Category Archives: Question B

Advice on functional writing tasks (Question B).

Originality – Freshness – Energy – Style

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

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You’re sitting in the exam hall. Sigh. You’ve managed not to vomit up your breakfast but you’re beyond caring how English paper 1 goes as long as it’s Gone Girl sometime soon!

At this point, it’s tempting to choose ‘safe’ options when it comes to the functional writing and creative writing elements of the paper – a letter, a report, a leaflet or a newspaper article. I’m not saying don’t do it: it can be calming to select a format and layout that’s familiar and relatively straight-forward. However, I do have a few words of warning.

Simply replicating the conventions of the format you’ve chosen isn’t sufficient if you’re looking for a high grade. It’s a good start but it’s not enough because as well as gaining marks for ‘understanding genre’, ‘creative modelling’ and ‘control of register and shape’, your writing will also be assessed for ‘originality’ ‘freshness’ ‘energy’ and ‘style’.

With this is mind, how do you engage with the set task but also make your writing stand out in a sea of sameness?

My first piece of advice is to internalise the conventions and layout for each format so that you’re not grasping for these elements in the exam. If they flow naturally, then you’ll be able to free up your creative energies to focus on making your writing fresh and original (and believe me, I know that’s not easy under exam conditions!).

My second piece of advice is to jot down as many ideas as you can before you start writing. As a general rule, the first things that spring to mind for you will likely be similar to the first things that spring to mind for everyone else too, so push your brain to go beyond the obvious first few ideas that you scribble down.

Lastly, if you do come up with something quirky and off-beat, make sure it’s still relevant to the set task and that your register (the formality of your tone and of the language you choose) is appropriate to the audience who’ll be reading what you’ve written. Achieving this balance is quite difficult and requires skill so practise, practise, practise as much as you can prior to the exam.

Let’s imagine a QB as follows, with a quote from the text that precedes it and then a writing task for you to complete.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever” ― George Orwell, 1984

Compose a leaflet encouraging people in your community to rally against an injustice you feel must be challenged.

Below, here’s a sample leaflet which achieves a certain freshness and originality, whilst also obeying the expected layout and register. In terms of ‘creative modelling’ it’s borrowing from the movie Chicken Run but it nonetheless uses the formal vocabulary that we associate with the trade union movement.

The Chicken Coup Contract – what it means for YOU

As a chicken, you have certain rights. The right to food. The right to shelter. The right to free movement. Now your owners want to undermine these basic chicken rights.

The Chicken Coup Contract means:

  • A freeze on pay increases:

    Austerity measures mean that your hard work laying eggs won’t be recognised or reimbursed even if your productivity increases.

  • Redeployment:

    The redeployment clause allows for the transfer of chickens across the entire chicken coup network. There is no guarantee that you will be redeployed to the same grade of coup or even within the same county.

  • No strike clause:

    Strikes and other forms of industrial action are precluded in respect of all matters covered in the contract”. So any measures we do not like we will have to take them lying down. But as we all know, chickens do not like lying down!

  • Embargo on recruitment:

    No further chickens can be introduced to a coup; current ratios of chicken to coup per square metre will be rigidly enforced. This will lead to an increasing workload and further pressure to meet egg-laying targets as owners attempt to improve profitability.

  • Productivity:

    Better management and standardisation of family friendly policies, including maternity leave and flexi-place will be necessary”. We may no longer be entitled to our traditional six weeks leave to care for our chicks as this could interfere with egg-laying. Our current system whereby mother hens and their chicks are housed together may be under threat.

  • Slaughterhouse Rules:

    Chickens who fail to meet targets (and who have been working in the coup for less than one year or more than two years) can then be sent to the slaughterhouse. This is a departure from our previous agreement.

  • Force Moulting:

    Starvation practices to re-invigorate egg-production will become legal. This contravenes European directive 214-2007 on the humane treatment of animals.






If you weren’t in an exam, you could do include some fancy graphic design elements, as below, but in an exam it’s not necessary (although, I might vary the size of the heading, sub-heading etc). The writing will speak for itself and the look of it isn’t relevant – you’re not sitting an art exam.

Chicken coup leaflet

Spot the Differences answers

Read this article.

Then read this speech.

Try to spot 7 major differences between them.

Now scroll down…

Here are the answers:

  • No headline
  • Welcome the audience
  • Use informal language and slang
  • Use humour
  • Inclusion of video
  • Include pauses and gestures
  • Thank the audience at the end

Less common Question Bs

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My News‘ may well be one of your earliest memories from primary school. Written in that special copy with a blank top third of the page so you could draw a picture, it began ‘Today is Tuesday‘, followed by a bit about the weather and perhaps some gossip about whose tooth fell out, or whose knee got cut when they tripped in the yard. Letters too formed an integral part of early childhood, in the yearly ritual of writing a letter to Santa.

This may explain why students tend to opt for Question B’s that feel comfortingly familiar – a letter, a news report or feature article, a radio talk or a series of diary entries. When less common formats appear, such as an a proposal, a script, or an interview, students tend to steer clear out of anxiety, even if the topic interests them. It’s a shame really, because they’re every bit as accessible.


  • Usually written in a question & answer format.

  • The questions you ask will depend on the person youre interviewing and on where the interview will be published (e.g. an interview for a kids magazine vs playboy magazine!)

  • Try to discover something new or interesting about the interviewee. Push them a little to reveal more about themselves so the reader gets new insights into their life and personality.

Interviewers generally think about 3 broad categories when coming up with questions to ask…


  • their childhood and how they became the person they are today.
  • past successes and failures in their career.
  • past scandals in their personal life.
  • other jobs they’ve done (or previous tours/tournaments/shows/books).


  • what are they working on currently.
  • what they like/dislike about their current job.
  • how their career impacts on their personal life.
  • recent successes and failures.
  • recent scandals and how they coped with the fall-out.


  • what is their next project.
  • will they ever change career/focus or do this until they die?
  • do they have any fears for the future? things they’re looking forward to?

The tone tends to be very informal, you write as you would speak – this is, after all, a conversation that then gets written down.

Keep the questions short and the answers fairly long. Pre-prepared questions will only get you so far – a good interviewer creates new questions on the spot which respond to what the interviewee has just said and which dig a bit deeper to get more info.

Writer’s often introduce the interview with a paragraph describing where they met, what the interviewee was wearing, the interviewee’s general mood, friendliness and demeanour and a comment on how long the writer had to wait, how long the interview lasted, who else was there, if the interviewee’s phone rang during the interview – and if they answered it!


While there are no hard and fast rules for this format, a proposal falls more or less into the category of the language of information. You should get to the point, avoid any waffle or repetition, pay close attention to structure (make sure it’s well laid out and organized) and use clear, concise language to get your message across.

Remember however, that if this proposal is going to be selected from lots of other proposals you’ll need to argue your case, persuading your audience that you are the best possible candidate and/or your idea is the best possible idea for whatever it is that you are proposing to achieve. Make it clear who will do what? when? and why?

Step 1: Introduce your idea. Begin with a brief sentence outlining what it is you propose to do / create and mentioning who your product / service or idea is aimed at.

Step 2: Flesh out the details. The body of the proposal will offer specific details on the project, outlining exactly what you propose to do/create, step by step.

Step 3: Include rationale. (1. selling points, 2. research, 3. expectations 4. expertise). This is where you explain why you believe this approach will be effective (in achieving whatever it is the people paying for this project want to achieve). Focus on the unique selling points of your idea. Have you tested this idea on a sample group? Discuss the specific needs of your target audience and how your project will meet their needs and expectations. You may wish to briefly outline why you are the perfect person to lead this project (relevant experience, qualifications, personality).

Step 4: Timeframe and financial plan. Specify how long this project will take from start to finish. Include an estimated cost and mention that a detailed set of accounts for projected costs (and potential profits if applicable) is included in the appendix.

Script / Dialogue

Writing believable but engaging dialogue is harder than you might think. Sometimes you write something you think works, but when you read it out loud your reaction is ‘what was I thinking? No-body talks like that in the real world‘. The best way to test your dialogue for authenticity is to hear it spoken aloud. If it sounds fake, cross it out and try again.

The layout is slightly different depending on whether you’re writing for stage or screen. However, it’s doubtful you’d lose marks for such pedantic details in an exam. The quality of your dialogue would be the primary concern of whoever was marking your script.

If you’re writing a scene for a stage play, the name of the character goes on the left, followed by a colon, then their dialogue. Never write under the character’s name – this makes it easier for the actors to follow whose line is next when they’re rehearsing the play. Stage directions describing the characters clothing, hairstyles, the setting, props, furniture, telling the actors what actions and body language to use, where to move etc…are written in italics. If you’re writing in an exam so you can’t use italics, keep to the left edge and leave a line between the stage directions and the dialogue.

So it looks like this:

Stage is divided in two. Stage left is a teenage girl’s bedroom. Stage right is a 1980’s kitchen. A table with an ashtray full of cigarette butts sits in the centre. Four chairs surround it.

Stage left, Marian is dancing to loud pop music. The door opens but she doesn’t notice.

Sean: Hey! HEY LOSER (shouting).

Marian: Sean get OUT! Jesus (muttering) can I not get five minutes to myself?

Marian goes to dresser, ties up loose hair, switches off iPod dock.

Sean: (quietly) Mam needs you downstairs.

Marian: (apologetic) Oh. OK. Is she ok? Did she take her tablets?

Sean: She’s fine M. Don’t panic. She just needs you to help with dinner. I tried but she didn’t trust

me not to chop a finger off and stick it in with the carrots!


If you’re writing a film script, the character name is centered, and the dialogue goes underneath it. You let us know the location, setting (interior or exterior) and time of day. If you’re cutting between scenes, CUT TO: goes on the right hand side of the page. If you’re watching one scene, but listening to voice over from characters who are elsewhere, indicate that with V.O. in brackets beside the characters name.

So it looks a little something like this:

Int. Bedroom – Day.

Marian is dancing to loud dance music. The door opens but she doesn’t notice.


Hey! HEY LOSER (shouting).


Sean get OUT! Jesus (muttering) can I not get five minutes to myself?

Marian goes to dresser, ties up loose hair, switches off iPod dock.

Sean: (quietly)

Mam needs you downstairs.


Int. Kitchen – Day.

Mother stands at kitchen window, knife in one hand, carrot in the other, staring vacantly. Her eye twitches but otherwise she is completely still.

(V. O.) Marian: (apologetic)

Oh. OK. Is she ok? Did she take her tablets?

(V.O.) Sean:

She’s fine M. Don’t panic. She just needs you to help with dinner.

I tried but she didn’t trust me not to chop a finger off and stick it in with the carrots!

Categorising Formats

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


In our daily lives we’re exposed to an almost endless array of text formats. Some slot neatly into a category: they give us information or provide us with a description. Others cross boundaries, combining logical argument, emotional persuasion and vivid imagery to make their point and cast their spell on us.

One way to force your brain to really think about what type of language use is dominant in any given format is to label it in your brain, or better still, fill them into the grid we’ve provided!

So here’s your challenge: I’ve given you a list of language types below.

Your job is to decide which category they mostly belong to. Of course there’ll be some overlap but don’t stress about that.

Instead ask yourself which type of language dominates?

If the answer is…

mostly facts = information

mostly logical opinions = argument

mostly emotive manipulation = persuasion

mostly vivid imagery = description

There’ll also be some listed below that you’d need more information about before you could intelligently decide where to put them. For example, a cookery blog would fall mostly into the language of information; a company blog would be persuasive (buy our stuff!); a political blog would be argumentative and a personal diary-style blog would be descriptive.

You may also feel that some belong in two (or more) categories as they would combine elements of more than one type of language use. My advice is leave the ones you’re not sure about til the end – maybe just mark them with an asterisk so your remember to come back to them. And if a format belongs in more than one category, that’s ok too.

Right, in no particular order, as they say on the X-factor, here are the formats.

Diary entry

Election leaflet


Letter of Application


Competition entry / Nomination

Travel Guide

Book / CD / DVD blurb

Personal Ad (e.g. on a dating website)

Letter to the Editor


Campaign speech / Political speech




Personal essay

Instructions / How to video

Twitter bio

Newspaper article (opinion piece)


Memoir / biography / autobiography

Personal Statement (e.g. applying for UCAS)


Court case (case for the prosecution / case for the defence)

Satire / Parody

Travel Writing (travelogue)



Victim impact statement

Current Affairs programme (Primetime, Tonight w/V B)


News report



Academic essay / thesis

Script / Dialogue

Labels / Packaging


Short story

Blackmail letter

Online forum (e.g.

Leaflet (e.g. in doctor’s surgery)

Billboard / poster


Movie trailer



Speech / Talk

Sports Journalism

Press Release


Categories photoIf it helps, draw a grid like the one above and as you write each one into the grid, cross it off the list.

Question B trends

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I made a list of the formats that have appeared as QB’s over the years. Here’s the breakdown:

2014 = news report, talk, letter

2013 = talk, introduction to a book, opinion piece.

2012 = letter, proposal, article for school website

2011 = feature article, talk, 2 diary entries

2010 = interview, letter, radio talk

2009 = script of a scene in dialogue form, speech, letter

2008 = letter, 2 diary entries, article

2007 = election leaflet, radio presentation, letter

2006 = diary entry, letter, report

2005 = 3 diary entries, letter, proposal/memo

2004 = talk, report, letter

2003 = letter, radio talk, 3 diary entries

2002 = letter, text of an ad, radio or TV talk

2001 = talk, article, presentation


Once you highlight the ones which occur repeatedly – news report/article; talk/speech, letter, diary entries, report – you can see that the following have appeared only once or twice:

  1. introduction to a book
  2. proposal
  3. interview
  4. script / dialogue
  5. leaflet
  6. text of an ad

However, you’re not selecting which QB you’ll do by format, you’re also selecting a topic that you’re interested in and that sparks your imagination. A format that seems ‘easy’ may prove very difficult because of the topic you’ve been given to write about or because it needs to be based closely on the text that precedes it; or because of the target audience it’s aimed at. Furthermore, if loads of people pick this option, it’ll be harder to make yours stand out as fresh and original and impressive.

So remember, the things to consider when selecting a QB are:

Topic – do you have something to say about this issue? Can you make your content fresh and original? And really, really important, can you make it up entirely or does it have to be based on the text? It is REALLY IMPORTANT that you read the question carefully to figure this out.

Audience – who will be reading what you write? How formal/informal should it be? Can you write in this register?

Genre / Format – as long as you’re fairly familiar with the general layout, there’s usually no ‘one right way’ to approach a given format. Try not to let a less common format put you off.

Style – what’s appropriate here? Description? Logical argument backed up by statistics and examples? Emotional confessional first person narration? Informative bullet points? Or a combination of many of these elements? Your style must match your task and genre…