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English Department - Standard Grade Writing

Standard Grade Writing

Thanks to Mrs Thomson for providing the advice featured below.


Being able to choose, plan, write and check an essay in an hour and fifteen minutes is not an easy task; being able to do it and achieve a good mark for it is even more difficult. It is important to therefore revise the types of skills needed to give you the best chance of doing well. It is with this aim in mind that these sheets have been developed.

  1. Before you begin essay writing it is important to ask yourself a few key questions to help focus your mind on the task:
  • Who are you? Are you writing as yourself or are you pretending to be someone else?
  • Who are you writing for? Who is going to be reading your writing piece?
  • What are you trying to do with your writing? Are you trying to entertain the reader? Make them sympathetic? Persuade them? Enlighten them?
  • What is going to happen in your writing? What are the key points?
  • Where is it going to take place? This will alter the tone of your writing.
  • How are you going to write it? Short story? Script? Newspaper report? Poem?

    2. Once you have decided the above points it is time to plan your essay. Remember that your plan is for your eyes only and it will prevent you from running out of ideas or going off at a tangent. The time it takes to write your plan will be more than worthwhile, as it will prevent you wasting time later on. Your plan should only be in note form and should contain key events.

    3. Once your plan is completed it is important to focus on the opening of your essay. In an exam situation you do not have a great deal of time to build up to the point of your story and you are aiming to grab the reader’s attention, it is therefore often best if you start in the middle of the action. You can do this with dialogue or description.


When you create a character you want the reader to believe in your character and to care about what happens to them.  Unless you manage to achieve this, your story is unlikely to ‘work.’

  1. It is important to think about your character’s age, background and circumstances when you make them speak.  Giving them appropriate language will help to make them believable.

E.g. “Ah dinnae believe that ye telt yer mither whit happened last night!” is believable language if your character is a teenage, Scottish boy who is talking to his friend.   It is, however, not believable if your character is an airhostess from Devon who is speaking to a passenger in first class!

  1. The way that you describe your character is also important. Sometimes it is useful to be explicit when giving the reader details about your character:

E.g. Jackie was nervous about what was going to happen to her.
This leaves the reader in no doubt as to your meaning and to the character’s feelings.
However, it is often beneficial to be implicit when giving details about your character’s feelings:
E.g. Joan twisted her chain around her fingers throughout the speech.  She could not meet her mother’s gaze.
This also implies that Joan is nervous but allows the reader to make that assumption for him/herself.
Obviously the best pieces of writing will use both implicit and explicit details.

  1. The reader will also find it easier to identify with your character if it is easy to visualise what they look like. It is important, therefore, to include details of their:
    • Build - is your character tall, short, fat, thin, puny, strong looking?
    • Looks – colour of hair, eyes, skin, typical clothing…
    • Mannerisms – is there something that your character repeatedly does that makes him/her distinctive? E.g. rubbing their nose, scratching their chin, playing with their hair, stuttering, mumbling, singing etc.
    • Stance – Does the way your character sits or stands reveal something about their personality? E.g. do they walk with their shoulders hunched forward because they have no confidence or do they cross their arms constantly to defend themselves?

It would obviously be impossible to use all of these things in a writing exam but you should use the ones that are relevant to your particular essay.

  1. It goes without saying that your essay will be better and your character more memorable if you use descriptive language.  That means loads of adjectives and adverbs and using relevant figures of speech (simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia) to help create images. Avoid using too many clichés, as it will look like you cannot think for yourself.


Atmosphere is also very important in a successful writing piece. A horror story will not be believable if the correct atmosphere is not created.

  1. Decide on the tone of your essay. The tone first of all depends on what type of essay you are aiming to write: a discursive essay should have a formal tone whereas a diary entry or a letter to a friend is more likely to be informal. The tone that you choose is really a matter of choice but it is important to be consistent. You could choose from formal, informal, humorous, serious, sad, happy, tongue-in-cheek or matter-of-fact to name but a few. Your choice of tone should be determined by considering the six key questions discussed in sheet one.
  2. Use your senses. When we experience the world we do it through our five senses: sound, sight, smell, touch and taste. As we are used to experiencing life in this way, it is important to reflect this in our writing. For example if you are writing about a walk along a beach on a windy day you could mention the sound of the crashing waves, the sight of the foam on the water, the smell of the seaweed, the feel of the cold wind and the taste of salt in the air. We obviously do not use all of our senses all of the time but you should use them as required to add authenticity to your writing.
  3. Use colour. Unlike dogs that see the world only in black and white, we are constantly bombarded by a rainbow of colour. By describing colours in your writing you can make what you are trying to express much more vivid to the reader and therefore improve your chances of a good grade.
  4. Use descriptive language. The importance of using descriptive language has already been mentioned but it cannot be over-emphasised. Think about the connotations of the words that you choose as this has real bearing on the effect of your writing. For example if you were describing someone who is overweight you could use: cuddly, plump, chunky, well-rounded, curvy, fat, obese, gigantic, enormous, huge, gargantuan or colossal. Most people would prefer to be described as cuddly than colossal so the connotation of the word is obviously important to the overall tone.
  5. Use figures of speech. Using figures of speech in your own written work will help it to stand out from the crowd. The purpose of your essay is to create a vivid picture in your reader’s head and using appropriate figures of speech will undoubtedly do that. Like everything else though, do not go too over the top – too many figures of speech will turn your essay into a riddle.
  6. Be original. As tempting as it may be to use descriptions that you’ve heard before or to copy the style, atmosphere or setting from a book you have read or a film you have seen, do not do it. Chances are the examiner will have seen the same film or read the same book and will mark you down for it. You have spent eleven years at school learning the techniques necessary to pass your writing exam so ensure you show your ideas off.  This is equally applicable to clichés, as they too will put an examiner off.

And finally

Allow time at the end of the exam to check your work. The main things you should be looking at are:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Sentencing
  • Paragraphing
  • Direct speech
  • Agreement of verb with subject.
  • Clear conclusion.
  • Essay is clearly marked with name and question number.

If you consider all the things that these three sheets have discussed in your exam and try your best then no one can ask for any more than that.


e-mail : english@kilmarnockacademy.co.uk                                                 tel: 01563 525509

 N. McIlvanney 2012