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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Having fun with English Paper 1

Terry Fahy

Published 24/03/2014 | 02:30

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Bring your examiner to somewhere interesting. Photo: Getty Images.
Take a look at 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. You could also look at some present day blogs.

Having fun and doing exams don't normally go together, but writing the composition in English Paper 1 offers the opportunity to do just that.

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The essay allows students to express their passions, divulge their thoughts and showcase their creativity. Students often baulk at the prospect of essay writing.

But, with practice, writing can become as easy as talking – and there should be little difference between telling a memorable story verbally and committing it to paper.

What are you setting out to achieve?

A good essay must contain something that is worth reading. Its content should be interesting, intelligent, informative and engaging to the reader. The points you make should not be tired or jaded. Finally, your ideas should be communicated in a manner that makes your reader eager to read on to find out more, similar possibly to a novel where one cannot resist turning the pages.

Approach the English composition with a firm belief in your own abilities and a positive, can-do attitude.

Most importantly, make adequate preparations beforehand. Writers improve their writing style through practice, even if it is only to scribble a paragraph or two in a quiet moment. Preparation also means fostering a reading habit.

There are seven essay titles to choose from and the titles are broad enough to ensure that at least one of them will fit your requirements.

There is a huge variety of topics every year and sometimes students are daunted by this, as if they had to write on every subject. In fact, the examiners are giving you the opportunity to write about something close to your heart.

This gives you great scope for practising your favourite genre of essay.

Half of the 200 marks for English Paper 1 are awarded for the composition alone. You are given approximately one hour and 20 minutes to write an essay that takes the form of a short story, a personal experience, a factually based article or a speech.

Be conscious of the marking scheme – 100 marks are allocated to your composition, which is 25pc of the entire marks of the English examination.

The marks are awarded as follows:

* 30pc purpose: content, accuracy, quality of ideas used.

* 30pc coherence: structure, relevance, order of points.

* 30pc language: quality, style, expression, phrasing.

* 10pc mechanics: grammar, spelling, punctuation.

The renowned novelist Maeve Binchy once said that if you can talk, you can write. She advised that you should write as you speak, as if in a good conversation with a friend. This is a great way to start all forms of the composition.

Getting back to your preparation, here are a few tips on how to best get started:

Planning the composition

Step one

Once you decide on which title you will tackle, spend up to five minutes brainstorming and probing your mind for thoughts, ideas, everything that will contribute to making your composition interesting.

Circle the keywords of the title. This focuses the mind and channels thoughts, allowing you follow a definite train of thought.

Step two

Once you are clear on the ideas you intend to include in your essay, organise your thoughts, numbering each idea in a logical fashion. You should aim to have eight good paragraphs.

Step three

It is now time to inject life and energy into your ideas. Search for vocabulary that will capture your ideas in an interesting fashion: remember, the reader depends on you to fill his/her imagination with colour and ideas that are alive, vibrant and original. Each paragraph should have images that are appealing and that fire the imagination. These will take time to locate but they are worth looking for.

Avoid at all costs anything that might dampen the element of surprise and which may limit the reader's interest.

Omit cliches, overused quotations and explanations as to how you propose to tackle the composition topic.

Remember, the examiner wishes to be entertained and distracted from the stunted atmosphere that exam correction induces in summer sunshine. Bring them to the theatre, to the Galway Races, to a dental surgery, to Croke Park in September where you are in the process of scoring an explosive equaliser. Your imagination is only limited by the parameters you impose on it.

Be alert to fresh or unusual images that will make interesting reading.

Capture the essence of the moment you are trying to describe.

Sample opening paragraph:

The modern teenager

"I don't care what my mother says, I'm going to Oxegen. . .

Indeed, it is often that we experience these belligerent, freshly broken voices, declaring their independence with immense fervour. On the bus, in the coffee shop, at the department store. . . wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter how you try to avoid it, it will not avoid you. It spreads like a plague, gathering momentum, cynically giggling at the misery it reaps, choosing its victims with the minimum of consideration, transforming delightful children into parasitic imps overnight. Have you been caught?"

Finally, writing an essay in exam conditions is similar to competing in the 1,500 metre race at the Olympics. Precise timing is vital. Like the athlete, you must pace yourself for your task and build up momentum until a successful conclusion is imminent.

Finish with a flourish by using some interesting gem that packages your essay into a well-finished, thoughtful and entertaining piece of writing. Remember, you make it happen!

Tips to get you started

Get some daily writing practice in. This is probably the most difficult rule to follow, because it requires a dedicated approach over time. Writing means taking time for yourself. A diary is a great way to begin and if you can make it a daily habit, it will prepare you for many of the topics that come up on the paper.

* Expand your reading beyond the prescribed texts on the syllabus. If you're not an avid reader, cast your eye over the syllabus and note what books you enjoy most. Then look for something similar. For example, you may have read Tobias Wolff's 'This Boy's Life' on the syllabus and enjoyed that type of memoir. Take a look at 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. You could also look at some present-day blogs or, better still, contribute to them as a way of practising your own creative writing.

* Try to have fun creating a piece of work. Thinking about it too much will make it appear formidable. You will find the actual execution of it much more enjoyable than you imagine.

* It is usually better to celebrate the ordinary than getting into flights of fancy involving high drama. Writing about the world you know will offer you more scope than trying to describe a superhero's exploits.

* For topical discursive essays, such as writing a speech or a magazine article, you have the chance to draw on more factual knowledge. Go to your comfort zone and introduce what you are knowledgeable about.

Don't be put off too much by the specific topics. There should be one to fit your interests. Last year, students were asked to write about the role of storytelling in music or song. Another title was to compare the advantages of urban and rural lifestyles. If music is not your forte, where you live immediately offers you an 'in' into the second topic.

In 2012, you could have written a speech about the importance of literature in people's lives, or what defines Ireland's national identity. The first topic is difficult unless you are comfortable with literature, but the second choice offers you the opportunity to define and celebrate Irishness with the cultural and creative vibrancy that it symbolises.

Taking the opposite approach with a few paragraphs may also be worth exploring. Don't forget to delve into the past and then the future – what does this question mean two years before the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising?

The essay that demands an article may give you pause for thought – last year, for example, you were asked to examine the role played by memory and the past in our lives – but if you are a budding diarist, it will allow you to indulge in your own thoughts and memories, and how the past has defined who you are.

Remember that in an age dominated by apps, wifi and innumerable electronic gadgets, it can be difficult to find time for creative writing. However, the opportunity is there for you to seize and enjoy.

Above all, remember Maeve Binchy's advice; "If you can say it, you can write it." It's time to make it happen

Terry Fahy, Yeats College, Galway

Irish Independent Supplement

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