The Fiction About Writing Non-Fiction

Over the years, non-fiction writing has had a bit of a troubled time when being taught in the classroom. Chris Curtis examines why this is and, crucially, what can be done to teach students how to write excellent non-fiction pieces.

No matter what GCSE English specification you teach, you can guarantee that somewhere there will be some form of non-fiction writing, or, as some like to call it, transactional writing.

Oversimplifying the non-fiction form and reducing it to key, visible features has meant that the art of writing a non-fiction piece has been lost. Instead, students produce texts that look but don’t sound like non-fiction writing. How can we get students to write better speeches, blogs, articles, or letters?

One good idea

One thing students get in their heads from an early stage is the listing of ideas in non-fiction texts. This is a clear lie. When convincing people, we rely on one strong reason or idea to convince them. That good idea is so strong that it is enough to persuade people.

In teaching, we often get students to list possible ideas. Each of those ideas becomes a paragraph. Sadly, when students write like this, there’s no connection between those ideas. Instead, we have loosely linked ideas without any development. And, that is where students fall down: development. By having lots of ideas, it takes quite a bit of skill to weave them together to make a strong argument.

Get students to think of ideas and then narrow those ideas to one ‘killer idea’. That, then, becomes the source of thinking. How do you convince the reader based on this one ‘killer idea’? From that point, students are thinking of shaping the argument and not just listing their ideas.

Structuring the writing

Over the years, students have been trained to list ideas in their writing. That’s why we often see phrases like ‘ One reason is ..’ or ‘Another reason is …’. They become conditioned to write like this because most subjects in school expect them to list reasons in this way. English requires writing to be crafted and, therefore, we need to work against lists of ideas and work towards the detailed development of a single idea.

Everything needs an introduction and a conclusion. That’s a given, but students need to know that there are other ways to structure an argument rather than listing one idea after another. We, as a school, use Pathos, Logos and Ethos as a way to shape an argument.

  • Pathos: What is the emotional aspect of this idea? Who are the victims? Who are the villains?
  • Logos: What is the logical reason behind this idea? What could happen if this isn’t addressed?
  • Ethos: What makes you an expert on this issue? Why should you be listened to more than others?

Once students have these aspects in their minds they can think about planning and shaping their one idea. Where can they find emotion? What’s the consequence of inaction? What makes you an expert? Then, they have a way to shape their argument. They have three ways to start. Do you start with emotion? Do you start with consequences? Do you start with your perspective and personal opinion? From that point, students are able to shape their writing and make choices around the impact on the reader.

The students have the same idea all the way through, but through Pathos, Logos and Ethos they are shining different perspectives on that one idea.

Looks are not everything

Non-fiction, unlike other styles of writing, is often seen as being a very visual medium. It is true, but there is also a literary element to it too and that’s always what students always see. They will show off their literary dexterity in a short story, but when it comes to non-fiction they are more obsessed with the look of the text than the quality of their writing.

Students will take more care with the title and pictures than they will with the writing of a paragraph. How many newspaper articles by students have we read that look like newspaper articles but read like something else?

The exams are basically looking for an essay with a hint of a magazine article. That’s how I tell my students to write in the exam: write an essay with a hint of a speech. In fact, I don’t draw attention much to the visual style of the text or even the quick visual markers. The tone of the writing is more important than the looks, so that’s why I spend time looking at creating tone.

Examiners don’t have a checklist when it comes to non-fiction and the tone of the writing sells to the marker if the student has the style right or wrong. No amount of headings, subheadings, pictures, columns or stock phrases will lift a piece of writing unless the tone is right.

False Friends

Over the years, I have seen a growing trend in students’ writing to include vox pops or to give its correct Latin term: Vox Populi. We see students include quotations from various sources and made-up people in an attempt to convince the reader. Sadly, they are simply window-dressing or false friends. They seem to be a good thing, but actually, they detract and water down the argument.

Vox pops present a massive problem in non-fiction writing because they work as padding. When students write an interview with an expert, they often write a lot of words without adding to the overall argument. Instead, they just repeat what the student said before the interview, but this time with a different made-up person to echo what they’ve already said.

Vox pops aren’t alone in this category of false friends. I’d add surveys and random statistics. Rarely do they lift or add to an argument, but they will fool a student into thinking they are writing a lot and building on their argument.

Tone and impact

Tone is the biggest thing that shows a student’s ability to craft their writing in non-fiction. The difference between the best and the worst examples of student writing can be seen in their use of tone. The worst examples are often shouty rants that hold the same angry tone throughout. The best examples use a range of tones to emotionally control the reader and the argument. The writer will be serious when necessary, but also lighthearted when it is safe to do so.

Oversimplification of tone is something we need to be mindful of. You cannot give students a checklist of tones to use in their writing. Students need to see ‘tone’ in action. That means reading lots of examples and exploring how a writer conveys [and structures] their tone of writing.

Students who write the best have picked up this nuanced writing style and they emulate it in their work. Therefore, in the classroom, it is essential that we draw attention to tone and also to specific changes in tone. By highlighting tone, we show students that they can change their tone of writing. We are giving them options and permission to change their writing voice.

Non-fiction has the potential to be the most engaging element of English in school because it deals with the here and now. For decades, life has been drained out of letters, blogs, articles and speeches. We have been focused on the ‘appearance of non-fiction’ (making texts look like a piece of non-fiction) when we should instead have focused on what non-fiction is really about: thinking.

If there is one thing teenagers have an abundance of his opinions. Non-fiction is that opportunity to turn students from keyboard ranters of the present to thoughtful, reasoned, respectful, nuanced writers of the future.

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