One of the hardest things to do in persuasive writing is to sound ‘convincing and compelling’ when you’re a teenager. Most teenagers don’t care about global warming or recycling but exam boards across the country love these familiar topics and so we need to learn how to teach them to care, or at least sound like they do.
Welcome Charlie Brooker. Not only is he one of my favourite satirical writers of recent years, he’s also fantastic to use as an example of someone who has a strong voice, clearly has an opinion and who doesn’t shy away from hyperbole and extended metaphor. What a winner.
I want my students to care. I want them to be assertive and direct because otherwise they simply won’t sound convincing. Their instructions from me are to avoid ‘wishy washy’ and follow a strong line of argument.
Courtesy of my lovely new colleague, I introduced this class to the wonder of Charlie Brooker and his article/diatribe on Christmas adverts. My colleague had chosen this text and deconstructed it so all I had to do was talk it through with my students, demonstrate hyperbole through my own language and encourage them to feel something. Some of them even had a wry smile on their face when reading it. Their particular favourite line being ‘Get lost Santa.’
So it worked. They were engaged, convinced and compelled. They all agreed with Brooker, that yes, crying at an advert for a shop is for ‘idiots’. How did he do it? How did he appeal to a room of teenagers who don’t understand his references to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, old school discos or John Betjeman? How did he manage to use sophisticated vocabulary and colloquial terms yet still sound intelligent and interesting? He used his wit and his voice. He was full of disdain and sarcasm. Surely something many teenagers do very successfully!
This was my in. Ok everyone, I know it’s veeeerrrry difficult but let’s try and emulate this tone on a cold Wednesday. Try and sound annoyed or outraged.
Off we went. Their task was to respond to the following statement: ‘National service is to be introduced to school leavers to benefit them and further their skills and qualifications.’
I asked each individual if they wanted to go and fight in the army when they had finished their A levels. Unsurprisingly I was met with ‘wouldn’t be bothered, Miss’ or a grunt. I got them to ask me.
‘No!’ I shouted with indignation!
‘Why not?’ They humoured me.
‘I don’t want to die!’ Dramatic response but central line of argument decided.
We decided the most convincing argument would be not to go into national service and needed to plan from there. A few key points included: danger and death; inequality; lack of choice; inexperience.
How to add in humour? Link to real experience/anecdote and maybe a rhetorical question to show your disbelief.
‘My only experience of firing shots is the hours wasted on Call of Duty and I’m pathetic at that as it is. How could I be expected to stand on a real battlefield?’
More humour? Different audience?
‘Have you ever asked your teenager to pick up their clothes? Try asking them to pick up a real weapon.’
Ooh we can sense a metaphor beginning…
‘The only battle my teenager is used to is the one about their lack of homework.’
Need a comparison? Teenagers/zombies. Basically the same thing.
‘Teenagers can’t even roll out of bed on a Monday morning. When they finally manage the heart-rending task of crawling towards the front door they stumble blindly towards school like a poor imitation of a zombie from the Walking Dead. Imagine the impact a dozy, apathetic teenager would have on a battlefield.’
Need a reference to something intellectual to give yourself gravitas and encourage the audience to respect your opinion? Refer to something literary. Not well read? Refer to the poetry anthology or texts you have studied.
‘A group of untrained teenagers at war would be like Lord of the Flies. All face paint and fire.’
Popular culture? Use a song and include it. We went for War by Edwin Starr. Subtle and entertaining.
‘War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.’
To sound convincing and compelling you must engage your reader (the examiner!) and make them agree with you. Make references to things they will know about, use language and structure intelligently to reinforce your point and consider the central line of argument. If your most effective point is that you don’t want to get injured then stick to that and return to it throughout. You don’t get marks for the amount of different points you make. It is about how effective they are and how well you develop them.
We still have a way to go. It takes a long time for students to become accomplished writers and be able to reference things beyond their current sphere of experience but it isn’t impossible if we give them the tools to do it with.