Starting to write
Suppose this is an examination and you have to write a composition. There you are, sitting at your desk, staring at the subject. It does not inspire one single thought. You have nothing to say. You have to write 200 words about it. What do you do?
First, you don’t start writing. You will probably stop after a few lines and feel even more desperate, and you might end up writing in circles and repeating the same ideas all the time. This is the right recipe for failure.
- Get some ideas.
- Select the ideas that go together and throw away the rest.
- Decide how you are going to end.
- Start writing.
Get some ideas
To get your ideas, you have to make them accessible, you have to shake up your brain. We call this brainstorming: You throw questions and associations into your head until something comes up. The idea is simply to make links between the subject topic and your knowledge and experience. All sorts of questions and associations can help. When you need to get ideas, go through a routine like this:
1 Me and the subject: What experience do you personally have? Where does this subject touch you? What is your attitude to it? Does everyone feel/think as you do?
2 Take a position: Is the composition a question of opinion? If so, decide immediately what your opinion is. Then imagine someone you know disagreeing with you.
3 Find examples and illustrations: Think of real examples, things which you know about, things which have happened to you or to people you know, things you have seen.
4 Ask questions: Try inventing questions about the subject. Not all questions will work, but that doesn’t matter. Ask why, what, who, where, how, and answer those questions.
5 Compare: Whatever the subject is about, think about
How it is different from others.
How it was different in the past.
How it will be different in the future.
How it is different in other places or other countries.
6 Culture: Think of the subject in literature, art, films, TV and the news.
We always need a separate piece of paper for brainstorming, and most certainly you will be given rough paper in an exam to write a rough copy or write your notes. Make a point of always using the rough paper.
Also, remember that there are many different ways of thinking about a topic and putting your ideas on paper: lists, unconnected notes all over the page, diagrams. Whichever your method is, it will be good for your purpose: get ideas and select and connect the most suitable ones. Also bear in mind that nobody plans a composition in a straight line, from beginning to end.
Getting a lot of ideas is just the beginning. The purpose of brainstorming is to get a few good ideas. The others, you throw away.
Decide on the ending
Before you start writing your first draft, decide on the ending. Ending is the difficult bit, so it is a good idea to have an ending to work towards, even if you change your mind later.
Choose something good for the ending. Often writers start with their best ideas, but they should think of the ending too. The ending is the climax, it is what your readers will remember. Your ending should be closely connected with your main idea.
SOME TYPES OF WRITING TASKS
When we do a writing task we need to express our ideas in the specific type of writing required. This type of writing is like the wrapping paper which gives us the reason to write.
It is essential that we respect the conventions of the specific type of writing required.
The writing task can be in the form of a letter/email, an article, a composition (or essay) and a report.
LETTERS/EMAILS/POSTCARDS are written to a person (your pen friend, a newspaper editor) or a group of people (the students’ society, the local football club) for a specific reason (e.g. to give advice, to make a complaint, to thank someone, to apologise, to accept/refuse invitations). They include:
• Informal fetters/emails to people you know well, written in a personal chatty style.
• Formal Ietters/emails to managers/officials etc, written in a polite formal style.
• Semi-formal letters/emails to people you do not know well or people you know but you want to sound polite and respectful e.g. a teacher, your pen friend’s parents, and so on, written in a polite and respectful style.
ARTICLES are usually found in magazines and newspaper, but now with the proliferation of the internet, you may need to write a blog post on an internet forum. The following can be found in the form of an article:
• Descriptions of people, places, buildings, objects, festivals, ceremonies.
• Narratives about real or imaginary events which happened in the past. They can be written in the first person (first-person narratives) when the writer is the main character of the story or in the third person (third-person narratives) when the writer is describing events which happened to another person or group of people.
• News about current/recent events (e.g. fires, accidents) written in impersonal style. News reports present facts objectively and unemotionally.
• Reviews discussing a film, TV programme, book, restaurant, and so on, and recommending it or not to the reader.
The traditional COMPOSITIONS or ESSAYS are sometimes presented with the excuse that you have decided to take part in a composition competition, or your teacher has asked you to do so. These discursive compositions/essays present arguments concerning particular subjects. They include:
• Advantages and disadvantages compositions present the pros and cons on a specific topic.
• Opinion compositions present the writer’s personal opinion on a specific topic.
• Solutions and problems compositions present a problem and its causes, making suggestions and mentioning the expected results and consequences.
• A composition/essay is sometimes part of a letter to the editor of a newspaper where the student gives their personal opinion and suggestions on a specific topic. This way, two different forms of writing are included in the same task.
• A variation of the COMPOSITION task is the WRITING A NOTE task, where we have to write a (usually) informal note to someone informing them about something, or giving them instructions on how to do something.
• Another variation is the DIARY ENTRY, where the student writes their feelings on a specific topic or situation.
REPORTS are formal pieces of writing and have a specific format and features. They include:
• Assessment reports discussing the suitability of a person, place, plan, etc for a particular purpose, job.
• Proposals reports discussing suggestions or decisions about future actions.
Before we start doing the writing task, we must be fully aware of the type of writing the task involves, and stick to it and its conventions.