Hints and Tips - 7 minute read
Isobel Woodger, OCR English Subject Advisor
Here at OCR, we recognise that creative writing in an exam is different to writing creatively for oneself and that teaching this can be one of the hardest things you do in the classroom. In this blog, I talk about our approach to creative writing and discuss what our examiners recommend.
Our approach tries to marry students’ experiences as readers and writers. This is why the creative component for Language and Literature is called “Reading as a writer, writing as a reader”, to emphasise that students should see elements they’ve explored in their texts not just as inspiration, but as a set of tools they can use in their work.
Equally, as I saw during a recent English and Media Centre (EMC) course on teaching The Bloody Chamber, creative writing can create powerful, conceptual responses to texts as well as deepen understanding of the author’s process.
Crucial to our approach, at all levels, is the dual focus on narrative and choice. We believe in offering students a choice in which narrative they are asked to create to enable better, more authentic responses. It’s important that students feel they are involved in the assessment as opposed to simply sitting it.
Additionally, we focus on narrative over pure descriptive writing as we think this helps generate truly creative, imaginative work. In Component 2 of our GCSE English Language course, students are asked to write a creative response to one of two prompts, like those below from the 2018 June series.
One is narrative based, e.g. giving a title as a prompt for a story; the other is more of a personal, reflective response, giving a scenario to develop.
From June 2018, GCSE English Language Component 2:
5. Hunger satisfied.
Use this as the title for a story.
In your writing you should:
6. Write about a time when you were waiting for something.
You could write about:
This links neatly to the tasks we set in A Level Language & Literature course which we co-developed with EMC. In the second part of Component 3, students choose one of two narrative prompts like these from the 2018 June series:
Students should write approximately 500 words of an opening to a narrative, clearly using some of the bullet points provided. They are, in the next question, asked to write a commentary on their work.
Our examiners are aware that writing creatively on demand is a complex brief to fulfil. We also know that what we respond to as readers is often the author’s control: how they guide our responses to places, people and topics, as well as play with our assumptions and expectations.
At GCSE, the mark scheme talks about Level 6 students adapting the form of their writing “to position the reader” as a way to demonstrate “sophisticated control of purpose and effect” alongside “skilfully control[ing] overall structure.” Ultimately, whatever their level, students should aim to write a piece that demonstrates a sense of narrative control over its style and is structured to direct their reader’s response.
Without taking the time to plan a response, it can be hard to demonstrate this control. As the June 2018 GCSE Examiners’ Report says, “The best work has been carefully planned and builds to a clear and effective conclusion.” Knowing what and how they want to write offers students more control over their work and gives them greater scope for inventiveness.
A crucial way to approach students’ ability to plan is to build their understanding of structural choices. Being able to choose what narrative voice they wish to use, where the story should open and close, how the story ought to progress – these are structural decisions that can enable students to write more imaginatively, without a dependence solely on vocabulary extension. Naturally, exposing students to a wide range of texts of different kinds is what aids this understanding.
Some consideration of time can be a great way for students to be more formally and structurally inventive, as outlined in the same report: “The use of flashback, flash forward, starting at the linear conclusion and working back to the beginning […] can all bring a great deal of creative originality to straightforward or even rather mundane content.”
Use analogies both as instructions and models. For example, ask students to think of perspective as being like directing a film scene, where your decisions about where the camera should be and who it should focus on can change how the audience feels.
Don’t be afraid to use creative writing as tool for understanding other texts or ideas. Teaching students to write creatively only in response to examination prompts isn’t the way to broaden their ideas. Instead, use creative writing as a way for them to respond to a Literature text; use it as a way for them to express their thoughts about a concept like inequality, or relationships.
Using style models is underrated. Get students to write in the style of a range of authors, so they can learn from the inside out how voice is constructed in different ways depending on the writer.
Exploratory writing could form part of the planning process. Often students think planning means coming up with a list straight away. It’s worth asking students to write in an exploratory way about a text or a task before getting them to consider which of those ideas might form a road map for their own writing.
Effective description moves beyond modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs are important but should be used with judgement. Having a wider range of descriptive, precise verbs will give students more control over their work.
Plan to write something ‘real’. This isn’t a plea for realist fiction, but rather, responses that have a sense of emotional reality. This can help ground writing, giving it depth and direction. This can be easy to miss when trying to plan for something dramatic or surprising.
In short, we want students to write pieces that demonstrate control and consideration, which show they can choose words with care to craft a planned narrative. We think the more students are aware that their experiences as readers can be used or adapted for themselves in their own work, the wider range of tools students have at their fingertips.
Have you got any creative writing strategies you’d like to share? Or perhaps there’s a particular area of the subject you’d like us to talk about. In either case, do submit your comments below or email us at OCRenglish@ocr.org.uk. You can also sign up to receive email updates or follow us on Twitter at @OCR_English.
Isobel joined OCR as a member of the English subject team, with particular responsibility for A and AS Level English Literature and A and AS Level English Language and Literature (EMC).
She previously worked as a classroom teacher in a co-educational state secondary school, with three years as second-in-charge in English with responsibility for Key Stage 5. In addition to teaching all age groups from Key Stage 3 to 5, Isobel worked with the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education as a mentor to PGCE trainees. Prior to this, she studied for an MA in film, television and screen media with Birkbeck College, University of London while working as a learning support assistant at a large state comprehensive school.