This is the section that most students don’t prepare for (I mean, how to you prepare for a writing task that you haven’t seen before?) However, if you make sure you tick the boxes the examiner wants to see, you’ll be a long way ahead of most of the others who take this exam.
And let’s be honest: you want to get a higher grade than your friends, don’t you. Admit it.
First of all (and I don’t mean to patronise you here), but you do know that YOU ONLY NEED TO ANSWER ONE OF THESE QUESTIONS, NOT TWO. Yes, I knew you knew that. Just checking. Because I have taught many foolish students who in the past have ignored my warnings and DONE BOTH. Why? I have no idea.
Let’s take a quick look at the two main areas you’re being marked on here. The examiner is looking for you to:
- Communicate clearly, effectively and imaginatively, selecting and adapting tone, style and register for different forms, purposes and audiences.
- Organise information and ideas, using structural and grammatical features to support coherence and cohesion of texts.
In normal persons’ language, they want you to:
- Write really well, using the right language for the type of writing, and;
- Make sure the writing is clearly laid out and makes sense (e.g. you don’t write ten page sentences and no paragraphs).
So, the writing that will get the top grades will do the following:
- The writing will be compelling: it will make that exam marker spill his Nespresso (probably);
- It will be matched to its purpose: whether this is description, narrative, argument or persuasion. Each type of writing has different rules/ingredients: make sure you know them (after all, you wouldn’t try to make a Bolognese sauce if you only had ingredients for chicken curry);
- It will have excellent vocabulary and use language techniques (like simile, metaphor etc.) effectively.
- Different types of sentence structure and uses of punctuation;
- Different ideas are linked together effectively;
- Paragraphs are clear and show your ideas progressing fluently (one paragraph logically following another).
I know I’ve said it before, but it’s always worth repeating: make sure every single thing you write ticks one of these bullet points. Make it interesting. Make it relevant. Use as many techniques as you can (within reason). Mix up sentence types. Link ideas together well using well-chosen paragraphs.
If we look at the first writing prompt in section B, you are being asked to respond to a photo. And let’s face it, on first glance it’s not the most inspiring photo in the world:
The prompt they give you is this:
Write a description suggested by this picture.
Your first response is probably better described using that gritted teeth emoticon we all use to illustrate ‘help, what next?’ But actually it’s not that hard to create something that ticks those examiner boxes and gets you a good grade.
I’ll take you through a four-stage exercise I’ve done with many a class, that gets you exploring the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that can be generated from any image. Remember this, and use it in the exam. It never fails.
If you write all this down as you plan, you can be awarded marks even if you don’t get it into the final piece of writing. Yes, that’s right: exam markers will often look at your notes if you run out of time.
Now can you see why tippex should never ever be used? It is evil. And now we no longer have typewriters there is no place for it in the world (IMHO).
STEP #1: CLEAR YOUR MIND
First of all, clear your mind of any first impressions (e.g. OMG this is such a boring photo etc.).
STEP #2: GET DOWN SOME QUICK RESPONSES
Now, with a pen in your hand, write down short answers to the following on your answer paper. You can do this as a list or spider diagram. Doesn’t matter. It should only be words and phrases and can be in any order you wish:
- AT LEAST five things you see, using as much detail as possible (colours, textures, adjectives and similes if they stand out), e.g. Long, grey train curving its way along the track, waves turning to foam as they hit the sea wall, a row of thin, coloured houses like coloured pencils in a box and so on. The important thing here is that this are concrete images. Say what you see.
- Five things you might hear if you were there in that scene: the sound of the waves as they crash against the wall, the electric whirr of the train, the wind whistling, a baby crying from an upstairs room (remember, with writing you can hear whatever you think might be coming from this scene).
- Three things you might smell: the salty air from the sea spray, fish and chips coming from a local shop, the sharp metallic scent of water on the railway tracks.
- 2-3 emotions that might be present in the scene: a tension in the air contrasting with the peace and boredom inside the train.
STEP #3: USE THESE 3 GOLDEN RULES
You are now going to use these in your description. The trick here is to use these 3 golden rules:
- Try to get in all the language features they examiner has been looking for in your reading analysis: adjectives, interesting noun and verb choices, similes and metaphors, original ways of describing things and so on. These will all get you the marks you need.
- Think carefully about how you use different sentence lengths to generate different emotions in the reader. The best way to do this is to use longer sentences (broken with commas) for more flowing description, and shorter sentences to add impact and drama.
- Paragraph. Paragraph. PARAGRAPH. I cannot stress to you how important this is. Key rule: if there is a change of place, time, subject or mood, change the paragraph (and do it by either making a clear indent in the first line of the next paragraph, or leaving a whole line between paragraphs).
In the example of the above, if you move from describing the waves smashing against the wall to the sound of seagulls, change the paragraph. It is far better to have smaller paragraphs than huge long ones.
Just look at this post. Which do you see more of? Remember: you must make this easy for the exam marker to read. Jeff or Jane are your only audience. No one else. No one will EVER see this again. So make it super easy for them to read as your exam paper might be number 437 in the pile. Be nice to them!
STEP #4: JOT DOWN A PLAN
Before you start to write, jot down a brief plan of how you will structure your writing. It might look something like this:
- Train – colour, movement, shape, tracks
- Sea – different colours, shapes, noise
- Woman in room
Let’s think now about how we might see this in action. You have a whole 40 minutes on this section (yes, you do, as you have been the perfect student and have only taken 40 minutes on section A, remember?)
You’ll use the notes you made as a springboard: what should happen is that as you write new things suggest themselves to you. When you get stuck, go back to your list and start a new paragraph with a new piece of description.
The slim grey train curves its way along the wet track, the yellow smile of its painted nose contrasting with the drabness of its surroundings. All around is grey: from the churning sea which thrashes against the dark sea wall to the steely sky, there is little of interest to hold the commuters who sit blankly in rows inside each carriage.
The sea throws white foam like a ghost over the train, obscuring the scene from the passengers. Its dull incessant roar is like the noise of a caged and angry beast, demanding to be released and unleash havoc on the train and the rows of silent houses that stand like coloured pencils in a box.
At one of the windows of these houses, a young woman looks out over the sea, her crying child in her arms. Anyone looking to their right from the train would see her pale face contrasting with the dark room behind her, and might wonder what she was thinking, what her life was like in her room overlooking the stormy sea.
And so on. Can you see what I did here? Of course you can. I managed to get in virtually every technique I could: lots of concrete adjectives, similes, original images, a colon (:), nice balanced sentences, and even brought in a character to add a bit of mystery and drama.
What is important is that you don’t start writing a story about this woman, as this is supposed to be a descriptive piece. However, there is no reason why you can’t use your imagination: after all, the prompt asks you to write about what the picture suggests. So do bring in original ideas.
This isn’t the whole piece: aim for about twice this. Not ten pages though – 1-2 sides is enough. It’s better to write less and for the exam marker to be able to read it, than a ten page masterpiece that looks like it was written by a drunk spider (or a doctor -they have terrible handwriting).
You may have noticed (of course you did) that I wrote in the present tense. There’s no rule here: present or past is fine. I personally find writing from photos easier in the present tense as you are describing what you see at that moment, but if you find it easier in the past tense that’s also fine.
Have a look at the image below and go through the same exercise. I’ve decided to stay on the theme of the sea as I have a feeling that they may do something similar in the main exam. I have been known to be right before (I have no actual idea and certainly know no one from the exam board: it’s just an educated guess).
(c) Wikimedia Commons
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