Category Archives: Composing

Advice on writing essay/story/article/speech.

Collaborative Storytelling

Inspired by this talk by Sean Love of Fighting Words at last years TedXDublin, I decided to try some group storytelling with my first years this week. (It’s well worth a look, you’ll just have to forgive his misconception that “we don’t have creative writing in our formal education system“)

[youtube_sc url=]


We used this post on step-by-step storytelling to craft each paragraph (step 1 = set the scene, step 2 = introduce the characters, step 3 =  dialogue, step 4 = flashback, step 5 = return to the story, step 6 = end with a twist). I realise this ‘writing by numbers’ approach isn’t to everybody’s taste but I figure let them learn the rules first, then they can break them to their hearts content!

At each stage we wrote a list of suggestions on the board and then each person in the class put their hands over their eyes (so as not to be influenced by each others opinions) and voted for their favourite.

Anyone could suggest where the story should be set, or who the characters might be, or what their motivation was and where the story should go, so it was a very democratic process. We debated a lot about how to capture where the characters were from by writing the dialogue phonetically and we discussed the fact that a short story needs to be a slice of life. Often the suggestions in the room became too convoluted and we stripped it back to keep it simple and honest. We deleted dialogue that didn’t sound believable and argued about why the story should go in this direction, or that direction. I really feel it was a positive experience for them to consider how much thought and craft goes into even a short 500 word piece of writing.

The next step is that each student in the class will now write their own short story but they CANNOT write more than 3 pages. I want them to write less better, not write lots badly.

Anyway, here’s what we wrote.

Lost & Found

As I glanced around at the chickens pecking the corn; the cow pats hard crust drying in the sunlight and the sheep dog barking like a maniac at the tiny new-born kittens, I wondered when I would see my home again. The sound of the tractor purring in the distant field and the smell of freedom, and manure and freshly cut grass filled my soul with longing and despair.

I heard the crunch of gravel behind me and turned to see my father slowly limping across the yard, a look of anxiety written in the wrinkles on his tired worn face. He didn’t want me to go, he had made that clear, but I felt I had to make my mark on the world; make my own decisions; stand on my own two feet.

Da, are the sheep alrite?

Thar surely”. He looked at the ground though, he couldn’t look me in eyes.

Grand so. Shur, I better be getting on then?” I didn’t move though, I just stood scuffing the ground with the toe of my Sunday shoes. I didn’t know what else to say to him.

C’mon up ta the house. Yer ma made some wee sanwiches an a flask a tea for the journee

As we walked slowly up to the farmhouse, my father limping beside me, I remembered the day my brother left. The soft sobs of my mother choking back her tears and my father’s low warning, hissed at my brother as he turned to go: “Yer brother gets the farm if you leave. So don’t bother comin’ back”. I remember the look of absolute shock on Seamie’s face. Our father never said a cruel word in his life, not even to the god damn chickens, and here he was stripping his eldest son of his inheritance, his homeland and his family in one terrible moment. Now I stopped to wipe my feet on the woven mat just inside the back door, sick to my stomach at the thought of my mother’s face as she said goodbye, this time to her last son.

I dragged my body reluctantly into the kitchen, pulled out a chair beside my mother and sank onto the cold hard seat. She sat stiffly with her hands entwined, as if she was praying for a miracle. She looked up as my Dad shuffled out into the hall and whispered “I’ll miss ya laddie”. I clasped her cold hands in mine but I couldn’t say anything because of the lump in my throat.

I stood, grabbed my tattered brown suitcase and walked out the back door, knowing it was probably the last time I’d see home. But I had to find out about my other home; my other life; the future I’d never had because my real mother gave me up for adoption at birth.



Long Day’s Journey Into Light

Thanks to Nicole (Junior Cert) for letting me share this beautiful, heartbreaking piece of descriptive writing.

sad girl 2

The car journey felt like a long dreary 24 hours as my father and I drove up the steep hills, along windy roads and around sharp corners. It was a warm bright sunny day but because the emotions running though me were so gloomy and depressing I didn’t take heed of the sunshine gleaming through the windows, then suddenly hiding itself behind fluffy clouds that floated on the surface of the deep blue sky.

As my father drove our car, with me at his shoulder, we spoke few words, because every time a word was said both of us could find no way to hold it in; could find no way to prevent the wet bitter tears from streaming down our cheeks. He was the only one I could feel close to during that painful time. The only person to take the time to remember and cherish the precious memories that would never leave.

I missed my mother. She always assured me that alll would be okay; that the harsh pain I felt would fade like raw scars fading over time. It all just seemed so unbearable; too hard to comprehend. I was missing my family’s cheery smiles. I longed for the moment when I would see them to share the sorrowful, hurtful, painful feelings that racked my mind.

When we at long last reached our destination, I felt as though my heart rate was a thousand beats per minute. I knew that was impossible but it was racing, racing like a sprinter. I saw my mother for the first time in over a week. She held me so close with her arms wrapped around me, her tears falling onto my pale blue blouse.

I kept it in. I kept it together. But I felt like a tower of Jenga.

I didn’t want to fall apart, like a brick tumbling to the ground, smashing apart on the floor.

From the corner of my eye I spotted my four sisters, my brother and several more family members out front, some on the newly painted fence; others, dazed, sitting on the smooth green grass. They each approached, one by one gave me a friendly hug, like they always did when things were just not going good. I smiled, my first one all day.

My walk up to the house continued. The door was closed. I wondered why? That white door, with a sliver of black running around the outside was never closed, not even on wet days. It was one way you knew that you were always welcome.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my brother-in-law. He held me up as he slowly pressed down on the handle and opened the door. My uncle greeted me, silent at first, tears streaming down his face. He never looked upset; he was never speechless. He always had a warm word to say. He was the funniest man I’d ever met and now here he was standing before me, broken. The few words he finally uttered were “Nicole, you’re here. It’s good to see you“.

Soon after I heard footsteps as the others followed me in. The older ones occupied the seats; the rest stood shoulder to shoulder. I lasted five minutes in there but it felt like hours. I had to get out! I needed fresh air. I needed to see the sunlight, hoping that it would make things brighter.

But it didn’t. Not one bit. My name was called from behind by my sister, who looked pale, standing on the shining steps. “Nicole, come in quick” she said. I ran as fast as my wobbly legs could carry me. The breathing had gotten worse. Weaker now. There wasn’t a word spoken, only sighs every now and again. I approached my mother and she took my hand. She knew I was scared. Everyone was. I didn’t want this moment to come. Nobody did.

It seemed so surreal as time slowed. After an age of standing and waiting my mother whispered “It’ll be ok”. It was what I was waiting for, words of comfort. Finally the horrible moment arrived. I still can hear the words so vividly “She’s gone”. All I could think of was that she wasn’t going to be in any pain anymore. She was going to be a sparkling angel in the sky. Our family stood together, arm in arm, comforting each other as we said our final goodbyes. She was the best aunt. She was the best friend.

How could she be gone?




I’m posting yet another brilliant piece of writing from one of my students, this time a junior, but she also wants to remain anonymous! We had discussed descriptive writing & identified the main features of good descriptive writing; then I gave them a series of topics and they chose one… Here’s her vivid childhood memory…

sad girl

My head was over my mother’s shoulder. I snuggled into the nape of her neck, my arms and legs wrapped around her like a sloth on a tree, yet my body felt limp. As I entered the house, the warm burst of air hit my face and the star covered sky suddenly didn’t exist anymore. I could nearly taste the salt lingering in the air as I yawned with exhaustion. As my mother carried me away from the aromas I only ever witnessed once a year, I could feel this morning’s eggs and sausages dance in my stomach.

As we continued down the hall I could see the twinkling lights from the corner of my eye, but I quickly turned my head away, making sure I didn’t see anything I shouldn’t. The swirling increased as we neared the door of my sister’s bedroom. It was a yearly ritual that I slept with my sister as company on this night of supposed excitement but this terrified feeling that never left my stomach over-shadowed the anticipation that should have been enticing me to get to sleep quickly.

My breakfast started to dance around my belly as the thought of HIM entered my mind. Jumping up and down and hopping left to right, just like an Irish dancer was springing around covering the entire area of my stomach in a matter of seconds, leaping as high as they possibly could. My thoughts were as active as my eggs and sausages.

What if he saw me? He wouldn’t like me! He wouldn’t leave any presents!

What if he used his magic to kill me? Because I saw him! He doesn’t want people to see him.

What if I wake up too soon?


All of a sudden my thoughts flowed out of my mouth in the form of ground up eggs and sausages. My body went rigid. The vomit streamed down the back of my mother’s favourite purple and black blouse. Water gushed out of my eye sockets as my mother tried to calm me down by kissing my forehead and saying “it’s ok”.

She slowly lay me down on my sister’s double bed. I could see the light flashing off the computer which seemed to relax me. My weeping started to ease and my breathing slowed to its normal rate. Mother’s smile suddenly gloomed over me. With her old Mayo jersey on she picked me up and changed me into my winnie the pooh pyjamas. She tucked me in beside my sister who wasn’t too happy to share her bed. She was angry enough already that the computer had to be in her room (there’s never room for it in our sitting room when the Christmas tree goes up).

Gradually, my sore red eyes began to close and soon enough I couldn’t even remember the worries that made me feel so anxious because I knew, by the time my eyes opened again, Santa Claus would have already visited.


Features of Effective Speech-Writing

For Danielle and all my wonderful fifth years, as requested. Should help you with your comprehension question “Identify and comment on four features of effective speech writing“! Remember to

  • Identify the technique – include quotes / examples
  • Comment on the effect of this technique on you – how it makes you feel, what image it creates in your mind, what it makes you think, how it changes your perception and gives you a new way of looking at the issue.


  1. Welcome the audience
  2. Introduce yourself (unless you’re really really famous!)
  3. Use informal language & slang (depends on context / audience)
  4. Involve the audience (personal pronouns / ask questions / interactive)
  5. Use humour
  6. Mention celebrities & cartoon characters
  7. Include pauses & gestures
  8. Facts & statistics
  9. Varied sentence length
  11. Personal Anecdotes
  12. Strong opinions expressed – backed up with relevant and logical examples.
  13. Metaphors
  14. Rhetorical Questions
  15. Repetition of key phrases (or plant and pay-off)
  16. Lists
  17. Proper nouns
  18. Urgent references to time
  19. Contrast
  20. Emotive language / Sensationalism / Dramatics
  21. Hyperbole
  22. Vivid feckin imagery!
  23. Thank the audience at the end.

If you want a more detailed discussion of the general effect of individual techniques, look here but remember, when you discuss the effectiveness of a technique in a text, you MUST make your answer zoom in on how the technique works in this SPECIFIC EXAMPLE, not in general.

The Magic of Books

Here’s an essay written by one of my Junior Cert students for her mock on the topic “The Magic & Wonder of Books”. She thinks it makes her sound like a complete nerd but I think it’s lovely. Anyway, she’s actually got quite a bit of cred around here so I won’t oust her and her secret book obsession by naming her…


Reading a book is magical because it allows you to escape to the world of the book and away from the real world. I’m not the usual teenager; I don’t walk around like a zombie glued to the screen of my tablet, phone or iPod. I walk around like a zombie with my head stuck in a book, completely & totally immersed in the world of the book. My family frequently get mad at me for having to repeat themselves as I don’t hear a word anyone says! Except the characters in my book, of course! Their lives become mine. I remember when I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for the first time. I felt like I was there in Narnia following everything that happened as if I was the third daughter of Eve myself. I felt the cold snow and the loud roar of Aslan. That’s why books are so magical and wondrous for me. When I open a book it’s like I have bought an airplane ticket and am about to be flown to a different land.

Books open my mind to different scenarios. In books, anything can happen. Authors like Jacqueline Wilson introduce us to scenarios so many teenage girls face; the death of loved ones, bullying, emmigration – scenarios that wouldn’t cross my mind normally unless I was the victim of these tragedies. Yet when I read about them I feel the upset and the pain of the characters, or their delight and relief, as if it was me and I was dealing with these situations. It’s as if I magically transform into someone different, and live their lives with them as I read. When characters encounter difficulties, I don’t just imagine  what I would do, but I also connect with them as if the characters were my friends.

Books also allow you to see things from the point of view of a person you aren’t and might never be, like a model, princess or millionaire. They take you away from a life where money might be tight to one where it might as well fall from the skies like drops of golden sunshine; they transport you to lives filled with balls, photoshoots and dinner parties, not exams, study, chores and saving money. The magic and wonder of books is extraordinary as you can go from bored and stressed to excited in an instant, losing yourself in a red carpet event with papparazzi shouting your name!

Books can enchant you, educate you and change your opinions and can have as much of an effect on you as a real life experience. Before reading “The Hunger Games“, I didn’t understand the issue of inequality. I knew it wasn’t pleasant but I didn’t understand the extent to which it can destroy lives. Yes, “The Hunger Games” is fictional, yes it is not very realistic in this day and age that 24 people would be put into an arena to fight for their lives. But strip it all back and it comes down to one thing. The “Capital”/Government and the rich having control over the lives of the poor. Surely this is exactly what is happening in our world right now? It only took reading a fictional book to make me understand the inequality that exists in our world today and to change my view of myself, suddenly seeing how privileged I really am. It only took one book to do that. Just one book! And if that doesn’t show the magic and wonder of books then I honestly don’t know what magic is anymore.

I’ve been reading as far back as I can remember. Books were part of my growing up and taught me things that my parents, siblings, friends and teachers couldn’t teach me. They have helped me to escape from tough times to worlds of magic. Yes, not all the books I’ve read have been wonderful and magical but there is still a lesson to be learnt from every one. Books helped me through my beginning years at secondary school when I wanted to have time alone to escape from exams, stress, fights etc. All I had to do was open a book and I would be absorbed into it and forget everything else.

I think every parent should encourage their kids to read from an early age. Reading has so many benefits.  It develops your imagination, increases your vocabulary and allows you to encounter mysteries far beyond your daily experiences. The magic and wonder of books is one of the most powerful forces in my world. Ultimately it comes down to this: I would not be the same person if I had never picked up a book!