Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing.”
Every school day since 2009 we’ve asked students a question based on an article in The New York Times. Now, five years later, we’ve collected 500 of them that invite narrative and personal writing and pulled them all together in one place (available here as a PDF).
The categorized list below touches on everything from sports to travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more, and, like all our Student Opinion questions, each links to a related Times article and includes a series of follow-up questions. What’s more, all these questions are still open for comment by any student 13 or older.
So dive into this admittedly overwhelming list and pick the questions that most inspire you to tell an interesting story, describe a memorable event, observe the details in your world, imagine a possibility, or reflect on who you are and what you believe.
- What Was Your Most Precious Childhood Possession?
- What Were Your Favorite Childhood Shows and Characters?
- What Were Your Favorite Picture Books When You Were Little?
- What Things Did You Create When You Were a Child?
- What Places Do You Remember Fondly From Childhood?
- Have You Ever Felt Embarrassed by Things You Used to Like?
- Do You Wish You Could Return to Moments From Your Past?
- Was There a Toy You Wanted as a Child but Never Got?
- What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?
- What Are Your Best Sleepover Memories?
- What’s the Best Gift You’ve Ever Given or Received?
- What’s the Most Memorable Thing You Ever Got in the Mail?
- What Nicknames Have You Ever Gotten or Given?
- What Have You Learned in Your Teens?
- What Personal Achievements Make You Proud?
- What Are Some Recent Moments of Happiness in Your Life?
- What Are You Grateful For?
- What Rites of Passage Have You Participated In?
- What Advice Would You Give Younger Kids About Middle or High School?
- What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
- What Do Older Generations Misunderstand About Yours?
- Who Is Your Family?
- What Have You and Your Family Accomplished Together?
- What Events Have Brought You Closer to Your Family?
- What’s Your Role in Your Family?
- Have You Ever Changed a Family Member’s Mind?
- How Do You Define ‘Family’?
- What Are Your Family Stories of Sacrifice?
- What Possessions Does Your Family Treasure?
- What Hobbies Have Been Passed Down in Your Family?
- How Much Do You Know About Your Family’s History?
- Did Your Parents Have a Life Before They Had Kids?
- How Close Are You to Your Parents?
- How Are You and Your Parents Alike and Different?
- Do Your Parents Support Your Learning?
- What Have Your Parents Taught You About Money?
- Do You Expect Your Parents to Give You Money?
- How Permissive Are Your Parents?
- Do You Have Helicopter Parents?
- How Do Your Parents Teach You to Behave?
- How Do You Make Parenting Difficult for Your Parents?
- If You Drink or Use Drugs, Do Your Parents Know?
- Do You Talk About Report Cards With Your Parents?
- Would You Mind if Your Parents Blogged About You?
- How Well Do You Get Along With Your Siblings?
- How Well Do You Know Your Pet?
- What Role Do Pets Play in Your Family?
- What Is Your Racial and Ethnic Identity?
- Have You Ever Tried to Hide Your Racial or Ethnic Identity?
- How Do You Feel About Your Last Name?
- What’s the Story Behind Your Name?
- What Are Your Favorite Names?
- How Have You Paid Tribute to Loved Ones?
- Would You Most Want to Live in a City, a Suburb or the Country?
- How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
- What’s Special About Your Hometown?
- What Would You Name Your Neighborhood?
- Who Is the ‘Mayor’ of Your School or Neighborhood?
- Who Are the ‘Characters’ That Make Your Town Interesting?
- What Would a TV Show About Your Town Spoof?
- What ‘Urban Legends’ Are There About Places in Your Area?
- What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
- Do You Know Your Way Around Your City or Town?
- Have You Ever Interacted With the Police?
- How Often Do You Interact With People of Another Race or Ethnicity?
- Who Would Be the Ideal Celebrity Neighbor?
- What Is Your Favorite Place?
- How Much Time Do You Spend in Nature?
- What Small Things Have You Seen and Taken Note Of Today?
- What Would Your Dream Home Be Like?
- What is Your Favorite Place in Your House?
- How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
- Is Your Bedroom a Nightmare?
- Do You Plan on Saving Any of Your Belongings for the Future?
- With Your Home in Danger, What Would You Try to Save?
- What Would You Put in Your Emergency ‘Go-Bag’?
- Have You Ever Lost (or Found) Something Valuable?
- What Is Your Personal Credo?
- What Motivates You?
- What Makes You Happy?
- What Are You Good At?
- How Much Self-Control Do You Have?
- How Good Are You at Waiting for What You Really Want?
- What Role Does Procrastination Play in Your Life?
- When in Your Life Have You Been a Leader?
- How Well Do You Perform Under Pressure?
- How Well Do You Take Criticism?
- Are You Hard or Easy on Yourself?
- How Full Is Your Glass?
- Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?
- How Good Are You at Time Management?
- How Productive and Organized Are You?
- How Would Your Life Be Different if You Had Better Listening Skills?
- How Competitive Are You?
- Do You Perform Better When You’re Competing or When You’re Collaborating?
- Do You Take More Risks When You Are Around Your Friends?
- Do You Unknowingly Submit to Peer Pressure?
- How Much of a Daredevil Are You?
- What Pranks, Jokes, Hoaxes or Tricks Have You Ever Fallen For or Perpetrated?
- How Do You React When Provoked?
- How Often Do You Cry?
- Do You Think You’re Brave?
- What Are You Afraid Of?
- What Are Your Fears and Phobias?
- What Are Your Personal Superstitions?
- Do You Like Being Alone?
- How Impulsive Are You?
- Are You a Novelty-Seeker?
- What Annoys You?
- Do You Apologize Too Much?
- Do You Have Good Manners?
- Are You a Saver or a Tosser?
- Are You More Introvert or Extrovert?
- Are You Popular, Quirky or Conformist?
- Are You a Nerd or a Geek?
- What Would Your Personal Mascot Be?
- What Assumptions Do People Make About You?
- What Challenges Have You Overcome?
- What Do You Do When You Encounter Obstacles to Success?
- What Are Your Secret Survival Strategies?
- How Do You Find Peace in Your Life?
- How Have You Handled Being the ‘New Kid’?
- Do You Ever Feel Overlooked and Underappreciated?
- How Stressed Are You?
- How Do You Relieve Stress?
- Does Stress Affect Your Ability to Make Good Decisions?
- What Challenges Have You Set for Yourself?
- How Often Do You Leave Your ‘Comfort Zone’?
- What Did You Once Hate but Now Like?
- Does Your Life Leave You Enough Time to Relax?
- Do You Set Rules for Yourself About How You Use Your Time?
- Is ‘Doing Nothing’ a Good Use of Your Time?
- What’s Cluttering Up Your Life?
- What Work Went Into Reaching Your Most Difficult Goals?
- When Have You Ever Failed at Something? What Happened as a Result?
- When Have You Ever Succeeded When You Thought You Might Fail?
- What Life Lessons Has Adversity Taught You?
- What’s the Most Challenging Assignment You’ve Ever Had?
- What Kind of Feedback Helps You Improve?
- Is Trying Too Hard to Be Happy Making You Sad?
- Do Adults Who Are ‘Only Trying to Help’ Sometimes Make Things Worse?
- What Are Five Everyday Problems That Bother You, and What Can You Do About Them?
- How Do Male and Female Roles Differ in Your Family?
- Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
- Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
- How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
- How Did You Learn About Sex?
- How Should Parents Address Internet Pornography?
- What Experiences Have You Had With Gender Bias in School?
- What Have Been Your Experiences With Catcalling or Other Kinds of Street Harassment?
- Do You Know Boys Who Regard Girls as ‘Prey’?
- Do You Consider Yourself a Feminist?
- How Do You Help?
- What Ethical Dilemmas Have You Faced?
- Would You Help an Injured Stranger?
- When Is the Last Time You Did Something Nice for a Stranger?
- Have You Ever ‘Paid It Forward’?
- How Much Do You Gossip?
- How Comfortable Are You With Lying?
- Have You Ever Taken Something You Weren’t Supposed To?
- What Could You Live Without?
- Do You Ever Feel Guilty About What, or How Much, You Throw Away?
- Do You Ever Eavesdrop?
- How Important Is Your Spiritual Life?
- Do You Believe That Everything Happens for a Reason?
- Can You Be Good Without God?
- Are You Less Religious Than Your Parents?
- Can You Pass a Basic Religion Test?
- What Can You Learn From Other Religions?
- Who Is Your Role Model?
- Who Are Your Heroes?
- Who Inspires You?
- What’s the Best Advice You’ve Gotten?
- Who Outside Your Family Has Made a Difference in Your Life?
- If You Had Your Own Talk Show, Whom Would You Want to Interview?
- To Whom, or What, Would You Like to Write a Thank-You Note?
- What Leader Would You Invite to Speak at Your School?
- What Six People, Living or Dead, Would You Invite to Dinner?
- Are You Distracted by Technology?
- Do You Always Have Your Phone or Tablet at Your Side?
- What Tech Tools Play the Biggest Role in Your Life?
- What New Technologies or Tech Toys Are You Most Excited About?
- To What Piece of Technology Would You Write a ‘Love Letter’?
- Does Your Digital Life Have Side Effects?
- Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
- When Do You Choose Making a Phone Call Over Sending a Text?
- Do You Know How to Code? Would You Like to Learn?
- Whom Would You Share Your Passwords With?
- What Are Your Favorite Video Games?
- What Have You Learned Playing Video Games?
- Do You Play Violent Video Games?
- When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
- Who Are Your Opponents in Online Gaming?
- Do You Like Watching Other People Play Video Games?
- How Careful Are You Online?
- Do You Ever Seek Advice on the Internet?
- How Do You Know if What You Read Online Is True?
- How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
- How Do You Use Wikipedia?
- What Are Your Favorite Internet Spoofs?
- What Are Your Favorite Viral Videos?
- What Would You Teach the World in an Online Video?
- What Are Your Experiences With Internet-Based Urban Legends?
- What Story Does Your Personal Data Tell?
- Do You Worry About the Lack of Anonymity in the Digital Age?
- Do You Wish You Had More Privacy Online?
- Have You Ever Been Scammed?
- How Do You Use Facebook?
- What Is Your Facebook Persona?
- What Memorable Experiences Have You Had on Facebook?
- Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
- Would You Consider Deleting Your Facebook Account?
- Do You Have ‘Instagram Envy’?
- Do You Use Twitter?
- Why Do You Share Photos?
- How Do You Archive Your Life?
- Have You Ever Posted, Emailed or Texted Something You Wish You Could Take Back?
- Have You Ever Sent an Odd Message Because of Auto-Correct?
- Would You Want Your Photo or Video to Go Viral?
- Do You Worry Colleges or Employers Might Read Your Social Media Posts Someday?
- What Are You Listening To?
- Who in Your Life Introduces You to New Music?
- How Much Is Your Taste in Music Based on What Your Friends Like?
- What Music Inspires You?
- How Closely Do You Listen to Lyrics?
- Which Pop Music Stars Fascinate You?
- Who Is Your Favorite Pop Diva?
- What’s Your Karaoke Song?
- What Song/Artist Pairings Would You Like to Hear?
- What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
- What Movies Do You Watch, or Reference, Over and Over?
- What Movies, Shows or Books Do You Wish Had Sequels, Spinoffs or New Episodes?
- Do You Like Horror Movies?
- Who Are Your Favorite Movie Stars?
- Would You Pay Extra for a 3-D Movie?
- What Is Your Favorite Comedy?
- What Are the Best Live Theatrical Performances You’ve Ever Seen?
- Have You Ever Stumbled Upon a Cool Public Performance?
- What Role Does Television Play in Your Life and the Life of Your Family?
- What Television Shows Have Mattered to You?
- Do Your Television Viewing Habits Include ‘Binge-Watching’?
- How Often Do You Watch a Television Show When It Originally Airs?
- What Old Television Shows Would You Bring Back?
- Why Do We Like Reality Shows So Much?
- What Ideas Do You Have for a Reality Show?
- What Are Your Favorite Commercials?
- How Much Are You Influenced by Advertising?
- Read Any Good Books Lately?
- Do You Read for Pleasure?
- What Are Your Favorite Books and Authors?
- What Are the Best Things You’ve Read, Watched, Heard or Played This Year?
- What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels?
- What’s on Your Summer Reading List?
- What Memorable Poetry Have You Ever Read or Heard?
- What Are Your Favorite Cartoons?
- What Magazines Do You Read, and How Do You Read Them?
- Do You Enjoy Reading Tabloid Gossip?
- When Have You Seen Yourself and Your Life Reflected in a Book or Other Media?
- Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
- Do You Read E-Books?
- Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
- To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
- Why Do You Write?
- Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
- Do You Have a Blog?
- Do You Want to Write a Book?
- When Do You Write by Hand?
- Do You Write in Cursive?
- Do You Write in Your Books?
- What ‘Mundane Moments’ From Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material?
- What’s the Coolest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in a Museum?
- What Are the Most Memorable Works of Visual Art You Have Seen?
- What Are Your Favorite Works of Art?
- What Are Your Favorite and Least Favorite Words?
- What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
- How Much Slang Do You Use? What Are Your Favorite (Printable) Words?
- How Much Do You Curse? Why?
- Why Do So Many People Say ‘Like’ and ‘Totally’ All the Time?
- Do You Sometimes ‘Hide’ Behind Irony?
- How Good Is Your Grammar?
- What New Emoticons Does the World Need?
- Are You Fluent in Vocal Fry, Creaky Voice or Uptalk?
- How Much Information Is ‘Too Much Information’?
- When Did You Last Have a Great Conversation?
- Do You Speak a Second, or Third, Language?
- When Do You Remember Learning a New Word?
- Do You Like School?
- What Are You Really Learning at School?
- What Are You Looking Forward To, or Dreading, This School Year?
- Would You Want to Be Home-Schooled?
- Would You Like to Take a Class Online?
- Would You Rather Attend a Public or a Private High School?
- How Would You Grade Your School?
- What Can Other Schools Learn — and Copy — From Your School?
- Is Your School Day Too Short?
- What Do You Hope to Get Out of High School?
- Do You Have Too Much Homework?
- Does Your Homework Help You Learn?
- What Is Your Best Subject?
- What Memorable Experiences Have You Had in Learning Science or Math?
- Are You Afraid of Math?
- Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
- What Are the Best Ways to Learn About History?
- How Would You Do on a Civics Test?
- How Important Is Arts Education?
- What Is Your Most Memorable Writing Assignment?
- What Would You Like to Have Memorized?
- Does Your School Value Students’ Digital Skills?
- What Was Your Favorite Field Trip?
- Do You Participate in Class?
- What Are Your Best Tips for Studying?
- Do You Use Study Guides?
- Is Everything You’ve Been Taught About Study Habits Wrong?
- How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
- Do You Have a Tutor?
- Are Your Grades Inflated?
- When Has a Teacher Inspired You?
- What Teacher Do You Appreciate?
- What Teacher Would You Like to Thank?
- What Do You Wish Your Teachers Knew About You?
- Do Your Test Scores Reflect How Good Your Teachers Are?
- Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
- What Role Do School Clubs and Teams Play in Your Life?
- Who Has the Power in School Social Life?
- How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
- Does Your School Seem Integrated?
- What’s the Racial Makeup of Your School?
- Do You Ever ‘Mix It Up’ and Socialize With Different People at School?
- Can Students at Your School Talk Openly About Their Mental Health Issues?
- Is Your School a ‘Party School’?
- How Common Is Drug Use in Your School?
- Do You Know People Who Cheat on High-Stakes Tests?
- How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
- How Much Does Your Life in School Intersect With Your Life Outside School?
- Would You Ever Go Through Hazing to Be Part of a Group?
- Where Do You Want to Go to College?
- What Are Your Sources for Information About Colleges and Universities?
- Is College Overrated?
- How Much Does the SAT or ACT Matter in Your Life?
- What Personal Essay Topic Would You Assign to College Applicants?
- What Qualities Would You Look For in a College Roommate?
- What Would You Do With a Gap Year?
- What Makes a Graduation Ceremony Memorable?
- How Do You Feel About Proms?
- What Are Your Longtime Interests or Passions?
- Do You Have a Life Calling?
- What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?
- Do You Think You Will Have a Career That You Love?
- What Investment Are You Willing to Make to Get Your Dream Job?
- Would You Consider a Nontraditional Occupation?
- Would You Want to Be a Teacher?
- What Hidden Talents Might You Have?
- What Do You Hope to Be Doing the Year After You Graduate From College?
- Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
- What Career or Technical Classes Do You Wish Your School Offered?
- What ‘Back-to-the-Land’ Skills Do You Have, or Wish You Had?
- What Have You Made Yourself?
- What Would You Create if You Had Funding?
- How Did You Start Doing Something You Love?
- Did You Ever Take a Break From Doing Something You Love?
- What Have You Done to Earn Money?
- Do You Have a Job?
- Would You Quit if Your Values Did Not Match Your Employer’s?
- What Are Your Attitudes Toward Money?
- Can Money Buy You Happiness?
- Where Do You See Yourself in 10 Years?
- What Do You Want to Be Doing When You’re 80?
- Do You Want to Live to 100?
- What Do You Want Your Obituary to Say?
- Have You Ever Been in Love?
- What Are the Most Meaningful Relationships in Your Life?
- What Advice Would You Give to Somebody Who Just Started Dating?
- What Are the Basic ‘Rules’ for Handling Breakups?
- What Are Your Beliefs About Marriage?
- Are You Allowed to Date?
- Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
- Do You Have a Best Friend?
- How Do You Feel About Introducing Friends from Different Parts of Your Life?
- How Should You Handle the End of a Friendship?
- How Often Do You Have ‘Deep Discussions’?
- Do You Like to Exercise?
- How Has Exercise Changed Your Health, Your Body or Your Life?
- Why Do You Play Sports?
- What Is the Most Memorable Sporting Event You’ve Ever Watched or Played In?
- What’s the Most Impressive Sports Moment You’ve Seen?
- When Has a Sports Team Most Disappointed You?
- What Sports Teams Do You Root For?
- Does Being a Fan Help Define Who You Are?
- How Far Would You Go to Express Loyalty to Your Favorite Teams?
- What Fan Memorabilia Would You Pay Big Bucks For?
- What Rules Would You Like to See Changed in Your Favorite Sports?
- What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
- What Are Your Favorite Games?
- Where in the World Would You Travel if You Could?
- What Is Your Fantasy Vacation?
- What Would Your Fantasy Road Trip Be Like?
- What Crazy Adventure Would You Want to Take?
- How Has Travel Affected You?
- What Famous Landmarks Have You Visited?
- What’s the Coolest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in Nature?
- What Are the Best Souvenirs You’ve Ever Collected While Traveling?
- Would You Like to Live in Another Country?
- Would You Want to Be a Space Tourist?
Coming of Age
Community and Home
Gender and Sexuality
Morality and Religion
Technology and Video Games
Movies, Theater and Television
Reading, Writing and Fine Arts
Language and Speech
School and Teachers
School Social Environment
Senior Year, College and Applications
Work and Careers
Dating and Friendship
Sports, Exercise and Games
Looks, Fashion and Health
Writing to Describe
Of the three styles of writing, ‘writing to describe’ is by far the easiest to gain good marks in. It is therefore strongly recommended that you answer the writing to describe question, this means even if the question in the exam is awful it’ll still probably be easier than the writing to inform or explain.
Here’s a checklist of key points you should bare in mind for the exam:
1. The first thing you should notice is that this is “writing to describe” and by this it means you should describe an event, character or scene; what you shouldn’t do is write a story. This is a very common mistake but one that could lose you marks if you don’t include lots of descriptive techniques.
2. When writing to describe it is easiest to describe a real place or a person who you actually know because, although writing about a small mountain town in the Himalayas may sound interesting it can be very difficult to make your description realistic.
3. Another very important thing to do is to maintain control over your tenses. One of the easiest ways to do this is to only write using the past tense. So describe what you saw not what you can see.
An actual Student Response
Let’s first start with an example of an actual student response to an exam question to give you an idea of what is needed. All of the points will be discussed in more detail later.
1. Describe a nightmare world or somewhere you find frightening (27 marks)
I suppose when many describe a nightmare world they recall a world of goblins and monsters that are so devoid of any sense of reality that the mere thought of such creatures almost seems funny. (Original opening) They remove the events of their nightmare world from any sense of reality to the extent that it almost suggests our world is a place of happiness. They magnify our suffering and confine the events and actions to mere gothic literature. But not I. (Short sentence for effect) I went in search of the nightmare world that was developed, that had meaning and purpose. A world where suffering was an everyday part of everyone’s life; where happiness existed only to contrast the bad. (Sophisticated punctuation) Somewhat unsurprisingly it seems my search didn’t last long…
I peered through the looking glass to find the very thing I had been looking for. Salvation. Freedom. Justice. How can these words exist when compared to this? I gazed as the Earth materialised before me. I mixture of blues and the greens swirled through a sea of despair and agony; the World bleeds. This is my home. (Short sentence for effect)
Pain. Suffering. Death. Only man could create such destruction. The mechanisation of murder. (Alliteration) World War II within the short space of six years millions died through a wave of evil, greed and power.
The commander at Auschwitz would return to his family each and everyday, tired from a hard days work. All the time feeling sorry for himself. Feeling sorry that he had to burn the bodies of the sub-humans. Feeling sorry that he was stuck doing the work few others wanted. Feeling sorry (Repetition) that he wasn’t out killing the British like a real man. Each minute gouging at his nostrils in an attempt to remove the smell of burning flesh.
WWII an echo of the past; an echo of the Great War. (Effective Punctuation) The war to end all wars. People read and heard the stories of the men who fought during the war. The stories of death, pain and destruction and yet history repeated itself. They knew all too well of the suffering it caused. And yet they allowed it to continue. Why does man have to define its existence through suffering? Or at least man is forced to…
WWI. The soldiers were beaten, battered and bruised (Alliteration) before being thrown over the top, before having their bodies annihilated by the spray of machine guns. And all the while the Generals miles behind the lines of fighting watched, laughed as their pawns were destroyed. The soldiers’ lives meant nothing to them. And those who were not thrown over the top were forced to wait and watch as their comrades died; always aware that in the coming future, that is if the gas didn’t get them first. WMD. These three letters spelled the end for many soldiers’ lives. Gas the first of many Weapons of Mass Destruction, designed to kill without mercy. To kill without discrimination. Whether it was a man, woman or child, an elderly gentleman or women it would destroy them. They could only pray for death as the gas bonded to their eyes and slowly burned their mouths. They would choke drowning under a sea of green, dark, haunting smoke. Many hoping without hope that their feeble gas mask might save them…
War is the one and only true nightmare world. (Reference back to the original essay title)
This piece of writing was awarded an A*. It has a very original take on the task and as you can see it also makes effective use of different styles of sentences, uses sophisticated punctuation, lots of imagery and repetition. It also has a high level of technical accuracy with few spelling or punctuation errors.
Let’s look at the different techniques used in this piece of writing…
In order to make your writing feel crafted it is important you plan, this helps to give your writing direction. Planning is described in more detail in the ‘General Writing Techniques’ section.
The two most important parts of the piece of writing is the introduction and the conclusion. The introduction can be very representative of the piece of writing overall and the conclusion is what will remain in the examiners mind when they give you that mark out of 27.
There are a number of ways you can attract the attention of the reader, you could use speech, short sentences, complex punctuation or even open with a vivid metaphor. However, as the above piece of writing demonstrates you don’t always have to use these techniques, just try to make it original.
Whilst your opening is important, you cannot afford to forget about the main body of the text! You’ve got to try to make your writing interesting, an easy way to do this is to begin with a more generalised comment about the person, place or thing you wish to describe and then focus on a particular action or characteristic as you develop the description. In the above piece of writing the candidate has a generalised comment about nightmares and then focuses on what he believes to be a true nightmare.
The conclusion is used to finish off the piece of writing, as you can see in the above piece of writing the candidate has chose to use the conclusion to refer back to the question. However the conclusion can be used for a number of other things. You could use both the introduction and conclusion together to signal the passage of time. So for example if you are describing a place in the introduction you could talk about the beauty of the sunrise and in the conclusion contrast this with a description of the sunset. This also helps to suggest you have crafted your writing (you’ve demonstrated that you knew where the writing was going, which can only be done effectively by planning), in turn giving you greater marks in the exam.
Imagery and the Senses
When describing an event one thing you must do is to 'show' the reader rather than tell them. This means you must make full use of your senses; you must describe what you saw, felt, tasted, heard and smelt.
Don’t just say “Mr Thomson wasn’t very nice”
Show us he isn’t very nice through his actions and describe him using you full senses.
The mark scheme states that you must use “effective and delightful vocabulary choices”. By this it means that you should use more complex vocabulary throughout your piece of writing, for example don’t use a simple verb and then include an adverb such as:
“she ran home quickly”
just use a precise piece of vocabulary instead:
“she galloped home”
The second is much more effective and will gain you more marks in the exam!
Metaphors and Similes
Both of these are very important to add depth to your piece of writing. A metaphor is used to describe something as though it is something else, whilst a simile is to describe something like something else.
In the above example the candidate has made effective use of imagery, but notice that they haven’t tried to use a metaphor in every sentence. Only use imagery if it’s appropriate, don’t just use one for the sake of it! Here’s some examples of the imagery used:
1. And all the while the Generals miles behind the lines of fighting watched, laughed as their pawns were destroyed.
2. They would choke drowning under a sea of green, dark, haunting smoke.
There are numerous techniques you can use when writing to describe, the main ones are repetition and alliteration. Both help to give you piece of writing the feeling that it has been crafted and in turn help to maximise you score in the exam. Again there are several examples of these techniques being used by the candidate.
Test Yourself Question
Try this before having a look at the next example:
1. Describing a place you have strong feelings about. (27 marks)
Actual Student Response
Here’s another example demonstrating the techniques that have been described above.
1. Describing a place you have strong feelings about. (27 marks)
Have you every loved something so much it pains you to see it suffer? The place where I live is a town filled with memories of joy, happiness and cruelty. Springton was an old town, but it was a tired old town. I suppose if you are to understand my story we will have to start at the beginning. Springton was a town of red brick, blue collared slobs and for a sort time overpaid corporate fat-cats. The contrast was immediate, in body and soul. The heart of the town beated faintly, its influence choked by fat so intensified at the town centre that what energy remained rippled outwards towards the town boarders appeared as a mere shadow of its former self.
The inner city of the town contained several large streets all very like one another. Each street branched out into many smaller streets still more alike one another. The outskirts of town were inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the same past, present and future. Or so they thought.
The outskirts, however were a different story…Removed from all that made the town centre disgusting these suburbs flourished, feeding off a layer of poverty. Its inhabitants were all doing well, and all emulously hoping to do better still. This district was surrounded by walls that no man could pass. It became the glass ceiling. Children, men and women alike would try to breakdown these barriers but this was a feat no one ever achieved.
This was Springton in the 1900’s. But it was not always like this. The town was for a time small, peaceful and quiet; until its somewhat unfounded expansion. The town’s growth like ivy implied no aptness or affection to the object from which it grew. And what object is this I hear? Coal. Black gold they called it. But the towns inhabitants didn’t.
Springton like many towns in the area was dragged along by political brutes. They promised great wealth and power. However, none came. Springton tapped into its natural wealth in an attempt to grow and industrialise. An effect became a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form. The towns growth could be likened to a man who drinks because he feels he is a failure, and then fails all the more completely because he drinks. The blackened faces of workers dug deep into the caverns of the Earth extracting its soul. Somewhat unsurprisingly the effect was to be all the more disastrous.
A city requires foundations to grow, foundation built over time. For many cities this is formed as the product of years of sweat and labour. Seduced by the prospect of wealth Springton, however opted for the quick fix. It exploited the coal mines. And all was good. Until the same people who encouraged the opening of the mines, the same people who fed like pigs on the misery of others, the same people who toyed with the lives of millions, closed down the mines. Why? In search of a new area, an area free from the pains and strains of industry. An area that would work for little and give everything. I suppose you wonder why I speak so poorly of the town I so dearly love. The very reason I love it is why I must distaste its exploitation. And thus the final chapter on this town closes but it will not be the last…
Again this is another piece that was awarded an A*. As you can see this is an original take on quite a dull question. It starts with an original opening and follows this through with imagery, to create a vivid description. It also has a high level of technical accuracy with complex punctuation such as semi-colons (explained in the general writing techniques section) and few spelling mistakes.
Test Yourself Questions
2. Places are often different at night than they are during the day. Describe a place at night and day paying particular attention to the similarities and differences.