Vicky Duggan, Head of English at The Granville School and author of Galore Park resources, shares how pupils can prepare for their creative writing exam.
Creative writing is often the hardest part of the 11+ exam for parents to help their children with. It’s somewhat of an unknown. There’s no ‘perfect story’ to aim for, no tick list of marks to pick up. It’s not like Maths, or even comprehension to some extent, where it’s either right or wrong. It is very subjective. When we draw on our own experience of creative writing in the books we read, we may notice that volumes we loved were received indifferently by friends or even critics.
It is also an incredibly challenging task to write creatively in 30 or 40 minutes. Creativity bound by time is not how great works of literature were ever created. Even the shortest novels take months of work.
With that in mind, essentially there are two aspects to being successful in an 11+ creative writing paper. The first is to write well, and I will outline what that looks like to 11+ examiners, and the second is to do it quickly.
Let’s address the quality of the writing first. There is no magic formula for great writing but in terms of impressing in an exam there are certain features that examiners will be looking for.
Starting with the most obvious, the technical features of language will be assessed. Spelling should be accurate (in particular the common patterns) although not to the detriment of vocabulary choice (an excellent word spelled slightly askew is always better than a basic word spelled correctly).
Punctuation should be accurate but also varied. Correct use of capitals and full stops alone will not gain top marks. Pupils need to confidently demonstrate a range of punctuation such as commas for clauses and parenthesis, speech punctuation, colons and semi-colons. Remind them to put as much different punctuation in as they can. They can only be judged on what they show in that one piece of writing. Play the exam game a little here.
Now the more interesting part of writing, the content. Creativity, flair, originality will all be very well received. Aim to be the only pupil who interpreted the title in a particular way. Write something unexpected and stand out. This takes practice and does not always come easily. Spend time with your child looking at example titles and tasks and thinking of as many different ways you could write about them as you can. You don’t need to actually write them all out, but practice picking the most interesting and workable idea. As an example, ‘Crossing the Line’ could be about a race, it could be about a war zone or it could be about doing something inappropriate or wrong. The literary interpretation will be most common – try to see something more original.
Along with this comes the structure of the piece. Unusual approaches such as flashbacks, first person narratives and unexpected perspectives will all show a more sophisticated approach to writing. Read stories with your child that demonstrate these and find titles that lend themselves to these different skills. Then have a go! The best way to become a better writer is to write. A lot. It won’t always work but just like learning an instrument, the more you practice the better it will sound.
My advice to parents here is, don’t make it all about exams. That is a sure fire way to dissolve any love of writing your child might be nurturing. Make it fun. Go on a walk and find something to write about, or spot an interesting looking character at the supermarket and write a story about them. Write about the dreams you have or something you saw on TV. Perhaps keep a writing journal that is for your child’s eyes only. Knowing that not every word will be judged may free them up to write more and more, thereby honing their craft. There is plenty of time for explicit exam practice at school.
The final aspect of the writing that will be assessed at 11+ is the style and vocabulary. The latter is self-explanatory but I will note that adventurous vocabulary must be used appropriately – rote learning long words and misusing them stands out a mile and is not viewed favourably. Also, discuss language with your child and the nuance between seemingly similar words. A stroll might be slightly different to a wander. A gaze can be worlds apart from a stare. Children need to be taught these differences that we have already recognised. Help them to develop an understanding of these small but important variations in their own use of language on a daily basis.
Finally, style. This encompasses many things, some of which are hard to put your finger on, but many that you can learn. Firstly, figurative language including metaphor, simile and personification. For children to use these devices well, they need experience of them in action. Read books together that are language-rich and discuss why the metaphors are important and what they tell you. Create your own. Read poetry as it is full of these techniques. In addition to this, style incorporates use of grammar including varying sentence lengths for effect. A well placed one-word sentence can be very impactful. Again, children need to see it in action. Read together and find examples. Why does it work? What does it make you do as a reader? Under style, we also find choice of tense and perspective (and remaining consistent with these). A very creepy descriptive piece can benefit from a first-person view and present tense to give it some immediacy and impact. A nostalgic, historical story needs past tense and perhaps some era-appropriate language too. Again, hunt it out in books to see what it looks like in action.
The weighting of the marks across these areas will vary between exams – different schools put more or less emphasis on the technical and creative aspects of writing, but your school or tutor should be able to advise you on these specifics.
As for writing at speed, this does require practice. Use a timer that is clearly visible, a digital one is much easier for children to glance at. Although rote learning a piece is not advisable, do remind your child that it is more than acceptable to draw on ideas they have written about before. If they described a storm really well for a school homework, why not set a story called ‘Lost’ on a mountain in a storm. Then some of the creative thinking is already done. If you read a book where a character got lost, why not use some of the vocabulary that described their facial expressions in your own work? This can help to speed the process up. Also, and this is very difficult for some children, encourage them not to agonise over their planning. Acknowledge that coming up with a brilliant idea in 5 minutes is really hard and remind them that there is a lot more than just the plot being assessed. An ‘okay’ idea that was conceived quickly, allows plenty of time for it to be written brilliantly, and this will gain good marks. Running out of time and only writing one paragraph will end in a far lower score.
To conclude, as with many things, we learn to write well when we experience good examples of writing, i.e. good books. This is the simplest and most effective thing you can do to support your child, read quality literature together and learn from it. Help them to respond to each individual task in an exam – trying to pre-learn a piece will never lead to success. Good writing is original and thoughtful. Writers are constantly making choices, about what happens next or how a character will react and also about which language will most effectively convey their meaning. If your child can begin to make these conscious choices, they are well on the road to being a successful and engaging writer.
Galore Park’s 11+ English Revision Guide and Practice Papers feature very detailed marking grids for creative writing to help support your child practising for the creative writing element of the exam. There is also a great range of 11+ English Workbooks covering Spelling and Vocabulary, Grammar and Punctuation, and Writing. These revision and practice resources are ideal for independent learning at home.
Order Galore Park’s 11+ English revision guides, workbooks and practice papers online here.
Vicky Duggan is Head of English and Head of Marketing at The Granville School, and author of Galore Park’s 11+/Key Stage 2 English resources.