The GCSE mark scheme for writing actually encourages poor prose
A couple of years ago, I took almost nine months off work to write a novel. In spite of my booker-winning dreams, were I to weigh all the decisions I’ve made throughout my life, this one would not rank among the greatest. At the time, I was living in an expensive flat in West Hampstead and the novel itself was a stinker.
Why so bad? Because I tried to write it. What I mean by that is, I tried to write it. I was so conscious of my writing that I paid little attention to other considerations. Y’know, trifling things like character and plot. Worse, because I was so conscious of style, the style itself was awful. I mean truly hideous. I missed no opportunity to add an extra adjective or metaphor, and never did I use a simple word when a showy one would suffice.
So I know a little thing or two about bad writing. Today, however, I’m more interested in what it is that makes writing good. Unsurprisingly, given the above, this is something I ruminate on from time to time. What constitutes good writing is both complex and subjective, but there is one quality that all good writing has: control.
I’d define a writer with control as a writer whose language communicates the exact meaning he wishes. There is little room for ambiguity, unless the writer desires it, and even then, he is able to manipulate his words to mean (and not mean) precisely what he does (and does not) want them to.
A mark scheme for writing is, therefore, a problem. A mark scheme will necessarily reduce the amount of control a writer can have, because it will exert an unnatural influence over him. It will control him. It will say: “What you’re writing is irrelevant; good writing must tick these boxes, always.”
If you look at the paragraphs above, they would certainly attract reward using AQA’s GCSE mark scheme. We have rhetorical questions, punctuation for effect, some decent vocabulary, et cetera, et cetera. But the writing is also pretty plain. Save for one or two clichéd metaphors (“a stinker”) and too many rhetorical questions, I haven’t gone out of my way to add unnecessary literary flourishes. How often can you say that about writing that aims to pick up marks at GCSE? How often do you read through a few paragraphs without being battered by a tsunami of similes, metaphors, alliterations, or tricolons? Rarely.
Leaving aside the pupils for just a moment, it is also true, I think, that many an English teacher has been ruined by the GCSE mark schemes for writing. Sometimes, when I read a blog, article, or TES column, I cannot help but hear, underneath the sentences, a teacher who has taught to the GCSE mark scheme: “Open with a rhetorical question to engage your reader… Try and use a simile or metaphor in the first three sentences… Use a statistic to make your point feel valid.” Yawn. Of course, there are plenty of examples of excellent writing from English teachers on Twitter and in TES. But you get the idea. The tail is wagging the dog.
Content is king. It should dictate writing style, always. Form should be ruled by what the writer has to say; his message should not be subservient to the arbitrary considerations of style, especially those dictated by a poorly designed GCSE mark scheme. So, if we return to our pupils, we can see that this is important, because no writing, however “creative” the task, needs an overabundance of trite literary “techniques”; unnecessary literary flourishes are harmful to both clarity and style, yet the GCSE mark scheme mandates, for example, that pupils “sustain” their use of linguistic devices alongside a “wide range” of punctuation. But great writing doesn’t require endless linguistic devices and needless little marks cluttering up the page. By asking for this, the mark scheme not only places style over substance but also hinders that very same thing, stylish writing, that it is purporting to promote. Talk about boneheaded.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. Instead of creative writing, let’s consider a piece of analytical writing on, say, Romeo and Juliet. A pupil writes the following sentence: “Romeo is impulsive, immature, and sensitive.” Recently, I have read more than one blog in which teachers have written about how they have coached their pupils to write a sentence such as this. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, it’s a decent sentence. And I agree with you. It is a decent sentence. In isolation.
However, if this is a piece of analytical writing then the pupil’s use of a tricolon is misplaced. In terms of tone, it just doesn’t work. It’s too writerly. Rarely in analytical or academic writing would a writer use a tricolon such as this, because it would jar with the rest of the essay or paper. Further, unless he is a particularly skilled writer, by using the tricolon the pupil is likely to cause himself another, larger, problem. He will likely suffer issues with his paragraphing and structure.
In terms of structure, allow me first to acknowledge that a pupil might get away with using the tricolon above if he employs it as the beginning sentence of an essay. Assuming, that is, that the question asks specifically for a character analysis of Romeo. This works because, as readers, we assume that by placing this sentence first, the writer is indicating that his answer will focus in its entirety on these three traits.
Still, I would be cautious before recommending this to pupils as a strategy. Were they to do this in an exam, they risk getting themselves in a muddle, given that time pressure often forces pupils to follow where their ideas lead moment by moment. Too much specificity early on might prove counterproductive.
But let’s return to the issues with paragraphing and structure that tricolons will lead to. The tricolon above is almost certain to cause the pupil problems, because as soon as he mentions Romeo’s characteristics (impulsive, immature, sensitive) at any point other than the opening of his essay, he is obliged to address and analyse each of them there and then. This is because in an analytical essay, you can’t just mention things in passing. The effect of this is likely to be one of two undesirable outcomes: an average-length paragraph with superficial analysis, or a long, winding behemoth of a paragraph that is both confused and confusing.
An entire essay could be written on each of the characteristics that the pupil has identified—Shakespeare presents Romeo as immature. Discuss.—so to brush quickly over them is clearly a waste. Conversely, extending the paragraph will result in the pupil attempting to weave together too many ideas at once, and the threads of each will become tangled and lost. There’s too much cognitive load for both writer and reader.
If a pupil decides he wishes to write about these characteristics, then he is best to leave out the tricolon and address each individually, and the best way to do that is in separate paragraphs. This will allow him the time and space to make a decent attempt at communicating his ideas about each characteristic without muddling awkwardly between them. It will keep his writing clear, as well as his thoughts, which is necessary because their is considerable overlap between the two. Importantly, it will also allow a the pupil’s teacher or marker to follow his train of thought with ease.
Unfortunately, if the pupil chooses to use a tricolon in his essay, and if he also wishes to explore each idea within its own paragraph, as he writes he must clumsily flag to the reader which of Romeo’s aforementioned characteristics he is now referring to, with something along the lines of “Firstly, I will analyse how Romeo is impulsive”, before stuttering into his next paragraph with “Secondly, I will show how Romeo is immature.”
No. Just no.
As a writer, everything you write is a promise to your readers. As readers, we expect the words we read to be connected to both what has gone before and what is yet to come. If you flout this rule when you write, you lead us down blind-alleys and confuse us. We begin to lose the thread of your argument or analysis. However, writing also has an onward flow. It cannot constantly reference what has been said already and what will be said shortly, otherwise that flow is broken. Navigating this can be tricky, but skilful writers, writers with control, do it seamlessly.
This is why the ticolon is problematic in academic writing, which is about explaining and analysing information, not about sprinkling beauty through the use of detail or persuading through the use rhythm and repetition. These are the things that a tricolon is best at doing, but in academic writing, you should not pause to linger over something whimsical, nor should you aggressively repeat your point to leave it ringing in the ears of an audience. To use a tricolon in academic writing will not achieve either of these things, but it will disrupt the order in which information is presented, and so will often result in turgid prose, because the writer must constantly pause to remind readers where he has been and where he is going.
This obsession with linguistic features is surely a knock-on effect of mark schemes and their diktats about what must be present for writing to be good. Like any art form, what is good is context specific. For example, I’m rather partial to a Caravaggio painting, but I wouldn’t hang a print of ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ above my dinner table. Similarly, though I enjoy the music of Wu-Tang Clan, I’d think twice about blasting ‘Protect Ya Neck’ through my car speakers when picking up a girl for a first date.
When the mark scheme for writing is adversely affecting literary analysis, you know you have a problem. But what’s the solution? Well, comparative judgement looks promising. If examiners were simply presented with two scripts and told to choose which is best, then we get do away with writing mark schemes altogether.
While I’m tearing things up, I would also do away with the current grading system. In place of grades, pupils would be assigned a percentile score. This would be based on where their writing falls in comparison to everyone else’s once the judgement process has been completed.
All this would certainly be a leap into the dark. It would risk the same problems that occurred following “life after levels”, whereby the vast majority of schools passed up the opportunity to redesign their assessment practices, opting instead to rebrand levels and sub-levels, which many had complained so bitterly about, with names such as “steps” or “progress points”. Perhaps, in a similar way, schools would simply reproduce these god-awful mark schemes and camouflage them as “success criteria” to inform teaching prior to the exams.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, this might initiate a large-scale conversation about what actually constitutes good writing. Perhaps it would remove any sense of a cap at the top end. Perhaps it would encourage pupils to aim higher and higher, and so perhaps their writing would improve and improve. Perhaps, when unshackled from the mark scheme, teachers would be free to help pupils produce genuinely high-quality pieces writing. Perhaps, just perhaps.