Non-fiction Writing Revision

13 Apr 2018

“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Now I’m confident Mr Fitzgerald has some sage (perhaps even ‘Great’) guidance to pass on about the writing process. But just how often did he tackle the challenge of helping thirty adolescents find ‘something to say’, when faced with non-fiction writing tasks?

I have always found teaching non-fiction writing difficult: how exactly do you help them to discover a voice? How do you help them to understand the different styles required? How can I get them to quickly arrive at an idea in an exam situation?

This post is a summary of some of the ideas I tried last half term with the different writing styles. For the three styles explored there is nothing complicated: it is the process of modelling the style, deconstructing it and allowing students time to practise it themselves that seems to be helping them gain more of a conception of how to write appropriately. My approach with Year 11 at the moment is also balancing reading and writing tasks together for revision, so hopefully some areas might be of use when planning out those precious final weeks before the exams.

Complaint Letters 

Just how often do sixteen year olds pen a lengthy complaint letter? Despite the art of complaint writing ostensibly being a dying art, the exam boards seem obsessed with throwing them into exams – either in the guise of a train journey that has gone spectacularly wrong, or a gastronomic disaster.

My approach with this has been lots of modelling and deconstruction of compliant letters. To desperately try to keep some semblance of enjoyment about the revision process for them, I try to build in my own personal experience. The idea is for them to start to build up their own internal bank of experiences they can then begin to draw on in the exam (and, of course, to dangerously hint at the wildly exciting life I may be leading outside of the classroom). This letter Train Thom is a complaint letter about a train journey to Glasgow. I wanted to show them that complaint letters don’t need to involve thousands of things going disastrously wrong, they need to be realistic and clear. Having deconstructed it with them (usually involving individual reading and questioning about the subtlety of tone and points) I then asked them to write their own version. I explained that mine was entirely fictional and that at times they need to be liberal with the truth to make it interesting for their readers.

The idea is that I ask them to focus on using the following golden complaint phrases in their own examples as they write. They tick them off as they use them and I make sure I frequently repeat them so they are clear that they should be used in the exam. I have found that unless this polite but angry style is explicitly modelled, the students can go rather heroically wrong with the tone.

“You will appreciate…”

“You can imagine my growing frustration…”

“I am sure you will appreciate…”

“I would like…”

“I look forward to your prompt response.”

The last one is particularly important. They are happy enough going off on a rant about what went wrong, but reminding them to close the letter with a clear illustration of what they would like as a result of their experience is important.

To tackle the use of food in the exam obsession, I used this other tantalising glimpse into my social life. My wife unfortunately has coeliac disease so it can be tricky going out for dinner. I used this real example Food complaint from a few weeks ago with my class, and talked through how to structure the response from there (given that the restaurant didn’t bother responding to this I am happy with this degree of public shaming!)

With this one I focussed on keeping it realistic and structuring the complaint as a narrative of what went wrong. They then wrote their own examples of a food experience.  I got them to draft a complaint letter to KFC, after the debacle of them running out of chicken a few weeks ago (not so “finger licking good!”). Having written two complaint letters I timed conditions they will hopefully be fairly confident in how to approach style and tone in the exam.


Again – just how often do our plucky teenagers take it upon themselves to deliver a speech? Luckily I have a copy of ‘The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches’ to the rescue. This has been great for revision – and I have used lots of extracts to look in detail at how language is used for effect. Kennedy’s inauguration speech is a great one to use.

I gave them this extract then asked them to quickly identify eight quotations they could use to answer a “How does the writer create effect” type question. At the moment all the extracts I give out are read in silence with a highlighter to identify the quotations they would use, trying to mirror exam style conditions as much as possible.  ‘Just a minute’ is one revision task I have been doing often – students have one minute to write about a quotation on the Powerpoint then we flash on to the next quotation, trying to encourage them to cover a wider range of points and evidence.

•“Let both sides”
•“Let us begin”
•“Since this country was founded”
•“The graves of young Americans”
•“a call to bear the burden”
•“Will you join?”
•“A few generations”
In terms of writing their own speeches, we used this examples:
Write a speech to be delivered at the ‘Making the Most of Retirement’ conference for elderly people. The purpose is to encourage people to make the most of their retirement.

We explored what the misconceptions could be with this kind of task, using the ‘what went wrong’ focus of this opening extract. They lead on this in pairs initially then we feedback – I am trying to balance good model paragraphs with weaker paragraphs so they are very clear on the difference:

“Hello elderly individuals. I am here today to tell you how you should spend your retirement. Most of you will end up lonely and possibly depressed in your retirement. So clearly you need to do something different. Listen carefully…”

The struggle they have with speeches is about finding appropriate tone and formality, and explicitly showing them how they might get this wrong can help avoid the traps. We then compared that example with this one:

“It is a privilege to be here with you today. I am fortunate that I have gained so much wisdom and advice from people older than me throughout my life. Today, I hope to repay some of that kindness with some thoughts of my own. For many years now I have worked with retirees, and I hope that I can help you now to make the most of this glorious opportunity you have in front of you…”

We explored the concept of referring to an audience, building in collective pronouns and direct address as much as possible.  I then shared a few snaps of my own Gran (a ninety year old, keep fit and line dancing Glaswegian heroine) who I had recently had the wildly exciting experience of taking to the Strictly Come Dancing tour in Glasgow. I used this to encourage them to use their own experience with grans/grandfather’s to illuminate their own speeches.

Review Writing

Another one that can be tricky, particularly when the exam question can so often be focussed on reviewing a place/a local environment etc. I need my students to embrace all the wonderful qualities the North East has to offer (despite their grumblings!) so to lead into this one, I shocked them with Bill Bryson glowing appraisal of rival local town Ashington This is a great extract for thoughts/feelings question, encouraging them to see how Bryson’s preconceptions of Ashington is quickly challenged. We follow the same ‘just a minute’ task with this, picking out quotations that highlight his thoughts and feelings about he place.

“Ashington has long called itself the biggest mining village in the world, but there is no mining any more and, with a population of 23,000, it is scarcely a village. It is famous as the birthplace of a slew of footballers – Jackie and Bobby Charlton, Jackie Milburn and some forty others skilled enough to play in the first division, a remarkable outpouring for a modest community – but I was drawn by something else: the once famous and now largely forgotten pitmen painters.In 1934, under the direction of an academic and artist from Durham University named Robert Lyon, the town formed a painting club called the Ashington Group, consisting almost exclusively of miners who had never painted – in many cases had never seen a real painting – before they started gathering in a hut on Monday evenings. They showed an unexpected amount of talent and’carried the name of Ashington over the grey mountains’, as a critic for the Guardian (who clearly knew nothing about football) later put it. In the 1930s and ’40s particularly, they attracted huge attention, and were the frequent focus of articles in national papers and art magazines, as well as exhibitions in London and other leading cities. My friend David Cook had an illustrated book by William Feaver called Pitmen Painters, which he had once shown me. The illustrations of the paintings were quite charming, but it was the photographs of burly miners, dressed up in suits and ties and crowded into a little hut, earnestly hunched over easels and drawing-boards, that stuck in my mind. I had to see it.

Ashington was nothing like I expected it to be. In the photographs from David’s book it appeared to be a straggly, overgrown village, surrounded by filthy waste heaps and layered with smoke from the three local pits, a place of muddy lanes hunched under a perpetual wash of sooty drizzle, but what I found instead was a modern, busy community swimming in clean, clear air. There was even a new business park with fluttering pennants, spindly new trees and an impressive brick gateway on what was clearly reclaimed ground. The main street, Station Road, had been smartly pedestrianized and its many shops appeared to be doing a good trade. It was obvious that there was not a great deal of money in Ashington – most of the shops were of the Price Busters/ Superdrug/Wotta Loada Crap variety, their windows papered with strident promises of special offers within – but at least they appeared to be thriving in a way that those of Bradford, for instance, were not.” Bill Bryson ‘Notes from a Small Island’.

I then asked students to write their own lively review of the North-East, using Bill Bryson style enthusiasm to try to encourage them to write with flair.

I have been reading ‘The Writing Revolution’ by Judith C Hochman and Natalie Wexler over the break, and this struck me: “To maximise the benefits of writing instruction, students should start practicing their writing skills on a topics embedded in context as soon as possible”. The quicker students start practising this in their secondary education the better. At this stage – with weeks to go before the exam, I think this process of modelling gives them a context and a style to hold on to, before they have the opportunity to complete one in their own style in timed conditions.

Thanks for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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