Tag Archives: leaving

From word to paragraph…

When you brainstorm you’ll often just have individual words written down but if you want to turn a word into a paragraph of prose how do you do it?

I showed my leaving certs how the other day. I asked them for a word. They came up with ‘sex’ (hormones, hormones, hormones).

Then I wrote a list on the board as follows:

  1. Imagery = 5 senses = SIGHT   SOUND   SMELL   TASTE   TOUCH
  2. Rhetorical question
  3. Repetition
  4. Thoughts & Feelings
  5. Short snappy sentences
  6. Suspense
  7. Twist

As we used each technique we crossed it off.

Here’s the paragraph we came up with:

Does he seriously think I’m going to sleep with him? I’m really really drunk and I can smell the stale sweat of his armpits, see the yellow plaque on his teeth. I can taste the puke in my mouth and the thump of a dance tune hammers into my brain. He reaches over and grabs my ass. I’m definitely going to puke again. ‘Get me out of here’ a voice screams in my head. But I can’t leave. You see this is my job. And if I don’t sleep with him my children don’t eat”. 

As a rule I find students need to think less about what they write and more about HOW they write. Having a list of techniques written down forces you to be more stylish in your writing.

Now over to you. Pick a word, any word. Try to write 8 or 10 stylish sentences. As you use each of the techniques above cross them off.

You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at the result but disheartened at how long it takes.  Practise writing one paragraph every day and you’ll get quicker at it.

Sample speech

Sometimes a persuasive speech will be so well written that you find yourself agreeing with something completely illogical. Look at the example below – it doesn’t make sense logically but it manipulates your emotions and thus convinces you almost in spite of yourself.

Studying it should make you more aware of why people go along with some really crazy ideas (scientology, suicide bombings…). It’s all because of how the writer/speaker makes you feel:

Blowing Hot Steam

Ladies & gentlemen, the time has come to outlaw that most dangerous of domestic appliances – the kettle! We may well smile as we picture our whistling friend as a hatchet-wielding killer; yet this seemingly innocent chrome contraption causes chaos in our homes every year, whilst the media remains suspiciously silent on the issue.

Well I for one am tired of these lies of silence, and for this reason I have spent the last month touring the A&E departments of our countries hospitals, doing a little market research of my own!

Mayo General revealed a shocking array of third degree burns caused by clumsy kettle carrying. One ashen-faced 25yr old (who does not wish to be named) tripped carrying a fully loaded kettle and ended up with the contents searing his nether regions. Needless to say his crown jewels are tarnished beyond repair! Nearby, a dazed and confused pensioner with a nasty purple lump on his temple described being attacked by his kettle-wielding Missus after he refused (one time too many) to get up off the couch and make them a cuppa! Meanwhile, a nail-chewing mother looked on in horror as her darling daughter howled in pain & clawed at the bandages covering her left arm from shoulder to wrist. Never again would making hungover Mommy an industrial strength cup of coffee for Mother’s Day seem like a good idea!!!

And so I say to you my friends, declare war on kettles. Let this marriage-wrecking, family-destroying, genital-mangler of a device be criminalised for once and for all. Canvas your local politician now and let this serious yet swept-under-the-carpet issue take it’s rightful place alongside the war on terror, the war on drugs and the war on organised crime.  

Look at the techniques used here – connect to audience, alliteration, hyperbole, emphatic words, vivid imagery, eye-witness testimony, sarcasm, list, an order (canvas you local politician), repetition of a key phrase.

Unseen poetry

Generally speaking you can answer one 20 mark question or two 10 mark questions so we’ll deal with them separately here.

The 20mark question usually goes a little something like this:

  • Write a personal response to this poem, highlighting the impact it makes on you.
  • Describe the impact this poem makes on you as a reader.

As with studied poetry you are expected to include sentences which use the pronoun I.

  1. Talk about how the poems made you feel.
  2. Identify what they taught you, how they made you look at an issue(s) in a new way.
  3. Mention how these themes are relevant to your life.
  4. Discuss what you enjoyed in the poet’s style of writing

Remember though, no matter what the question, you are expected to quickly figure out the message/theme of the poem, identify some techniques, and comment on the feelings created in the poem and in you. DO NOT go off on a long rambling tangent about how this poem reminds you of this thing that happened to you once. Mention the poem’s relevance to your life in passing but stay focused – your job is to discuss and interpret the poem and how the poem affects you emotionally/intellectually not to talk about yourself (you can do this in Paper 1 QB and essay).  

10 mark questions

Questions on the mood/feelings/atmosphere (see poetic techniques & terminology)

  • What is the mood of this poem and how is it conveyed?
  • How does this poem make you feel? Explain by detailed reference to the poem.
  • How well does the poem capture the boy’s sense of excitement and hope?
  • Choose two phrases which best capture the girl’s feelings. Give reasons for your choices.

Questions on the setting (see language of narration / descriptive writing)

  • Do you like the world that the poet describes in this poem? Give reasons for your answer.

Questions on the imagery/ style of writing (see poetic techniques & terminology)

  • Choose one image/line from this poem that appealed to you. Explain your choice.
  • The poem uses beautiful imagery to capture an ugly reality. Discuss.
  • The poem makes effective use of irony – discuss.

Questions on the poet/speaker/characters in the poem

  • What impression do you get of ….. the poet’s father – the father/son relationship? (see list of character traits).
  • What impact does this childhood experience have on the poet/speaker?
  • What kind of life do you think the speaker lives?

Originality vs. Cliche

Almost everyone uses cliches at some stage in their writing – ideas that have been overused to the point of being completely boring, obvious and predictable. When you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper the first ideas that pop into your head will more than likely be very similar to the first ideas that pop into the heads of the other 12,000 odd students who choose the same essay topic or question B that you have.

So how do you make your writing stand out? How do you spark some originality in the pressure cooker of the exam hall?

In my opinion half the battle is to move away from a focus on WHAT you’re saying and think more about HOW you’re saying it. Focus on your technique.

Take for example the question we did in class today: you have recently been asked to write a letter to the Department of Education & Science offering your opinion on what makes a good teacher. Certain cliches will pop into your head – classroom control,  hard-working, passionate about their subject, patience, good communication & people skills, innovative approach to learning.

So far all we have is a list. It’s a fairly obvious list and most people would agree with it as a starting off point. But we have not yet said ANYTHING original. Now look at the following examples, one irritatingly informal and full of cliches and generalisations, the other quite witty, entertaining and enjoyable to read.

Example 1 = I am a leaving certificate student and in my opinion if a teacher wants to be good at their job they need to relate to what their students are going through. I mean not all of us have an easy life and sometimes when teachers get on our backs about stupid stuff like homework it just really annoys us. So yeah, I think being able to realise that students have a life outside of school and can’t always put school first is one thing that makes someone a good teacher.

In this example the student TELLS us their opinion and sounds like a bit of a whinger (look at the use of informal phrases such as ‘I mean’ ‘stupid stuff’ ‘so yeah‘)  We probably agree with their ideas but we don’t feel like they’ve told us anything we don’t already know.

Example 2 = Let me illuminate for you the essence of the magic muinteoir. It’s Monday morning. I barely slept last night. My beautiful niece Saoirse (daughter of my brain-dead sister who got knocked up at 16) is teething and let’s just say our house isn’t on Wisteria Lane. Paper thin walls mean I arrive at school with the memory of her wails just fading. Then Alan, my super-gay best-friend decides to stick his leg out and trip me in the corridor (in front of Peter, school ride). How funny. I arrive late to first class. Crap… No hold on, it’s ok. It’s Biology. Mr. Watts senses intuitively that it’s been a bad day, a bad week, hell a bad year. He sidles quietly down to my seat, fills me in on what the rest of the class are quietly doing in pairs, offers to help me catch up and doesn’t blow a gasket that I don’t have my homework done – but does insist that he gets it tomorrow. Here is a safe haven from the madness that is my life & even though I’m tired I want to learn. Is this essence something you can capture? Or sell? Or even fully understand? Maybe all great teachers are just hard-wired this way. Understanding is part of their nature & learning is their bible.      

In this example the writer DRAWS US IN to their experience of good teaching. They set the scene through the senses : sights, sounds, touch (being tripped) and draw us in emotionally by describing their feelings (How funny… Crap…). They give the teacher a believable identity by offering his name & subject, then describe his behaviour in detail. We are sucked into the moment because the writer proves his point using a specific anecdote instead of just making bland factual statements. It ends with 3 rhetorical questions which link back to the question being asked and a dramatic statement which uses hyperbole – hard-wired/nature/bible. The second example also stays focused perfectly on the task at hand – nobody asked you to slag off ‘bad’ teachers, the question asked you to explain/discuss/describe what it is that makes someone a good teacher. So example 1 wanders off point, example 2 sticks with the Q throughout.

By the way, I made up both of these examples so don’t be worrying that I’m going to publish something you’ve written up here. It’s not gonna happen – unless you write something amazing that just HAS to be published and if you do I’ll ask your permission first! Hope this helps rather than just telling you to be more original! Remember these two rules:


Studied poetry – questions

When the new course began in 2001, the type of questions that came up were pretty predictable and mostly revolved around giving a personal response to a poet. Since 2007 (and the public debate around grade inflation/rote learning) the questions have become more specific and ask you to discuss particular aspects of a poet’s work. What this means in effect is that you need to know the poet – it’s not enough to just learn off a personal response essay and write it in the exam. You MUST respond to the question asked and use an appropriate style (are you writing a speech? an article? a letter? a critical analysis?) and tone (who are your audience).

Let’s look at the more predictable Q’s (which were entirely absent from the 2010 and 2011 papers)

  1. Personal response = expected to include sentences which use the pronoun ‘I‘. Talk about how the poems made you feel. Identify what they taught you, how they made you look at an issue(s) in a new way. Discuss what you enjoyed in the poet’s style of writing. Explore how these themes are relevant to your life.
  2. Discuss the feelings the poet creates in you. They have on occasions specified certain feelings. For example, unhappiness in Larkin’s poetry, tension in Walcott’s poetry, sadness in Frost’s poetry, Plath as ‘intense & disturbing’. So make sure you know both what feelings the poet expresses in their work and what feelings the poems create in you.
  3. Relevance for the modern reader. This came up in 2002 as a specific question on Bishop.
  4. Appeal of a poet  – what you like and/or dislike about their poetry. Very similar to personal response.
  5. Introduce a poet to new readers giving an overview of their themes & style and explaining why you think they would enjoy reading these poems. This could be in the style of an article or written as a speech/talk for classmates. More informal style.
  6. Write a letter to the poet. You might want to ask them questions, where their inspiration come from etc…
  7. Choose a small selection for inclusion in an anthology & justify your selection. You would choose maybe 3 poems, one to represent each major theme in their ouvre.

Ultimately, however, no matter what the question you are still expected to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the poet’s themes & style of writing, supporting this with detailed quotations.

There is one more type of question and this is the one which has dominated since 2010:

       8. A specific statement about the poet which you must discuss.

Since 2007, more and more questions have started to appear which demand that you respond to a specific question, discussing to what extent you agree or disagree with it or asking you to prove the truth of the statement (a lot like what you do for the Hamlet question). In 2007 two of the four questions did this (Frost & Plath) while two were personal response. In 2008, two of the four again made a specific statement you had to discuss (Donne & Mahon) while two were more personal response (Larkin & Rich). In 2009 only one was very specific (Walcott) while the other three just specified that you discuss BOTH themes and style in your answer (they talked about a ‘clear’ style for Keats & Montague and a ‘unique’ style for Bishop). As an aside, they keep mentioning the style of writing because a lot of students focus too much on themes (what the poet says) but forget to comment on techniques (how the poet says it) which is vital in any discussion of poetry – including your unseen section.

In 2010 ALL FOUR QUESTIONS mentioned specific aspects of a poet’s work. For Yeats it was real v’s ideal, for Rich it was themes of power and powerlessness, for Kavanagh it was transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary and for Eliot it was troubled characters in a disturbing world. In 2011 ALL FOUR QUESTIONS mentioned specific aspects of a poet’s work. For Yeats it was challenging style and subject matter, for Dickinson it was original startling and thought-provoking poetry, for Boland it was insights and precise language, for Frost it was deceptively simple style with layers of meaning. If you learn off an essay and stick to it rigidly you will not be answering the question (or not be able to answer the question) and the only way you can get a good grade in poetry is to answer the question. In other words, you need to really understand what the poet is about. I hate when students ask me if it’s true that you don’t need to discuss 6 poems in your essay. The simple answer is yes. But if you only know 3 poems by a poet you might not be able to answer the question that comes up. It all depends what appears on the day.