I were replicating a leaflet in every single sense of the original.

Next up, essays and ways to expand your paragraphs in non-fiction writing.

GCSE English Language Writing Types: Speech

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at the different genres of writing that you could get on AQA English Language Paper 2. We’ve covered articles and letters so far in the process, and today I’m looking at speeches.

So, another genre that’s a little contrived and a little out of most people’s comfort zone. Other than Best Man speeches at a wedding, few people actually get up and speak in front of other people once they’re out in the real world. Some of us may go on to do a lot of public speaking. Some of us may be in debating teams. Others may just fancy leading others into revolution and revolt. But there is a reason that public speaking is our greatest fear… and why so many people shy away from it.

In school, it’s a little different. Teachers like giving you a speech to prepare. Assemblies are one place you might get called on to speak, and you may well get a spoken project in class for one subject or another.

I don’t know about you – and no offence to anyone reading this – but many of the speeches I asked for at the beginning of my teaching career were duller than you could possibly imagine.

“Now, Year 7,” the younger version of me would say, “I’d like you to do a speech about one of your hobbies…”

Cue 15 talks about fishing, 5 about ponies, 3 about rabbits, 2 about rugby league rules and 1 about playing video games.

All of those talks were at least 30 minutes long and we spent the best part of April and May as a captive audience with me shushing anyone who dared whisper at the back.

And then there was invariably the Year 11 post-work experience talks. Cue 3 weeks of students talking about how many cups of tea they made and how they never, ever want to work in an office.

I got savvy after this. I copied good stuff on television and we did Room 101 speeches about things that bugged us. Year 8 did a magic trick and ran through the formal patter of magicians. I ran a thing called “It’s So Unfair!” based on the fiction of Jon Scieszka and we played the much-maligned characters from fairy stories. My favourite ever was one of my Year 11s doing a retelling of The Grinch, written in perfect Dr Seuss rhyme. I got to dress up as an Ugly Sister and I didn’t have to listen to people talking about working in their mum’s estate agency.


What I wanted were the kind of socially-conscious kids who were passionate about social issues as I had been. But then I was a weird child and I’m pretty sure nobody feels as strongly as I felt about ethics at 14. I’d have loved to have ushered the Next Great Speaker into the world by way of listening to Churchill, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Martin Luther King and such like, but it never happened.

But exam boards still seem to cling on to the last, desperate hope that some of today’s yoof are more interested in local community centres than they are in the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and so needs must.

You’re just going to have to prepare for being Teenage Me, and giving a rip-roaring speech to a captive audience an audience of your peers about something that will bore the pants off them a recent hot topic.

Let’s talk, then, about the conventions and customs of public speaking, about the register and devices that most of them use, so that you can attempt to be more speechy in your writing tasks. Otherwise, without that speechiness, what you’re writing is just an essay, or the main body of an article, without the article-y bits.

Like articles and like letters, much of speechiness rests in your opening and ending. What you do there can show whether or not you have enough of a grasp about speeches to be ‘convincing’.

So what do AQA say you might do when writing your speech? Let’s start there.

As a minimum, you could include:

 a simple address to an audience
 sections
 a final address to an audience.

So, I’m not really seeing anything very speechy. You might find those features in articles or letters.

For more developed responses, you could include:

 a clear address to an audience
 effective/fluently linked sections to
indicate sequence
 rhetorical indicators that an audience is
being addressed throughout
 a clear sign off e.g. ‘Thank you for

So some of it is about linking, just you’ll find in letters, leaflets and articles. Some is about stuff that you can do that shows awareness of a live audience. And the rest is those openings and endings.

Generally speaking, when we stand up to do a speech, someone else has introduced us. It’s customary to thank them for having you, for hosting you, for giving you a bit of a soapbox on which to stand. Like letters, polite – but not to the point of obnoxiousness. You’ve got to get the tone and content right. No shouty ranting, no matter how on board your audience is with your talk.

Forget those “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, or those “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” kind of openings that grab your reader right from the start. In real life, most speeches start with some fairly standard conventions.

One of those is the thank you to your audience and your hosts. You can thank them for taking the time to listen to you, for inviting you, for indulging you, for giving you time to speak. You can also nod your head to the occasion and event, if it’s mentioned in the task. You can explain why your host invited you to speak.

It’s also a really good idea to introduce yourself a little bit.

When you’ve done that, then you can build up to the persuasive bits or get your rhetorical devices in.

Let’s have a look at the November 2017 task:

‘Education is not just about which school you go to, or what qualifications you
gain; it is also about what you learn from your experiences outside of school.’

Write a speech for your school or college Leavers’ Day to explain what you think
makes a good education.

Great. Captive audience of wild-eyed Year 11s who just want to get out and indulge in whatever the Leavers’ Day traditions are, be they something innocuous like writing on everyone’s shirts, or something deeply childish like egging each other or throwing flour bombs. Half the schools I worked at had the police on call on Leavers’ Day… and you’ve got to give a speech to these foaming-mouthed teenagers who just want to let off a bit of steam before exams start??!

I’m guessing that it was anticipated you’d all have warm, emotional and inspirational assemblies with teary-eyed year 11s all wise, nostalgic and sentimental, happy to sit through ten minutes of you waffling about a good education.

So let’s imagine that scenario, shall we, rather than an irate headteacher who’s spent ten minutes reminding you all that if you egg anyone, your Prom privileges are forfeited and you won’t be welcome back in school except for your exams.

Before we start, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite assembly speeches, from Ja’mie, star of Summer Heights High.

A great example of some of the conventions of speeches, as well as some cringeworthy examples of how not to alienate your captive audience. Some dos and don’ts based on Ja’mie’s example:

  • Do thank the people who asked you to speak
  • You don’t need to thank absolutely everyone involved
  • Do introduce yourself
  • Don’t alienate your audience
  • Do try to make yourself sound friendly and sincere
  • Do speak directly to your audience and include things in your speech that make it clear that you’re trying to engage them
  • Be polite
  • Do use facts and statistics if they fit in
  • Don’t wander off topic in an attempt to engage your audience
  • Finish with a call to action and a polite imperative
  • Don’t use ones that are rude about your listeners and definitely don’t talk to them as if they are stupid!

So how would I open and end my speech explaining my ideas about a good education in that fictional Leavers’ Assembly?

First, I’d thank the head teacher, who I guess would have introduced me. And then I’d thank the audience for listening. I’d introduce myself, even though they may already know who I am. I’m not going to try to be funny or smart, because I try that sometimes and I’m so bad at it. I have a student currently who is really, really good at it. If you can pull off a comical, satirical or humorous approach and it would be fitting for the occasion, audience and purpose, go for it.

Here’s my sample opening:

Thank you, Mr Burns, for your kind introduction and having chosen me to speak today. I’m sure you can all well imagine the terror of having to stand up and speak. It’s the ultimate revenge, I’m sure, for all those times we misbehaved in class or made it difficult for our teachers to actually do their job. It is, of course, an honour, not a punishment, to be speaking to you all today on this most auspicious occasion: what may be, for some of us, our final day in school. Certainly, our final day together as a group before we begin our exams.

Although I am unsure why I’ve been chosen today to represent the student voice, I know part of it must be how passionate I am about what goes into a good education. It is not just about bums on seats and how many Powerpoints Mr Ambrose can take us through in Biology. Nor is it about results or who gets the best grades. What makes a good education is so much more than that.

And in my ending, I’m going to try once again to refer to occasion, to the audience.

As I come to the end, I hope you share my vision of what makes a good education, but that you also share my gratitude to the school for the role they have played in giving us the very best. I know I also speak for us all when I thank the school for playing their part in making our school days truly the best days of our life, and I know you will join with me now in thanking our headteacher, Mr Burns, and his wonderful and dedicated body of staff who have given us so very much. Whilst education may be many things, it is in no small part down to those people who provide it for us.

I hope I speak on behalf of our year group when I ask that you  accept our most sincere thanks. We will go out into the exams and the world beyond hoping to do you proud.

Not Julius Caesar or Henry V, not Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but speechy for sure. Appropriate, I hope, for the occasion and the audience, too.

Next up: leaflets

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?


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. 


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

Using sentence forms effectively on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2

In the last two posts, I’ve been looking at what a variety of sentence forms means, and how you can use these specifically on Paper 1 to help you improve your mark for technical accuracy with narrative or descriptive writing.

To recap, ‘a wide range of sentence forms’ may include some of the following:

  • 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.

You may also find it helpful to remember that this is a ‘may use’ list, not a ‘must use’ list. I’d hate to think of people turning this into a checklist. This is your toolbox. You don’t have to use all the tools. You just need the right one for the job. Just because you have a hacksaw in your toolkit doesn’t mean you have to use it.

I know you understand why those floaty-light compound sentences can add a certain quality to your writing in description, and why those terse little simple sentences and fragments are so effective at changing the pace, speeding things up and adding a bit of drama.

But how on earth would you use them on Paper 2?

When you’re writing to explain, you may not think you need to bother. Surely ‘pace’ and ‘suspense’ aren’t that relevant?

We’re going to look at a few examples from different non-narrative texts where they’re explaining a point of view, looking at what type of sentences they’re using and why they’ve chosen that particular tool for the job. My favourite David Mitchell will appear, simply because he’s a man who understands the delights of the sentence form. But I’ll be picking out other examples from the opinion columns in the news, as well as some other examples from different non-fiction I’m reading.

Let’s start with a bit of David Mitchell. This is the conclusion of an article whose headline is “Why do our spies keep telling us everything?”

The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create, from the security services’ point of view, a virtuous circle of increasing funding. Modern espionage is about what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the opposite. It’s become my sort of job after all.

Let’s look at these three sentences one at a time.

The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create, from the security services’ point of view, a virtuous circle of increasing funding.

So, where’s that main verb? Hidden. Hidden right in the middle. It’s “create”, just in case you haven’t spotted it. I’m just going to take out the embedded clause to make it a little more simple, and underline the verb.

The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create a virtuous circle of increasing funding.

So what is the subject? What “creates”?

  1. The widely reported terrorist threat.
  2. The stories of near misses.
  3. The stories of “heightened terror alerts”
  4. The announcement of more investment to “keep us safe”.

Four subjects then, for one verb.

Why on earth would you have four subjects? For me, I think Mitchell is showing us that there are multiple reasons why spies keep telling us everything. More funding is the consequence or outcome, and those four subjects are four ways in which MI6 gets more funding.

That list adds to the effect that there is more than one reason. Why would he do this? To increase emphasis on the fact that there are lots of reasons why MI6 wants us to know everything they are doing. What we have here is a compound subject and a single verb. Because we have a compound subject, it avoids repetition. Just as the compound sentence in narrative or descriptive writing enables us to slow down or to dwell on a thing, so we find the same effect in non-narrative writing too. It allows us to dwell on the many reasons. See how he also uses an embedded detail just as Angela Carter does so that he can stretch the sentence out even further?

The second sentence is shorter:

Modern espionage is about what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the opposite.

Two verbs and a dependent clause, but you can also see how this sentence is much simpler. Like other writers, you find David Mitchell also using a more simple word choice too. Gone are the polysyllabic words like “announcement” and “investment” and we find ourselves with a string of monosyllables: “what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the”

You sense a simplification. From a long, compound listing of subjects in the first sentence, along with its embedded detail, we then have a shorter, more monosyllabic sentence. And we reach a crescendo with the third:

It’s become my sort of job after all.

And a simple sentence to finish off.

Those simple sentences in non-fiction are just fabulous at getting your main point across. If you want to highlight or underline an idea, a simple sentence is the old-fashioned way of drawing attention to it and making it easy to understand.

The next is from The Guardian’s Gary Younge, and an article whose headline reads: “Nearly every mass killer is a man. We should all be talking more about that.”

There will be, though, no appeals for moderate men to denounce toxic masculinity, no extra surveillance where men congregate, no government-sponsored schemes to promote moderate manhood, or travel bans for men. Indeed, the one thing that is consistently true for such incidents, whether they are classified as terrorist or not, will for the most part go unremarked. Obviously not all men are killers.

Again, you’ve got a longest – long – short format. This time, the list is on the other side of the verb “will be”. We have an added-in bit in “though”, and four things that won’t happen despite the problem.

The second sentence in that has a long embedded bit.

And we finish with a simple sentence to state his view clearly.

Can you see something else at work across David Mitchell and Gary Younge? They’re using embedded clauses to interject their views or an extra detail.

Let’s take a look at a different writer, and how they’re using sentence forms for effect in their non-fiction non-narrative writing…

This time it’s the turn of scientist Robert Sapolsky, from his book Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst.

We have our strategy in place. A behaviour has occurred – one that is reprehensible, or wonderful, or floating ambiguously in between. What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behaviour? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behaviour? That is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously. 

So we star with a simple sentence. Short and pithy. Unlike Mitchell and Younge, Sapolsky starts his paragraph with it. And then we get longer with a complex sentence which has three components to explain the behaviour – bad, good or middling – and then a question. That’s answered simply with a simple sentence.

What I really like follows. Can you see the pattern? His second question starts in the same way his first did. He’s using repetition and tying in bits from the first qustion to the second, and the answer to the second question.

What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behaviour? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behaviour? That is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously. 

What I particularly like – and how clever is this from a scientist no less? – is the way he goes from ‘province’ (a small administrative division within a country) to ‘world’ which shows how miniscule the root cause of the nervous system is compared to the ‘world’ of sensory stimuli.

You’ve also got patterning with ‘this’ and ‘that’.

So he’s not just using a range of sentence forms to explain his ideas, he’s using cohesive devices to link and build his ideas too.

Think how dull it would be if he wrote like this:

Behaviour is caused by the nervous system. This is in turn caused by sensory stimuli, much of which is sensed unconsciously.

So why is Sapolsky writing like this?

Because he wants to sell a book to the masses. Popular science is a hit seller if the tone is right. But you’ve got to make sure it’s easy to understand and – more importantly – that it’s engaging. Plus, he’s an engaging kind of a guy. He’s passionate about neuroscience and about behaviour, and he is one of those exceptional few who seems to want to share the wonders of his specialism with the people around him.

Let’s compare that with the opening of a book by equally brilliant neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp:

This book takes us on an archaeological dig deep into the recesses of the mammalian brain, to the ancestral sources of our emotional minds. To the best of our knowledge, the basic biological values of all mammalian brains were built upon the same basic plan, laid out in consciousness-crafting affective circuits that are concentrated in sub-cortical regions, far below the neocortical “thinking cap” that is so highly developed in humans

Not to do Panksepp a disservice, he does go on to use a simple sentence. But then he didn’t write The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion with the same audience in mind. And much of the complexity of that opening is related to the vocabulary as well.

Let’s take a final look at Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel by Carl Safina. Obviously it is compulsory for Pop Science writers to use a colon in their title. Or, it is a compulsion for me to pick up Pop Science books with a colon in the title. That’s by the by. This is the opening of his chapter about elephants.

Finally I saw that the very land itself had risen, that the sunbaked land had taken form as something vast and alive and was in motion. The land walked as multitudes, their strides so utterly of the earth that they seemed the source of the very dust. The cloud they raised engulfed us, seeped into every pore, coated our teeth, sifted into our minds. Both flesh and metaphor. That big. 

Interesting. He’s got that final shortening just as Mitchell and Younge had. I like the way he has that (compound-complex?) sentence at the beginning for the sense of movement – just as fiction writers do. I particularly like his ‘vast AND alive AND was in motion’. Who says you can’t use two ands in a list? Then a complex sentence to follow. Following that, the lovely sentence with the four verbs, “engulfed… seeped… coated… sifted…” and then two fragments to finish off.

So you can see that the interplay – the ‘poetry’, if you will – of sentence forms, is as useful to science writers, to ethologists and neuroscientists, as it is to fiction writers about blokes punching other blokes so hard that they kill them. They use the same features, the same embedded clauses, the same additional details, the same structures. And they too build to conclusions. They go simple for the simple bits.

Clever, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But it’s the purposeful quality of this that is important. These aren’t writers thinking, “Okay… I have to use a simple sentence, a compound sentence, a fragment and a complex sentence. I should start with a rhetorical question.”

They’re thinking of their ideas and then deciding which sentence is the best vehicle for the idea.

Simple ideas in simple sentences.

Complex ideas in compound or complex sentences.

Multiple causes in sentences with compound subjects.

Action in sentences with multiple strings of verbs.

When you get down and you start rooting underneath the bonnet of people’s writing, you start seeing the mechanical bits at work. And that can be as awe-inspiring as seeing elephants rising up out of the African savannah or watching neurons firing.

Where does that take us if we’re a GCSE student?

If you’re aiming for a good Level 3, you will be using some of the same features ‘for effect’, and if you’re level 4, you’re doing it with the same purposeful and appropriate effects as Mitchell, Younge, Sapolsky and Safina.

So, to recap:

  • You have a variety of sentence forms that you can choose from. They’re not a checklist – they’re a toolkit.
  • Think about the type of sentence you’re going to use before you commit pen to paper.
  • Think of overall shifts and patterns. Just because it’s not poetry doesn’t mean you can do away with language patterns. Even simple things like sentence length can help.
  • If it’s the main bit of your message, use a simple sentence. Double the effect by using a high ratio of monosyllabic words. Triple the effect by making it the first or last sentence of a paragraph.
  • Don’t use one-word fragments in paragraphs on their own. It’s like a punch in the face.
  • If you are trying to make something seem like it’s got lots of aspects and is very complex, compound subject lists are lovely.
  • Don’t overlook strings of questions.
  • Slow down and don’t let your writing just spill out. Sure, we get carried away with ideas. Sure, we forget punctuation and demarcation. Write less, but write better. Control your thoughts as they emerge and think about what sentence is best suited to convey your ideas. If you’re aiming for Level 3, you’ll be doing that five or six times across the writing section  – at least. And if you’re aiming for Level 4, I want to see you really crafting those sentences!

Next time, I’m going to start looking at genre on Paper 2, and how you can use the stylistic conventions of letters to establish the right register for your reader.

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.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: colons

For the last few posts I’ve been hop-scotching through the playground that makes up punctuation, focusing on a couple of marks that are generally misunderstood and much maligned. The hyphen is one of them; the semi-colon is another. The third in this trifecta of oft-abused punctuation marks is the colon.

I’m going to out-and-out ban the one way you’ve been guaranteed to have been taught it: lists. If I see a list on a Paper 1 description or narrative, dollars to doughnuts it has been completely forced with the express purpose of putting in a colon. No lists on Paper 1, please. Whether you want to stick one in (appropriately) in a bullet-point list on Paper 2 for an article or a leaflet, that’s your call. I wouldn’t unless I intended to write a list, but it’s not so ugly and out of place there.

To be honest, a colon doesn’t come naturally on Paper 1, perhaps. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t use it, just that it lends itself perfectly to Paper 2.

It comes down to this: what is the purpose of a colon?

Not the one in your body. We all know what the purpose of that is.

But the punctuation one. You know. That weird full stop on top of another full stop.

Its purpose is to explain. To expand. To add details or development. And what do you need to do on Paper 2? Explain. Expand. Add detail and development.

Explanation and colons go hand in hand.

I’m really only going to focus on that one role of a colon: it does other things too, like introducing lists of course, and introducing a longer quotation, helping you define ratios in Maths or introducing the sub-title of a book. They’re not things that you’ll be doing frequently on either Paper 1  or Paper 2.

That is practically all a colon does for how you will need to know it: it explains, embellishes, adds detail or development.

It is a signpost that says: ‘Hold your horses, Oh Confused Reader – an explanation will follow!’

It’s a little mark that says: “Bear with me, dear reader, and I will explain…”

It is a pointy finger that says, “Reader, I know you are looking to locate the explanation… it is just here!”

I’m taking my examples from today’s newspaper opinion columns.

First up is a colon in a headline from Sandi Toksvig.

You can see how the bit before the colon is a statement and what follows is an explanation. The colon acts as a little way to let us know that she’s going to explain.

And here she’s using one to give examples (in a list) of what ‘every available metric’ means.

Then next up is Polly Toynbee, using a colon to introduce an explanation

Here, she’s using the colon to explain what the other 90% of apprenticeships are.

One from David Mitchell:

Here, you can see the little ‘EXPLANATION AHEAD’ colon, letting you know that what follows is an explanation of what he means by ‘it’s like diabetes’. If you were confused about why make-up (the topic of his article) is like diabetes, the bit after the colon will explain.

Just as an aside, I read three opinion columns and I found multiple examples of colon use in each. If you’re writing your opinion, then a colon is par for the course. In David Mitchell’s 1000-word piece, there are seven colons. Not that this is a ratio to aspire to, just a gauge of how frequent they are. That’s roughly one every 150 words. 1:150. Who said you won’t use ratios in an explanation essay?! There are two semi-colons and 61 full stops. There’s another ratio. For roughly every 8 full stops, there is a colon.

Just using that one piece of writing as an example, you can probably see that colons are much more frequent than you might suspect them to be.

So what are the rules and what are the pitfalls?

The most important rule – and it won’t always apply, but it does until you’ve absolutely mastered colons in this particular context – is that what goes before is a FULL sentence. That means it has a verb and a subject, if not more. If you could replace it with a full stop, you are on the right lines. But how do you know if you are working with a full sentence.

If you want to find the verb, ask yourself: ‘you must’ and then find a bit that ‘you must’

From our examples above, we’ve got ‘you must do better’, ‘you must remember’. There are also complicated little helper auxiliary verbs like ‘is’ and ‘are’ that we tend to forget.

But from our examples above, there are verbs in each of the bits before the colon.

You will also then be able to find the subject. ‘Who or what must remember’? ‘Who or what must do better’? The answers are ‘you’ and ‘more equal societies’, respectively.

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: our economy runs on women’s unpaid work.
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on.
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on.
You can remember it like diabetes: type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

Once you have a subject and a verb, you have a full sentence. In that way, one of the tests for a colon is:

Can I replace it with a full stop?

That said, what follows a colon doesn’t always need to be a full sentence. A list isn’t a sentence for example because it often has no verbs. So you would maybe have to tinker with the second bit.

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: our economy runs on women’s unpaid work. (2x full sentences)
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on. (full sentence before the colon but not after – no verb)
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on. (2x full sentences)
You can remember it like diabetes: type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

As a rule, you can see something start to happen. There are lots of simple sentences before those colons. What happens after can be:

  1. a list;
  2. a simple sentence;
  3. a compound sentence that has two verbs and is joined by a coordinating connective (a fancy way to say the word ‘and’).

So you can replace it with a full stop for the bit before. For the bit after, and the bit before, you can check if you can replace the colon with one of the following:

  • the word ‘namely’
  • the words ‘for example’
  • the phrase ‘what this means is that…’

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: what this means is that our economy runs on women’s unpaid work.
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: for example mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on.
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: what this means is that the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on.
You can remember it like diabetes: namely type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

And that is perhaps the best way to know if you’ve used it correctly… could I use one of those phrases? The reason it works so well is that these are words that do the same job as the colon. We’re going to find that with semi-colons too: it’s not that they can be replaced by different types of punctuation, but that they can be replaced by a word or phrase.

So, let’s take a brief look at David Mitchell’s other six colons and check if the rules apply…

  1. Is there a verb before the colon (i.e. Is it a full sentence?)
  2. Could you use a full stop if you didn’t worry about the bit after?
  3. Could you introduce the bit after with ‘namely’, ‘for example’ or ‘what this is means is that…’?

Hang on: and powder and eyeliner and moisturiser and perfume and hairspray.

So, the first bit has a verb, ‘hang’. And it’s an imperative – request or command. So that’s fine. I can put a full stop, except the bit on the other side is not a full sentence, but that doesn’t matter as long as the first bit is. The bit after is a list. I could use ‘for example’, because he’s writing about other types of make-up. So, the colon here is introducing a list, an embellishment about all the types of make-up he can think of. The colon is like a little trampoline that springboards him right into that list.

Lipstick is generally type two: a lipsticked person is not usually claiming that’s their natural lip shade.

Is the first bit a full sentence? Yes. It has a verb (it) and you could put a full stop where the colon is. In fact the bit on the other side is also a full sentence too. Could I say “what this means is that” ?? Yes. “Lipstick is generally type two: what this means is that a lipsticked person is not usually claiming that’s their natural lip shade.” 

Another appropriately-used colon.

For the next sentence, it’s much longer:

You’d think perfume was pretty solidly type two: deodorant might be type one, a denial of our inherent BO, but people who smell of perfume or aftershave aren’t seriously claiming it’s exuded organically.

Is the first bit a full sentence? Yes. It has a verb ‘would think’ and you could put a full stop where the colon is. The second bit is also a full sentence, although we know that matters less. Could I use ‘what this is means is that…’? And yes I could. The colon here is a little signpost explaining why we might think that perfume is ‘type two’ – something we do to ourselves.

The next introduces a quote (which is something you might do on Paper 2, if you are bringing in the experts to support your views):

As Ben Gorham, one of the creators of “Elevator Music”, a minimalist scent launching this month, put it: “The idea is that its wearer is noticed, not the perfume.”

This brings me to another place you may find yourself using the colon: the English Literature paper. You’re going to be doing much more quoting there, too.

So, a different type of colon, marching to the beat of a different drum. But a correct use of a colon, nevertheless.

He has another example with a quote too when he writes about men dyeing their hair:

Yet, somehow, any attempt to make such a change is associated with shame – we’re a world away from bald men openly saying: “Yes, I went bald and I didn’t like how it looked, so now I wear this terrific wig!”

And you can see that little colon introducing a longer quote – another very teachable way to look at colons. In fact, this example also uses a dash where a colon could also have gone, after shame. The bit before is a full sentence. It has a verb. It could be a full stop. What comes after explains what he means when he says it’s shameful for men to dye their hair or wear a wig. So it’d be a perfect place for a colon.

Why doesn’t he use a colon then?

Because David Mitchell is obviously aware of one of my pet peeves: more than one colon-ated sentence in a paragraph. There isn’t a verb to do with using a colon, so I had to make one up. But you know what I mean. Like toppings on ice-cream, you can overdo colons very easily. More than one in a paragraph is pretty much overkill, but two in a sentence is horrible. Seriously. So one of the things to avoid then. If he used a colon instead of the dash, then he couldn’t introduce the quote with a colon. But you can’t really introduce a quote with anything other than a colon (maybe a comma at a push) but you can usually replace a colon with a dash. That got complicated quickly.

Now I’m not planning on doing a post about the humble dash, one of my favourite punctuation marks – but its delightful versatility means I can use it where I was risking colon overkill. Plus, you can get away with more dashes. They don’t have the same meaning or purpose as a colon, but they are good if you find yourself in the tricky situation of needing to use a colon when it’s needed elsewhere in close proximity. At worst, your writing might appear a little disjointed if you go with dash overkill, but it won’t be quite as ugly as colon overkill. Now that really is messy and awkward. A dash may well be less polished and less formal, but it avoids that ugly accident of more than one colon per sentence.

That largely concludes how you can use a colon, especially on Paper 2, where it’s just so in purpose with explaining a viewpoint. It has fewer uses in narrative or description, that’s for sure, but it’s not out of the question that you might have the occasional example.

There was nothing else for it: he’d have to run.

So get busy with your colons: practise and practise until you feel you’ve added them to your repertoire. Steer clear of horrible lists and avoid overkill. A well-placed colon is a delight to the word-weary reader and it will certainly pay dividends when used appropriately.

UP next time, the semi-colon.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: hyphens

In the last post, I was looking at punctuation in general, including the requirements for punctuation at GCSE for English Language.

To hit Level 2 or above, you will need to show growing accuracy in a range of punctuation.

At Level 2 (5-8 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 4), you will need to show you have some control a range of punctuation.

At Level 3 (9-12 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 7), you will need to show you can use a range of punctuation mostly successfully.

And at Level 4 (13-16 marks out of 16, up to the top of Grade 9), you will need to show you can use a wide range of punctuation with a high level of accuracy.

In stories and descriptions, however, you may find that you are hampered by what you are writing. After all, it’s not like stories or descriptions necessarily lend themselves to a wide range of punctuation in the same way that Paper 2 does. Indeed, in the extract I use about sentence forms from best-selling writer Lee Child, there were really only four punctuation marks used over 300 words: full stops, commas, omissive apostrophes and hyphens.

Hyphens are sadly overlooked. They have the power to change meaning completely.

Think about this sentence:

No smoking restrictions are in place

And this one:

No-smoking restrictions are in place

That hyphen has the power to mean that a) you CAN smoke or b) you CAN’T smoke.

Or this sentence:

A government monitoring programme will be set up.

How does it compare to:

A government-monitoring programme will be set up.

Well, in the first, the government are doing the monitoring, and in the second, the government are being monitored.

Hyphens also help with pronunciation.

The football player resigned


The football player re-signed

Again, very different meanings.

A hyphen is word glue. It glues words together or glues on prefixes to change meaning. It glues words together that you don’t want separated, or that you want people to consider to be one single thing.

There aren’t really guides as such, or definitive rules, but there are places where you’d definitely need a hyphen to make meaning clear. My rule is that I’m happy for them to be left out as long as meaning is clear, but it’s a sophisticated writer who thinks to include them where the meaning is clear but the words should be considered together.

Times move on, and words that used to be hyphenated, like tool-box, are no longer hyphenated. In fact, it looks rather quaint. Old-fashioned hyphen use like this is probably not necessary.

You can also use them to split up words if your word is going to drop off the end of the line and you ran out of space because the word was longer than you thought it was. Not their best use, but a use nonetheless. If you ever go into the world of typesetting and printing, you’ll need to know this stuff, but not if you just want a good grade at GCSE.

In terms of pronunciation, you wouldn’t usually use a hyphen unless the sense is confusing. That’s going to happen most where there is a word spelt the same but with a different meaning, like re-signed and resigned. Recreation and re-creation are another pair of examples. You can also use it with double letters such as re-examine, because reexamine looks hideous.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve got things before a noun and the first alters the meaning of the second, use a hyphen:

  • a well-read book
  • a little-used cup
  • a well-known brand of coffee
  • a three-year-old boy
  • a much-needed holiday
  • a best-kept secret

But if those adjectives come after the noun, then you don’t need a hyphen.

  • The book was well read
  • The cup was little used
  • The coffee brand was well known
  • The boy was three years old
  • The holiday was much needed
  • The secret was best kept to himself

You also find them in colour blends, like amber-gold, yellow-green, snow-white IF they come before the noun as well, like an amber-gold sunset, but not the sunset shone amber gold. They are quite fabulous for Paper 1 description or descriptive bits in narrative.

Fractions (two-thirds of a mile), times (a half-hour wait) numbers that modify an adjective (a third-floor apartment) also have them. Again, you don’t have them if they come after. The apartment was on the third floor doesn’t need one.

You can see the pattern, can’t you?

If you’ve got an adjective and it’s changed by another adjective, and they come before a noun, you’re going to use a hyphen.

To be honest, at GCSE, I’m just looking for them if you’ve used well, little, much or best before another adjective before a noun. I’m also looking for them if the sense is confusing.

You can see how in this example, panic buy is confusing…

Clearly something is needed to make it clear that they weren’t told ‘Don’t panic! Buy petrol!’ and ‘Don’t panic-buy petrol’ would be clearest. Clearer still would be ‘Don’t buy petrol in a panic’, but since this is a headline, you can see why there is a need for brevity.

Sometimes, a missing hyphen can cause confusion, as you have seen already.

Bernard was having extra marital sex.

Was he having an affair or had his marriage just picked up a notch? Yes, I know what they mean. They don’t mean he was having a lot of hanky-panky with his missus. They mean he was cheating. But if they mean that he was cheating, they really should have put a link in it.

His poodle is a well behaved dog.

Let me get this straight… his dog was well, or it was well behaved? If it was well behaved, it needs a hyphen. If, however, by bizarre and poor English, it was well and behaved, then that’s okay then.

The carriage was followed by six foot men.

So Cinderella had six servant guys or she was followed by an unspecified number of men who were six feet tall? You can, of course say footmen if you mean the kind of guys who follow carriages about in fancy old-fashioned clothing.

He was a rare cheese maker.

So he made rare cheeses or he was a cheesemaker who was rare?

Joyce Carol Oates was a short story writer.

She wrote short stories or she was short and she was a storywriter?

Now you don’t care about my silly examples of very deliberately chosen carelessness with hyphens. But I do care to give you some real-life examples. Without further ado, here are forty examples from the four things I am reading at the moment…

  • real-life version; self-reliant cook; rightward-slanting handwriting; co-authors; an upper-middle-class family; real-estate holdings; pinky-red rare; a bride-to-be’s cooking course; our day-to-day lives; pale-blue airmail paper
  • middle-class; socio-economic; semi-Dutch parentage; grand-daughter; non-Prussian areas of Germany; semi-secret; the one-time editor; far-reaching duties; mid-December; so-called
  • grid-like; deep-red tiles; a worm-eaten chest; ochre-washed farmhouses; bomb-damaged buildings; Burt Lancaster’s over-muscled physique squeezed into a leotard; blood-red poppies; there was nothing run-of-the-mill about the building; long-dead; vice-like
  • one of the world’s best-known figures; high-heeled boots; a bald-faced liar; it’s effort-free; rent-free; self-employed; aimed at eight-to-fifteen-year-old girls; two-thirds of UK children; Seventeenth-century Britain; a series of one-line paragraphs

As you can see, if you turn your similes around and put -like after, you need a hyphen. It’s also good for things where you stick on a -free after a noun. Definitely useful with numbers and colours. Actually when I did this exercise, I found hyphens everywhere – they littered fiction and non-fiction alike. I didn’t have to flick through pages and pages to find them, either.

Not a one of the examples is particularly confusing without a hyphen, but a hyphen helps all the same. Also, since they’re fairly conventional and rule-bound, they’re the kind of thing I like to look for if I’m trying to find a range of punctuation in writing, or if I’m trying to justify a Level 3 for punctuation or above. There is an element of personal style there (wait until we get to semicolon, semi colon and semi-colon) but there are times when it’s much more of a convention, like in old-fashioned or high-heeled than in others like toolbox.

Some further reading:


Grammar Tips

Now get out and get practising!

Up next: colons.