Planning your non-fiction writing

One of the challenges that my students face is developing their ideas so that they are not just skimming the surface. Asking them to ‘develop further’ usually leaves them unsure how they can extend their writing to give it the requisite depth.

Teachers often encourage students to mind map their ideas but I know I don’t always make it explicit why this technique (and using spider diagrams in particular) helps to train students to brainstorm ideas and turn them into honed, structured points.

Let’s take the following debate question as a starting point:

Is social media a good thing?

I am sure that this will bring out ideas on both sides of the debate. But how do we start to extend the initial thoughts into a meaningful argument?

First, a simple pro/con list (for and against):


As a user social media myself, I would naturally want to argue FOR it but looking at this list, I can already see that it is the AGAINST side that carries a more weighty argument.

So now I need to develop each of those points further. I do this using a slide diagram:


Within each main point, there are subpoints to be made to help strengthen the viewpoint.

Not only will this provide a great reference for writing under pressure in the exam but it also naturally organises the ideas into a sensible, cohesive essay which would work for an article, a speech, a letter or whatever form is expected in the exam question.

If you work with me, you can learn more about how to structure your writing here.

Expanding Your Vocabulary through Reading

The best way to expand your vocabulary is to read. This is the advice that is always given and it can be frustrating either because a) reading is not something you enjoy or b) you already read a lot. Here are a few tips to help you whether you are a reluctant or enthusiastic reader:

  1. If you are a reluctant reader or think it is boring, you probably have not yet found the type of writing that really appeals to you. You need to experiment with different types of writing. Don’t worry at first about the quality of what you are reading. Graphic novels, crime stories, football magazines, they are all valid choices. Just find something that you are interested in.  Try asking a librarian, teacher or bookseller for help with choosing.
  2. Try reading before bed – go to bed a bit earlier if you need to. Not only will this give you a regular reading time, it will also allow your mind to unwind from screens before you go to sleep which will give you a better night’s sleep (this is good advice for students and adults – we all need to shut off those screens about an hour before we go to sleep).
  3. Even if you already read a lot, you might need to widen your reading so that you are exposed to different styles and more sophisticated vocabulary. See the reading list below.
  4. Keep a notebook when you read to make a note of interesting words or phrases or any thoughts you have while you read on the structure of the writing. If you are more mindful while you read, it will train you to spot things when you get to the exam and help save time. You can jot down quotations which you find inspirational or interesting.
  5. Check out the hashtag #bookstagram on Instagram for lots of inspiration for what to read next.
  6. You can learn a word a day from a list of more ambitious vocabulary. If you have access to my restricted resources, you can find some lists here. Write the word on a post-it note and stick it to your wall; try to use it in conversation that day; in a journal or your reading notebook, write down the word and definition and use it in a sentence.
  7. Read broadsheet newspapers. Read an article once a week and if you are able, discuss the article with your family or friends. Focus on how the viewpoint has been conveyed. Look at what perspective the writer is coming from.

Fiction Reading List for Enthusiastic Readers:

19th Century:

  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Sign of The Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

20th Century:

  • To Kill and Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Modern:

  • Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
  • His Dark Materials trilogy  by Phillip Pullman
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness
  • Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • A Fault in our Stars by John Green
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Stone Cold by Robert Swindells
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Non-fiction:

  • Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
  • 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  • Notes from a Small Island by BIll Bryson
  • I know the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Online News Resources:

Revision Guides

With so much to remember on the new syllabus, it is definitely worth investing in some revision guides (you can also check them out of a library although they are in high demand the closer you get to Easter/exam times so get in there now). I often buy these myself as they make useful when planning lessons or revision session.

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My favourite guides for Literature are York Notes – they do a Study Guide and a Workbook for each of the GCSE set texts and they are both good although I would start with the Study Guide. Make sure you pick up a ‘New for GCSE (9-1)’ version so it has guidance for the new specification.

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CGP also produce material for revision and study – their style is somewhat irreverent and I suppose may appeal to students. I personally find them a bit cringy – like they are trying too hard – and not as in depth as I would like.

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I also recently invested in some Oxford AQA books – they cover developing skills and going over the new assessment. These are very useful but also quite expensive. I have only just bought these so I have yet to delve into them in any depth but so far, I like what I have seen!