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.

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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.