Over the past three weeks, I’ve marked 200+ sets of GCSE English Language higher-tier writing tasks. Some of the responses were humblingly good and others, as you would expect, were more disappointing. The weaker responses often included one or more of the quick fixes, or bolt-on devices, I’ve listed below. My own is view that they not only fail to add any quality – they don’t make a piece of writing any more compelling or convincing – but actually have the effect of exposing poor literacy skills. So, here goes…
- One word sentences
In the second section of the English Language exam, students are required to demonstrate that they can employ a variety of sentence forms to good effect in their creative writing in order to achieve a decent mark. This is perhaps why one word sentences are so prevalent. They’re often used by students to create dramatic pauses or to emphasise particular emotional states. To this end, they’re often followed by an exclamation mark for extra impact. Boom! However, the trouble is, one word sentences tend to create a clumsily disjoined effect in the narrative. Rhythmically, they’re the equivalent of a dull, monotonous thud. Students are far better off experimenting with more complex syntactical forms. Ellipsis can be used, for example, to build tension, and colons can be used to powerfully emphasise or reinforce ideas.
- Capitalisation of whole words
Weaker writers sometime capitalise whole words in an attempt to convey the strength of their feelings about a particular subject. For example, in the English Language exam this year, students were asked to argue for or against the relative merits of holidaying in Great Britain. Many students, as of course you would expect, felt very strongly about the issue. Some argued that Blighty is utterly WONDERFUL; others argued that Blightly is utterly CRAP. Whilst capitalisation generates a sort of frenzied volume – it’s a bit like you’re SHOUTING – it unfortunately also undermines the overall formality of the narrative. A much more effective sense of amplification can be achieved through the judicious use of exclamation marks in their – ahem – singular form…
- Triple exclamation marks
Exclamation marks have caused quite a bit of controversy recently – click here for more information – so I’ll do my best to tread carefully… A single exclamation mark can provide emotive force to a statement or command. It should follow, therefore, that a hat-trick of them should be even more forceful. However, this is sadly not the case. Triple exclamation marks have a similar effect to capitalised words in the sense that they are unhelpfully informal. Beyond this, they also undermine the strength and sincerity of the sentiments that they are supposed to intensify because they only ever give the impression of lumbering overcompensation.
- Spurious statistics
Question: How do you validate what might seem like a spurious argument? Answer: Use supporting evidence in the form of an equally spurious statistic. Example: Vote for Brexit because we send the EU £350m a week. Terrifyingly effective, right? So students should definitely use statistics in their own writing? Well, maybe. But, then again, maybe not. Although no examiner will ever test the validity of the bold claim that, say, 98% of Brits really would prefer to holiday in Manchester over Mallorca this summer, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be convinced by it as a piece of rhetoric. The inclusion of statistics in GCSE English Language creative writing tasks never really strengthen the arguments put forward because they’re always fabricated. Admittedly, some are more plausible than others, but they’re still fake and therefore, wholly unconvincing. Best to avoid them, I reckon.
- So, to conclude, this shocking revelation…
In terms of helping students to become better writers, the truth is – at least as far as I’m aware – that there are no quick fixes or formulas for success. Good quality writing is produced over time and through informed, deliberate practice. The blog posts below help to illustrate what I mean by this and also provide a lot of really useful advice to how to help students improve.
Thanks for reading –