Category Archives: Composing

Advice on writing essay/story/article/speech.

Writing from the tree of life…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement on Monday 26th January 2015.

tree diagram.indd

Many genres share the same roots and often, distinguishing between them can be difficult. I had this experience last year reading a piece my sister-in-law Aisling Keogh had written. After it was published a lot of people, including yours truly, asked her if it was autobiographical? Her response was just to laugh! Sure enough, on closer inspection, I registered that the main character was actually a guy, but the way she captured his voice, using first person narration, was so utterly believable, that we all struggled to accept him as an entirely fictional character.

However, even though her confessional narrator made her piece feel somewhat like a personal essay, her story also had vivid description, an evocative setting, characters who changed and developed and a plot which unfolded over a limited timeframe, so this was truly the ‘slice of life’ short stories are made of, rather than the vast limitless canvas novelists create. It was a reminder for me, trapped as I sometimes become in an exam mindset, that although genres follow certain ‘rules’, what unites them is often as powerful as what sets them apart.

With this in mind, the infographic above might help you to consider the commonalities and distinctions between the different genres of personal essay, descriptive essay and short story.

What are the main differences between a personal essay and a short story?

  1. A personal essay is always written by and about you – a teenager who lives in Ireland, goes to school and hates having to do the Leaving Cert. A short story can have anyone as the narrator – a rally driver, a model, an inanimate object, a frog.

  2. A personal essay can roam across your entire lifetime, including thoughts, opinions, hobbies, anecdotes, quotes and ideas. A short story on the other hand has a specific setting, a limited number of characters and usually happens over a very short space of time.

  3. A personal essay reflects on life, the universe and everything. A short story has a tight plot, character development and generally ends with a twist.

Tips for descriptive writing


Take this sentence: “He walked past the window

Now imagine I substitute a different verb. “Walked” doesn’t tell me a lot about HOW he walked, it just offers me a bland fact: he was walking. I can’t picture HOW he walked. But if I change the verb, look at how the picture in your head changes:

He crawled past the window He staggered past the window

He danced past the window He stumbled past the window He tip-toed past the window

TIP 2. USE ADJECTIVES. The reader needs details so that they can picture the number/quantity, size, shape, weight, colour, brightness, texture, condition, sound, smell, taste, speed, temperature, age, distance, time, origin, location, emotion towards or opinion of the thing being described.

Take this sentence: “The car raced through the town

I’ve got a good verb – “raced” but otherwise I know very little about either of the things being described – the car or the town. If I add a few adjectives, suddenly these nouns come to life!

The battered blue Mini raced through the sleepy seaside town”

WARNING: Too many adjectives can make your writing worse, particularly when you select over-used adjectives such as big/small, happy/sad, good/bad, fast/slow. Writing which draws attention to itself, or rather which draws loads of attention to itself by being overly flowery, is known as purple prose. This is an insult, not a compliment!

  • Here is an example of just enough adjectives to keep the flow of the writing:

I could see a blue light flashing in the distance. My head was throbbing and when I lifted my swollen hand to my temple, sticky crimson blood smeared my fingertips. A low moan of pain was just barely audible amid the screaming sirens and the screeching whirr of the chainsaw that was going to cut me out of the train wreckage. It was only later I realised that I was the one moaning. Everyone else was dead”

  • Now here’s an example of purple prose – add in 11 more adjectives (the ones I’ve underlined) and suddenly it goes from descriptive & well-paced to incredibly dragged out and intensely irritating!

I could see a vivid blue light flashing in the far-off distance. My heavy headachy head was throbbing and when I lifted my swollen sore hand to my aching temple, sticky, crimson blood smeared my shaking fingertips. A low moan of intense pain was just barely audible amid the screaming sirens and the screeching whirr of the vicious chainsaw that was going to soon cut me out of the twisted train wreckage. It was only later I realised that I was the one moaning. Everyone else was dead”

Finally, some writers prefer a very minimalist style to keep a fast pace in their writing – something like this:

I could see a blue light flashing. My head was throbbing. I lifted my swollen hand to my temple and blood smeared my fingertips. A moan of pain was just barely audible amid the sirens and the whirr of the chainsaw that was cutting me out of the train wreckage. It was only later I realised I was the one moaning. Everyone else was dead”



3 S’s – sight, sound, smell & 2 T’s – taste & touch.

Blind people experience the world as a rich tapestry of sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Just because they are blind does not mean their life is any less intense but they have tuned in to a way of seeing the world that does not need eyes.

This is what you need to do as a writer. If you are describing a place, imagine that you walked into that space blindfolded. Would you still know where you were? How? Close your eyes and imagine the sounds and smells, the taste of the air, the fabrics and the feel of the furniture that would indicate to you where you were even if you could not see…

Here’s an example of descriptive writing which relies on sound, smell, texture & taste.

The clink of instruments falling into metal trays and the cloying smell of drills and disinfectant filled me with despair. I was back here again, in the place from all of my nightmares, but this time was real. Now I shimmied onto the cold blue leather and the whirr as the motorised chair came to life added to my rising panic. As it stretched out beneath me, I opened my jaws until they ached with the effort; tasted the powder of the tight white gloved hand as it pulled at the corner of my mouth; squeezed my eyes shut and dug my fingernails into the soft palm of my trembling hand to distract myself from the pain. Here it comes, here it comes, the prick and the sting and the cold cold kiss of the needle, then the flooding numbness, and the feeling of temporary relief, all too soon destroyed by the searing screech of the drill as it spins hideously closer. Save me, I want to scream, but I’m already almost choking on my own spit, pooling at the back of my mouth. I wiggle my eyebrows at the nurse and she obligingly slips in the suction tube to stop me from drowning. Why is it, I ask myself, as I stare at the ceiling, weary and numb and exhausted, that a visit to the dentist always feels like a brush with death?”



Instead of saying “I walked into the dentist’s office and sat on the chair” you describe the event so that the reader feels drawn into the experience (see description above).

If you are writing a descriptive essay, then a series of seemingly unrelated word pictures (like this one) with an overarching theme (The beauty & ugliness of the world”) would work fine.

However, if this is part of a longer story, it needs to go somewhere. It needs to have a point. Perhaps it turns into an unexpected love story where the next thing the narrator notices is how lovely the dentist’s eyes are, and how gentle his hands are, and how kind his laughter. Perhaps this is a character study and the narrator is attempting to explain how she became addicted to prescription painkillers; maybe it all began with this visit to the dentist? In storytelling, it doesn’t matter where it’s going but each event that’s included is usually leading somewhere, capturing some truth, revealing something previously hidden. Unless of course it’s a Waiting for Godot-esque meditation on the fact that we spend our lives waiting for something to happen, but often very little does…in which case, carry on. Nothing to see here!

Let it flow…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Monday January 2th 2015


Good writers value flow. When an idea works, they grab it, massage it and make it their own. When it doesn’t, they cut it loose and, like Frozen, they just ‘let it go’.

I’m not saying they don’t get writer’s block – they do!

Nor am I saying that words and ideas flow out of them like water from a tap. Their words are just squiggles on a page, the same as the rest of us. And thank god, or we’d have lots of empty taps and sopping wet pages on our hands, not to mention the cost in water charges!

But what good writers understand, in their deep heart’s core, is the importance of generating flow for the reader. Ideas need to be linked to each other; paragraphs need to be sequenced logically and the reader needs to be eased in – and eased out – of the reading experience.

So how, good reader, do you achieve this in your writing?


First and foremost you should do something with that brainstorm your teacher insisted you create! The ideas are there but which one will you start with? Something to really seize the reader’s attention? A quote? A shocking statistic? Now where will you go next? What ideas have something in common, even something tenuous, that will enable you to segue from one to the next so that they seem like logical progressions akin to steps on a staircase to wisdom? And when the journey’s over and the essay is nearly done, how will you loop back to your starting point yet add a depth that did not exist when the reader stepped out bravely on this journey with you?


Secondly, you need a thread which ties everything together. It can help to think of the paragraphs in your essay as the seven dwarfs. Each one has it’s own defining identity: not sleepy or dopey hopefully, but with recognisable features that make it distinct from all of the others. Yet there’s no question that they belong together! You can look from one to the next to the next and see how they all form an inseparable unit that would be weaker if any one of them went missing or was left behind.


Now that you’ve got a plan, a certain amount of flow will emerge from the sequence you’ve decided to implement. However, you need flow within your paragraphs as well as between them. This is where the third vital element of connectives comes in. These are words which form bridges, both within and between sentences. You’ll see a list of examples below but a word of warning here: connectives used well are almost invisible. Used badly, they’re like your Dad at a wedding with his trousers rolled up, wearing his tie as a headband and playing air guitar. They just look all wrong!

Here’s an example of connectives used well:

Ireland undoubtedly has a tradition of neutrality. Clearly this is the will of the people. However, it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue indefinitely into the future. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we to be targeted by terrorists we would need to respond, not just for our safety but also for the safety of our neighbours. Furthermore, we are socially, economically and emotionally tied to Europe and so an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.”

And here’s an example of connectives used badly:

Ireland has a tradition of neutrality. Furthermore this is the will of the people. Nevertheless it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we targeted by terrorists we would need to respond. At the same time we are tied to Europe socially, economically and emotionally so to conclude an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.

Just typing that second example was like scrapping my nails down a blackboard and reading it back is like jabbing hot pokers in my eyeballs.

The bottom line is this: using connectives for the sake of it or because some teacher in the Indo supplement told you to won’t work. You need to understand the words you’re using. You need to know how they work to create flow in your writing.

There is no shortcut to this knowledge. You won’t just innately know how to use connectives properly, unless you’ve been reading voraciously from an early age and engaging in family debates around the dinner table on a daily basis all of your life, so you’ll need to practice. Reading a lot and reading the right kind of material (speeches, debates, newspaper articles, academic essays) will increase your familiarity with connectives and help them to flow more naturally into your own writing.

Sample connectives:

  • First of all…secondly…thirdly

  • In the beginning… then… ultimately…finally

  • Nonetheless, nevertheless, although, even though, however

  • Furthermore, in addition, above all, essentially

  • Thus, therefore, hence, as a result

  • On the other hand… alternatively… besides

  • Clearly, obviously, evidently, logically

So you’ve got the guidelines. You’re good to go. And now, to paraphrase Frozen once more, it’s time to ‘Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold it back anymore…’

Types of descriptive essay…

I received an email a few weeks back looking for clarification on desciptive essays. Specifically, what different approaches can students take when writing a descriptive essay?

When it came up as an option on Leaving Cert paper 1 recently, the marking scheme stated that students could adopt a “narrative or discursive approach“. Confusion often arises here because when we think “narrative” we think story – plot, characters, setting. And when we think “discursive” we think argument, opinion…

I’ve tried to tease out the ways personal essays, descriptive essays and short stories are related yet distinct in the past, with some limited success. Truth is, the ties that bind them are stronger than any scissors which seeks to cut them apart but with so many marks going for “clarity of purpose” [this includes responding to the topic as well as writing within the specified genre] it’s not surprising that both teachers and students seek clarity on what exactly defines each genre.

Here’s a graphic I created for this very purpose, which first appeared in the 2015 Irish Independent Written Word Supplement. You’ll notice that description forms the trunk, or backbone, and feeds into all three.

tree diagram.indd

Looking through a different lens this time, becuase of the email I received, I would say that a narrative descriptive essay has a lot in common with the short story and a discursive descriptive essay has more in common with the personal essay.

If a student or a teacher wanted a definition, I’d say:
Descriptive essay with narrative approach = descriptive in style, with a story to tell.
Descriptive essay with discursive approach = descriptive in style, with an issue to discuss.

What does this look like in practice?

Here are a few descriptive essays taking a narrative approach (I wrote the first one; junior cycle students wrote the other two):

However, a descriptive essay can also take a discursive approach, where the language is descriptive but an issue is also being discussed and the thoughts, opinions, knowledge and understanding of the writer come into play.

Have a look at this example which is extremely descriptive (it uses metaphor throughout) but which is also discussing an issue – bullying:

Why combine them?

Why not just have descriptive essays be descriptive and discursive essays be discursive?

Well, when an issue is being discussed it’s discursive [all paper two essays are discursive] but a writer can achieve wonderful aesthetic effects, and really engage the reader, if they combine discussion and description.

For me, it helps to remind myself that the boundaries between genres are fluid, and as long as a student embraces some elements of description if asked to write a descriptive essay, they won’t be penalised for the approach they take.

You might also want to take a look at this essay I wrote:

It’s a perfect example of the fluidity of genres.

It begins with a poem [hence, aesthetic use of language]
It goes on to discuss an event and an issue – use of ICT in education [hence, discursive]
It takes a descriptive approach throughout [using lists and metaphors and moment by moment description]
It ends by linking to a personal story – the death of my friend [hence, a personal essay with a narrative thread holding it together].

I just thought I’d post my reply to this query, as coming up with an answer really got me thinking in depth about how fluid the boundaries between genres can sometimes be… that’s not a bad thing, but it does make assessing with genre as one of the criteria that bit trickier. To my mind, as long as it’s clear that the student is controlling their use of genre conventions, rather than being oblivious to genre, then they should be ok. On the other hand, if a student comes across as having no awareness of genre, audience and register, that’s where problems arise…

/two roads diverged…

Something about the new year has me feeling philosophical.

In truth, 2014 was rough and I’m glad to say goodbye to it. Despite all the good it contained, ‘fuck you 2014′ is all my gut produces when I look back on it.

Yes there were highs…

photo 1 photo 2

blog awards trophy

…re-connecting with my ADE buddies at BETT in Jan; being asked to write for The Independent Written Word supplement in March; keynoting the ICTedu conference in Tipperary in May and that very day being invited by then Junior Minister for Education Ciaran Cannon to keynote at the Excited conference three weeks later; being accepted to attend ADE global institute in San Diego (even though for personal reasons, in the end, I didn’t go); biting the bullet in June and applying for an English Advisor job with JCT and then actually getting the job!(I didn’t apply in 2013 as it was Hazel’s first year at school); finally moving into our home for life (the house John’s Dad grew up in) after months of hard physical labour and tedious trips to hardware shops and tiling showrooms; and then unexpectedly winning Best Education Blog at the Blog Awards in October.

But to say all of this was overshadowed by the brief illness and completely unexpected death of my mother-in-law Mary is to use the wrong verb. I would say rather that anxiety and then grief infiltrated everything else in my life.

In early May, I broke down in tears in front of my students. We were reading “Valediction” by Seamus Heaney and with the lines “You’re gone, I am at sea, until you return, self is in mutiny” I found myself attacked by an involuntary image of John’s Dad, after 40 years of marriage, wandering his now empty house alone. There was no future tense to speak of now. No ‘until you return‘. How the hell would he cope? And without fully realising it was happening or being able to do anything about it, suddenly tears were streaming down my face in a flood I feared would never abate. I excused myself. Went outside the door. Composed myself. Returned. Apologised. I needn’t have bothered. My students got it. They understood. Never mentioned it again except to ask me if I was ok as they left the room and again later when they met me in the corridor. 

It keeps happening, those unexpected moments where I’m driving my car and a discussion on the radio or a random floating thought will grab me by the throat and suddenly grief lurches to the surface and there they are again, lurking tears I didn’t know were waiting to emerge. It’s an odd silent kind of crying; not the racking sobs that convulsed my body in the week of her death but rather an overwhelming sadness that makes me an observer in my own body, completely unable to do anything except wait for the tears to stop flowing.

When my own mother got sick in October I thought we were the butt of some cosmic joke. Same symptoms, same doctor, same transfer to Galway Clinic, same consultant but thanks be to every God I don’t believe in, a different diagnosis. There was still a serious surgery, a frightening ten days in hospital and a difficult recovery that’s on-going, but she didn’t die. She didn’t die.

I’m not sad all the time. I’m not broken. I understand in a way that I never did before how blessed I am; how privileged the life I lead, the house I live in, the marriage I belong to, the daughter I love…

photo 3

But it feels like this year two roads diverged. In a parallel universe the person I used to be exists, happily oblivious to all that unfolded. Meanwhile, I keep looking back at her, envious yet achingly aware that, from now on, I’m on a new path. And knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt that I shall ever come back…

Hot Toddy

I entered this in the Irish Times / Powers short story competition back in April 2012 and have just come across it in my drafts! Not sure why I never published it. Perhaps because I always felt that the bits where I mentioned Powers were a bit clunky / fawning / overly deliberate / lick-arsy!

Anyway, here it is for better or worse… At the time I showed it to my Leaving Certs on the overhead projector and got some feedback from them about what was working and what wasn’t working. I think it’s always a good idea to reassure students that writing is often a struggle – that very few people can produce a fully formed quality piece of writing first go. Writing is a process – more a marathon than a sprint – and exposing that we also struggle to write (to write well!) can’t be a bad thing…

Hot Toddy

The night before I go back to work, I make a hot whiskey to settle my nerves. Stir in the cloves; add a dash of red lemonade like Mam always does.

Next morning, Susan’s the first to bounce over, grab my face, smack a kiss on my forehead and holler ‘welcome back!’ As she disappears to her cubicle, I plonk onto my swingy chair, email clients, skim press releases and generally re-insert myself back into the office. For tea-break I skulk to the unisex toilets and strain to quietly overcome a bout of nervous constipation. Then I check my phone for maybe the sixteenth time. There are no messages. Everything is fine.

By lunchtime I’m too hungry for news to wait any longer. Ben lifts the phone after two rings.

Yep, Mikey’s fine, drank his bottle no bother…

Did he have tummy time? How’s Mam?” I splutter

She’s grand. Hanging out clothes

That’s not her job Ben“. “Blah blah blah”. I splutter some more.

We’re grand! I’ve to go, conference call. Oh, she gave him prune juice earlier, he’d a massive poo so don’t bother with the chemists. Bye love

OK, bye” and I’m left looking at the phone, bewildered and feeling vaguely jealous of my son’s empty bowels.

By the time I barrel in the door, Ben’s just lifting Mikey out of the bath. I take over, inhaling his softness, patting every fold and crevice dry, easing on his babygro, singing as I feed him to sleep.

Downstairs, Ben’s on the couch watching a titanic documentary; Mam’s in the kitchen. I need to hear all about their day. Having me young delivered one big advantage; we’re more like sisters than mother / daughter.

She takes one look at me.

You could do with a drink love“.

Kettle on, cloves out, red lemonade open, she roots in the drinks press.

Why does it always taste better when you make it?” I ask.

She looks up, shakes her head, then strides out the door. Within minutes she’s back, bottle of Powers in hand.

You can’t use any old whiskey” she scolds.

Soon my hands embrace the warm nectar she’s been soothing me with for years. Delicious.

You’re not having one?” I ask, then notice her foot tapping, her slightly sweating hairline.

I’ve a bit of news love…”

After she leaves, I log on to do my grocery shopping, remember to add a bottle of Powers Gold Label to my virtual basket and smile. I’ll be drinking my hot toddy’s alone for the next while. I hope it’s a boy. Mikey will love having a playmate. And besides…

I’ve always wanted a brother.