Junior Cert English: The art of writing differently

A broad range of writing styles is required – from concise, point-driven paragraphs to personal, exploratory essays


Different kinds of writing
While you may be a good reader, and a good talker, capable of discussing issues and well able to convey your opinions, the exam is a written exam and writing is quite a different skill to talking. Most of us enjoy conversation but having the patience to sit for hours and write down information in a coherent and interesting manner is a different kind of skill. And it is important to recognize that different sections of the exam require different kinds of writing skills.

The kind of writing required in the reading section and the media studies sections of the exam could be described as concise writing. This kind of writing requires short, point driven answers, supported by references to examples in the passages you are given to read. Both of these sections of your exam are actually reading questions; it is your reading that is being tested, your ability to comprehend what you read, whether that happens to be a piece of prose or an advertisement.

As these sections of the exam are testing your reading ability, it is important to realize that the answers you write should be driven by points that contain information you find in the extracts, inferences you make about content, and observations you make about style.

This kind of writing should be direct in making its points, and those points should be made in short paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain your opinion, an opinion that should be made in short, clear sentences. That opinion, your points, should be supported by short quotations from the passages and references to the content. So, concise writing should be a set of points supported by evidence from the texts, delivered in short, clear paragraphs.

Personal writing is a term that is probably better recognized as being an essay. That essay may take the form of a story or a discussion or a description, but whatever form it takes, there are certain structural elements that are expected to be there.

Essays are expected to have development. In other words, regardless of what form an essay takes, it should have direction, which means it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every essay must go somewhere. There should be a journey of some kind. If it is a discussion, you should take a side on some issue and the essay should indicate how you have arrived at a particular opinion. If the essay is a narrative, apart from having a setting where something occurs (the action) and characters who are involved in events, there should also be a passage of time.

Functional writing is quite different from concise writing and personal writing. It has more development and scope than concise writing, but has less opportunity for descriptive and imaginative passages than personal writing. This kind of writing – involving reports, reviews, letters, profiles– is a writing that requires organization and clarity above everything else. Again, the paragraphing style is crucial. Paragraphs should be brief and very clear, containing well made points. This kind of writing generally avoids figures of speech and long descriptions, instead concentrating on details of events. One element of this kind of writing is its adherence to presenting a logical sequence to what is being written, so that the content should be presented in a pattern of order that provides a clear beginning middle and end.

The kind of writing that requires you to discuss poems or extracts from drama and fiction texts, or that requires you to discuss something you have studied in school, is quite different from the writing used in an essay or in a report, or when answering a reading question.

This kind of writing can be broken down in to two areas; the unseen material and the studied material.

Unseen material
For unseen material your answers should be point driven, concentrating on the questions asked, but making sure to use the proper terminology when writing. If discussing poems, terms like imagery, mood, and contrast are words that should be used, while for fiction using terms like setting, character, suspense, and tension are some of the terms that could be used.

The writing here demands precision and conciseness. You need to focus on the technical aspects of the extracts and not just summarise what you read. It is important to write short paragraphs that contain clear points that answer the questions asked, but which are also supported by relevant quotations from the texts you are given. Make a couple of points for each answer and remember that each part of an answer will be about a half a page in length, that’s all you will have time to write. So be direct in what you say. Keep your sentences short, and make each sentence contain a clear point that addresses the question you are asked.

Studied texts
For the poems, play, stories, or novels you studied, the writing is generally expected to be more developed. Providing your opinions on literature requires you to discuss these texts in a broader way than you would with the unseen material. These answers are short essay type answers on something you have read and studied. Therefore, it is expected that you will write something in paragraphs, and that those paragraphs will develop out of each other, building up a view of a play, novel, short story, or poem that addresses the question that is asked.

If the question on a poem, play, or fiction is not divided into parts, your answer should be about two pages in length, containing anything from five to eight paragraphs. The opening paragraph and the conclusion should acknowledge the question directly, answering it in a clear and precise manner. The central paragraphs, on the other hand, should deal with some aspect of the text that is relevant to the question asked. Do not summarise. You should not re-tell the story. Instead, you should make observations about what the action suggests about character, or theme, or mood, and so on. In other words, comment on the technical aspects of the text. Focus on how it works and why it works, and what you enjoyed or what you didn’t like. This means that your answers will have to contain quotations from the texts and references to what happens, as evidence, to support your opinions.