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Sunday September 9, 2007

Continuous writing


MANY students struggle with writing, more so with continuous writing as it is more demanding in many ways compared to directed writing. Admittedly, writing is a complex skill which cannot be learnt overnight. It requires practice as you need to explore ideas and thoughts as well as experiment with language.  

The continuous writing section, like directed writing, in Paper Two of the SPM English paper is also compulsory and carries 50 marks. Unlike directed writing, however, you have a choice – five topics are given and you only need to select one. These topics can be classified in following ways:  

  • narrative 

  • descriptive 

  • argumentative 

  • expository/factual 

  • one-word essays (For example: “Water”) 

    Each essay type entails different skills and techniques. Consider the following guidelines when selecting your choice of essay type. 

    General guidelines 

    Read and consider all the questions given. 

    Choose a topic you are comfortable with or confident about – when you fail to do this, precious time is wasted as you may have spent quite some time writing before you realise that you want to change your choice of essay 

    Plan your essay – the outline/organisation, points/ideas/thoughts, and supporting points (if you are writing an argumentative or factual essay).  

    This is the time where you may need to examine, reconsider, modify or rearrange the ideas/thoughts 

    Write out your essay in neat and legible handwriting. Untidy handwriting is annoying as the reader has to spend valuable time deciphering what you have written. 

    Do write in paragraphs – leave a line between paragraphs, and make sure spellings and punctuation are accurate. 

    Edit and revise language if necessary – allocate 10 minutes for this.  

     

    The narrative essay 

    Let us look in detail at one of the types of essays in this section.  

    Many of you are familiar with the narrative essay as it is an all-time favourite among students. A narrative essay, as its name suggests, is a story of an experience or event.  

    Here are some examples: 

  • My grandmother  

  • The helpful stranger  

  • The most exciting experience in my life 

  • Write a story ending with: I knew from her smile that she had forgiven me. 

    Here is a sample essay based on one of the above topics: My grandmother. 

     

    Sample 1 

     

    The frail old woman seated in the wheelchair slowly looks up when she hears approaching footsteps. I look at the deeply wrinkled face and search for some signs of recognition but fail to do so. She, on her part, looks at me blankly and after a few seconds continues doing what she had been doing earlier – looking at her gnarled fingers and toying with the gold band on her third finger. Sighing in disappointment, I wonder what is on her mind. It pains my heart to know what Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis have done to this feeble woman. 

     

    Grandmother has not always been like this. She used to be an energetic woman who had much love to share with those around her, be they her children, grandchildren or daughters-in law. My mother, her eldest son’s wife, had not a negative word to say about grandma who had welcomed her into their home. In fact, mum always says that she is blessed to have a mother-in-law and not a monster-in-law.  

     

    Married at the tender age of 14 to a labourer, she had been a loyal and supportive wife. Grandfather, when he was alive, would sometimes regale us with stories from his past. He would fondly tell us that he was a lucky man to have married grandma although the circumstances under which they got married were not so joyous. Grandma had been the village beauty but when the Japanese invaded Malaya, my great grandfather, grandma’s father, decided that marriage was the only solution to save her from the clutches of the rampaging Japanese soldiers who went around raping and abducting young girls. “We did not marry for love, but survival. Yet we are happy, unlike many young couples these days who split even before the honeymoon is over!” Grandma always looked shy and demure when grandpa was in his story-telling moods. 

     

    Blessed with three sons, they worked hard to bring up their boys. Grandpa and grandma, who were both illiterate, made sure that their sons got the education they deserved so that their lives would be different. Despite his meagre salary, grandfather was able to send his sons to school and later to university. He did this by working overtime and taking on other menial tasks. Grandma did her share by washing and ironing clothes for a rich “taukey” and his family. 

     

    All three sons got married in due time and lived with grandpa and grandma in a double storey house my dad bought soon after becoming the managing director of a local telco. After grandpa’s demise, however, my two uncles moved out due to work commitments. grandma continued to live with us as she could not bear to part with me, her first grandson. 

     

    I am fortunate as I have many fond memories of my grandmother. She babysat me when my mum went to work. She accompanied me to school every morning during my primary school years. She made sure I had my meals, cajoling me when I was reluctant to eat. She was there to share my happiness and sorrow.  

     

    All this started to change when she had arthritis. It hurt me because there was nothing I could do to ease her suffering although she put on a brave front despite the excruciating pain she suffered when family members were present.  

     

    Six years ago, grandmother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. At first, she forgot the little things – what she was doing, where she had put her glasses etc. Slowly the disease took its toll. Now, she has forgotten everything. She cannot recognise her sons and their wives; worse still, she cannot remember me. It pains me to see a woman who had once been a bundle of energy reduced to this.  

     

    I slowly move towards her, bend down and take her hands in mine, hoping that somehow, in the deep recesses of her faded memory, she can remember me. She looks up at me in childlike innocence and smiles, not out of recognition but in the way one would at strangers who show the slightest bit of caring. I know I have lost her forever. 

     

     

    Paragraph 1 

    Vivid portrayal of the grandmother:  

    - frail old woman, deeply wrinkled face 

    - gnarled fingers, toying with the gold band 

    Vivid portrayal of narrator’s and grandmother’s feelings: 

    - looks at me blankly, sighing in disappointment, pains my heart 

    Use of present tense: 

    - indicates grandmother is still alive 

     

     

    Paragraph 2 

    Looks at grandmother’s qualities before illness: 

    - healthy, energetic, loving 

    Use of past tense: 

    - indicates shift in story from the present to the past 

    Use of present tense:  

    - shows narrator’s mother still has nothing negative to say about grandmother 

    Touch of humour: 

    - not a monster-in-law  

     

    Paragraph 3 

    Continues with looking at grandmother:  

    - her qualities (loyal and supportive wife) 

    - her history (marriage to grandfather) 

    Choice of words: 

    - precise/apt – encompass so much meaning, e.g. regale, rampaging, joyous, invaded 

    - not repetitive, e.g. “my great grandfather” is replaced with “grandma's father” 

    Inclusion of dialogue: 

    - gives voice to the grandfather 

    - breaks monotony of narration 

     

    Paragraph 4 

    Continues with account of grandmother’s life after marriage:  

    - worked hard 

     

    Paragraph 5 

    Account of grandmother’s life after grandfather’s death: 

    - continued to live with eldest son, close to narrator 

    Choice of words: 

    - demise instead of death, telco  

     

    Paragraph 6 

    Role of grandmother’s in narrator’s life:  

    - took care of him 

    - played the role of mother 

    Use of repetitive sentence structure for emphasis: 

    - “She babysat...” 

    - “She accompanied me...” 

    - “She was there?” 

     

    Paragraph 7 

    Introduces grandmother’s illness:  

    - Arthritis and how narrator felt to see her suffering 

     

    Paragraph 8 

    Narrator tells us about her other illness: Alzheimer’s 

    Shift in focus from the past back to the present 

    Repetition of sentence structure to emphasise what Alzheimer’s has done to her: 

    - “...she forgot?” 

    - “...she cannot remember?” 

     

    Paragraph 9 

    Return to the present: 

    - Focus is on narrator’s feelings 

    - We can sense his frustration at her inability to recognise him. 

     

    The narrative essay is quite demanding as it requires you to engage your reader. The merits of the essay above are pointed out in the margin. Although you are asked to write an essay of at least 350 words, it is difficult to write an interesting story within this range of words. The length of the above essay is 700 words. So go ahead and let your creative juices flow.  

    Avoid writing essays like the example shown in the excerpt below. 


     

    My grandmother is sixty-eight years old. She is thin and frail. Her skin is dry and withered. She is a widow and she lives with us.  

    My grandmother was born in Kuala Nerang in 1939. She was the eldest of nine siblings. Her father was a rubber tapper and her mother was a housewife. She did not go to school because her parents were very poor. 


     

    The essay above is dull and boring because the writer has used only simple and compound sentences. Sentences structures are often repeated – “She is?”, “She was?”  

     

    When writing a narrative, remember 

    You can make use of your own everyday experiences – at home, at school or in your neighbourhood – as long as they are interesting, realistic and authentic. For instance, you might want to write about your neighbours who abuse their maid or the rebellious teenager at school who gets into all sorts of trouble just to get his parents’ attention. In your descriptions, you may want to draw on your observations of people you know – their mannerisms, habits, behaviours, ambitions or desires.  

    You can also make use of other people’s stories or experiences and make them your own. For instance, you can draw on stories you have heard from others, or read about in the newspapers, or even watched on television. 

    Make your essay vivid and engaging. Make your characters come to life – use words to paint visual images. Describe their emotions and feelings. 

    Inject humour into your essay if you can, but let me remind you that this is a difficult skill.  

    Make sure your essay is not monotonous.  

     

    Pitfalls to avoid 

    Do not let your imagination run too wild. Do not turn an essay into a dream. Many students write beautiful essays but the “oomph” disappears when they insert a sentence: “Suddenly, I woke up and realised that no such thing had happened as I had been dreaming.” 

    Do pay attention to the sensitivities of our Asian culture. Avoid subjects like sex, violence, horror and profanities and blasphemy.  

    Do not write out a draft as you do not have the time. 

    Avoid the use of too much dialogue/conversation. Remember you are asked to write a narrative, not a dialogue/conversation. 

     

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