BE ORGANISED! That is critical. Many candidates fail or do not perform as they should because they panic, become frantic and lose focus. Suddenly every learning area examinable needs attention and work becomes too much for one head.
Many students burn the midnight candle and suddenly sleep becomes a luxury. Hysteria becomes common and some students become ‘‘demon-possessed.’’ This is the time Satan is accused of even what is not his business at all. Be organised. Read a lot. Rest a lot. The human brain has no reserve tank. Once it is done (full) it cannot take anymore. The next obvious thing is to burst or snap if you force it. Be advised.
The third term is not the time to create an eighth day in a week. It is not time to do everything at once. It is not time to overload the brain. It is time to be calm, fresh and smart. How do you do it? Each learning area demands specific strategies. This week I will look at English Paper 1, Section A — Composition writing or Creative writing and what you must do to plain-sail through the examination.
Go into this examination knowing exactly your composition type. Say ‘‘I will choose the Narrative (telling a story), Descriptive, Argumentative or Discussion (also called Factual or Expository).’’ You must have good reasons for making this definite choice. This is the composition type that your teacher has been awarding you the highest mark. May be you have mastered all the skills needed to present a masterpiece. A decision made in the examination room is often not the best one.
Make sure you understand the purpose of each composition type so that you do not give the examiner what you want but indeed what he or she wants. For example, the purpose of the Narrative writing (story telling is to thrill the marker.) He-She wants to enjoy reading this story. He wants to see things, to hear things, to taste, to feel and imagine. This does not happen if you do not have the arsenal: the descriptive detail embedded in imagery, strong verbs and adjectives, figurative language and dramatic dialogue here and there; a gripping, absorbing, engaging, captivating opening sentence, not a long meandering, cold, boring INTRODUCTION capturing details of time (date, month, year).
Avoid unnecessarily long meandering sentences elongated by joining words like ‘‘and’’, ‘‘but’’ ‘‘because’’, ‘‘which bla bla”, “where bla bla”, “whose bla bla’’ etc. Of course some sentences will be much longer than others but do not weaken sense by threading tiresome rigmaroles without end. Quickly like a full stop and use it. The darting sentence is short. It is powerful. You see! I did not say, Quickly like a full stop and use it because the darting sentence is short and powerful. That would not be wrong, but the effect would be compromised and thus weaker. Remember the KISS formula . . . meaning Keep It Short and Simple.
It is not foolish to draft possible opening paragraphs . . . Beginnings I call them, not Introductions. Ask your teacher for approval. They could be Flashback, an engaging quote from a famous author, philosopher, musician, historian etc, Creating Atmosphere, Drama or a combination of combinable styles. Keep these in your head. Cram if you dare, and damn the consequences. Withdraw a suitable one from the mental bank when it is needed and where it is applicable. Only exceptionally smart students can instantly create captivating /gripping beginnings in the examination room.
Smart students include in this mental reserve tank, colourful figures of speech, idioms and metaphors to flavour the narrative as the composition develops. Of course remembering not to flood the work with these! One beautiful rose is enough to decorate the desert. Use these appropriately when you do and avoid being a wiseacre in an examination . . . a person who does not know but thinks he/she does.
Keep within the box all the time. From the opening sentence to the ending bit, you are in the box. Begin right there in the story. End within. If it is a narrative . . . a story about ‘‘a day you will never forget,’’ do not stray into the next day. If it is about ‘‘a thrilling football game’’ let it not begin outside the football pitch and spill out of the field at the end. There is nonsense I hear about markers who will not penalise straying out of topic. Lowering standards! There is no other way of describing it. But thank God, I think it is the devil, if there are gaps like this. Take advantage of imprudent markers. However, doing things perfectly will assure you of the ‘A’ grade everyone desires.
You will get marks for a penetrating argument in the Argument-type composition. The purpose of this composition is to persuade the examiner to agree with you. That is what you will be rewarded for, not the flavour, the colourful shine, gleam and thrill of language. Are you mentally fit to make the marker say, ‘‘Ahaa, here is sense in every sense and I agree one hundred and one percent?’’ If you are, God bless you. If you cannot argue, STOP IT and let those who can take the bull by the horns and argue.
The Factual/ Discussion/ Expository type Composition: As its names suggest, the purpose is to expose the facts: ‘‘What are?’’ or ‘‘Discuss’’ some of the causes of poor performance in Zimbabwean schools’.
Here is an ideal Plan
Half-baked teachers from lousy teacher education colleges.
Most Schools have no good libraries
Learning areas (subjects) are too many-cause mental/intellectual exhaustion
Students too busy enjoying the bliss of 21St century connectivity (ICT)-social media . . . films, music, pen-pals. Have no time to read.
Poor student-attitudes towards learning.
No role models to emulate. . . those that have read books and passed are not best examples of achievers.
Unemployment: If graduates are roaming the streets unemployed, what is the purpose of schools except being places to grow up?
If you cannot stretch your mind far and wide enough as is in the Plan-example above, do not choose such a topic. Many students fail or do not perform as well, not because their English is poor. They make wrong choices and even if they choose correctly, sometimes they have no idea what the purpose of that composition type is. That is critical.
You cannot write a master-piece of whatever composition type without a plan. The example above is a usable plan. It has the raw material for amplification or development. Simply listing INTRODUCTION and a series of unanswered questions, then CONCLUSION at the end is not a plan? Introduction . . . when did it happen? Where did it happen? Who was there? How did it end? CONCLUSION! This nonsense is familiar, is it not? Teachers and books that stick to this kind of ‘‘planning’’ are typical time-wasters. If you give them a mould like this they will produce similar compositions . . . tedious and lacklustre, dreary, boring to mark, lifeless.
Finally the Descriptive Composition: Please note that the power of description is not distinctive to the Descriptive composition type alone. It is a powerful tool even in Narrative-type writing. The only difference is that the narrative has movement from one point to another . . . the development . . . up to the end.
The describe-an-event-how-to-do-something, a scenery etc type, has no movement. Its purpose and hence the student’s task is simply to capture a picture in the same way a Canon or Sony camera does. A camera does it easily. It captures every little detail . . . as it is . . . or as something happens. Doing the same in writing is not quite as easy. You need to be loaded with strong adjectives, verbs, adverbs, images (use of imagery) similes and idioms wherever applicable. You must not resort to clichés . . .t ired words . . . overused words, if you want to bring out vivid descriptions or pictures: A nice meal is not the same as a mouth-watering meal, scrumptious meal, delicious meal, delectable meal.
A fat man is not the same as an obese man, overweight, heavy, stout, flabby, podgy man. A thin woman is not the same as one who is gaunt, scrawny, bony, skeletal, skinny woman. Even if you tie a ‘‘very’’ before fat, thin, nice, the sense and effect remains weak . . . poor, tired.
Whatever your favourite composition type may be, make sure you plan first . . . and draft a useful plan. No student, no matter how smart, can write a perfect thriller streaming straight from the head, except the left-handed Robert Aisam I taught at St Augustine’s more than thirty years ago. If all builders need plans to build strong beautiful houses, who are you to think you can build a worthwhile composition without a plan? Practise useful planning and write compositions with beautiful ‘‘architectural’’ content and shape.
This third term is the term to put the nuts and bolts together . . . pins and needles. Make sure you have thoroughly revised your writing skills and strategies and rest assured your guns are loaded. Where you are not sure, ask your teacher . . . ask experts in your neighbourhood, read notes, tips and guidelines compiled by gurus in each area of learning. In English, make sure your mentor is smart; he or she knows what to teach, to warn against and to advise.
Guess what? There is something we all almost always forget . . . prayer! God is at the centre of everything we do. You do not need to go to church very Saturday or Sunday to know this. You do not wear church garb too, garments and religious regalia too to know this.
God will not give the answers to the questions facing us in examinations. You know why? Because all the answers to what matters to Him are in the Bible! Examinations are our business and not His.
Yet he will give us the energy and health needed in those examinations; the brain that remembers and applies. Ask him in that study room. He will answer you accordingly.
Merry Third Term (I almost said Merry Christmas)! Why not? It is only four months away.