Tips from the Classroom

The Standard Grade Formula and other tips from the classroom …

By Foday Mannah

When I started teaching in Scotland over a decade ago, pupils had to sit Standard Grade exams at the end of 4th year. For English, this included a writing paper, the nature of which still helps me write today; they were presented with about twenty-five writing tasks, from which they had to choose ONE. They then had just over an hour to produce a response.

I liked the variety of the writing tasks which ranged from personal reflective essays – “Write about a time when you felt the need to buy something new…”; or an article to be published in a school newspaper – “Write an informative article in which you describe a visit to a place of historic interest”; or a persuasive / discursive essay that explored a key issue – “Extreme sports are simply too risky.” Other tasks presented the pupils with pictures which could serve as inspiration for writing. One of my colleagues, Mr Holt, favours the picture stimulus route, and introduced me to the art of Edward Hopper, which has over the years proved to be a huge hit with the pupils.

I once used an old photograph of a university students’ union rag parade from 1992 as inspiration for a short piece, which turned out quite well. This is therefore worth trying – dust down the old album and select a picture that holds memories and see what you can do with it.

But the most challenging tasks in the Standard Grade papers – in my opinion -were the creative writing ones; the ones that expected the pupils to produce a short story in an hour and fifteen minutes. Within this context, they were provided with titles or opening lines, with specific instructions to develop character and setting in addition to plot.

I find the Standard Grade method useful when struggling to meet writing deadlines or when searching for inspiration. The timing stays the same – 1 hour, 15 minutes to for instance write about a woman sitting alone in an automat; or to write about a teenage soldier trapped behind enemy lines; or to write about divorced parents together at their child’s dance show; or to write about a fashion model backstage before her first catwalk; or to write about a criminal on trial for a serious crime. With exception of the lady in the automat scenario (borrowed from the erstwhile mentioned Mr Hopper), the others are topics I randomly threw together whilst teaching some basic drama lessons to my first years. The lesson was on improvisation, and in their groups, they had to choose one of the scenarios and act it out for their classmates, who had to fathom what was unfolding on stage before them. Again, I borrowed a famous writing mantra – “show, don’t tell” – which meant that they were not allowed to state the obvious, and instead should rely on their acting to do the heavy lifting.

Random topics are good and you may be surprised as to where your writing takes you. I find this very useful for writing short stories.

In the 2000 Hollywood movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays a reclusive writer William Forrester (apparently modelled on JD Salinger), who takes a promising young writer under his wing. Whilst providing guidance and inspiration for his young protégé, Forrester advises the following: “No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

Cheesy lines you may say, but actually quite useful especially when following the 1hour 15-minute Standard Grade method I mentioned earlier on. Editing is no doubt essential for good writing, but the core of a narrative should come from the heart, and should therefore be unfettered and unrestrained at inception.

In my early years as a teacher, an in-service session featured the writer Bernard MacLaverty, who read excerpts from his novel “The Anatomy School.” In the Q and A session afterwards, Mr MacLaverty spoke about taking inspiration from everywhere, and mentioned once getting ideas from graffiti on a wall. He also spoke about the importance of “specific detail” in writing; important information that added lustre and dimension to the narrative.

What constitutes “specific detail” could be a subjective concept depending on the writer and indeed the reader. However, taking Mr MacLaverty’s advice onboard led to me to an idea of stockpiling detail; the notes feature of contemporary iPhones lends itself very well to this. It’s simply a case of noting down random information and detail that you remember from the past or encounter every day. There’s no yardstick to measure the length and nature of these details – it might be a colleague who states that a fag and a diet Coke is the breakfast of champions, or memories of a maverick teacher from high school who wore Wellington boots to school every day in the sweltering heat of Sierra Leone. Or the time back in the day when a Catholic high school decreed that female teachers wear uniform as a means of quelling flamboyance! Or the government minister who insisted on having life-size cardboard cut-outs of himself before going on television to proclaim that he had single-handedly rid the country of the Ebola virus; or the unexpected drama and politics that accompanies arranging a birthday party for a 12-year-old daughter.

I used one such incident in the novel that I’m currently drafting – the riots that broke out after rumour claimed that corrupt post office officials had dumped application forms for the United States Visa Lottery Programme. How you come across this detail does not really matter – anecdotes, the media, and even Facebook can prove to be a treasure trove of detail for creative writing.

This method helps when developing plot and indeed character, which fundamentally become amalgamations of the details you acquire through time. A protagonist in a novel therefore can be a composite of at least four other actual people you have interacted with in life; again, this is the case with Doc Mo, the protagonist of the piece I am currently working on.

Writing styles and approaches vary significantly, and my points above are by no means revolutionary. On the contrary, I happily borrow and steal ideas from others, frequently tweaking and adapting that which already exists to suit me.

Thanks for reading and have a nice day.

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2 thoughts on “Tips from the Classroom

  1. Foday, thanks so much for this post, it is so full of great writing tips for stimulating the imagination. I love your idea of jotting down any little thing that I may come across in day-to-day life to help provide that crucial detail that makes fiction come alive. As you suggest, I will use the Notes feature on my phone and capture perfect snippets before they disappear from my memory!

    Liked by 1 person

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