This is a piece completed recently by one of my students for the Cambridge (CIE) A-Level English exam (Paper 2: Writing). It is suitable for anyone studying creative writing at a higher level — GCSE (10th Grade) and above, particularly on the following exam boards: AQA, CIE, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA.
The piece attained a B grade, but it has great potential and with a bit of work could have achieved an A. I asked the student to write feedback below to give a sense of the grade, as well as suggested improvements for how to attain a higher level next time. You’ll see a breakdown of his writing process and thoughts behind how he uses language.
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Write a descriptive piece called The Mountain. In your writing, create a sense of atmosphere, and focus on colors and sounds to help your reader imagine the scene.
The Answer: (Descriptive Writing A-Level Example)
It had been a long hard trek across the sludgy path, my footfalls producing rhythmic squelches. A warm pitiful breath escaped my mouth and struggled against the unrelenting breeze. My eyes wept from the wind, without sadness, the tears quickly drying but no less pained. I had managed to stray unwittingly from the path. My mind blank, I had chanced upon a vast expanse of open land. Vaguely, I recalled how I had got there, how I awoke in perspiration merely hours earlier, my T-shirt soaked through. If I had wrung it, I’m sure water would have trickled out, so sodden it was.
When I eventually peeled myself off the bed, it was then the idea had taken root, to venture out for a spirited walk. Grabbing my staff and closing the door after me, I walked on mechanically, permitting the crisp air to enter my lungs and liven my senses. For a long time, I gazed listlessly at my traipsing feet, neglecting to survey the path ahead. Soon, when I glanced up, I had drunk in the formidable sight of a tall mountain stood gargantuan in the distance.
The sky, slate grey and heavy, bore the promise of rain. A knot of cloud hung low and obscured the mountain’s peak. It should have unnerved me, but it didn’t. I was Ill-dressed and ill-prepared, yet a dogged stubbornness coursed through my every fibre. I firmly decided I would task myself to climb it. It was as though I forged onward like a weary soldier, going into battle for the very first time.
As I neared the foot of the mountain, such was its mass I could no longer see sky. Pausing at the base of it, I noticed that the wind had abated somewhat, and I felt a brief flash of renewed confidence. Glancing up its steep face my eyes scanned the wild, rocky terrain, peppered with tufts of grass and high reeds.
No discernible path appeared to etch through it, which led me to believe that nobody of sound mind would be foolish enough to scale it. Nobody as foolish as me at least. Warding off the temptation to turn back, I placed my trusty staff before me and carefully distributed my weight across the unstable ground. With no visible path to speak of I lunged forward and begun to climb, praising each successfully placed step as I slowly advanced. Reaching roughly a meter high, I felt the first cool drop of rain blotch my forehead. It caused me to glance up instantly at the sky with trepidation, but before I would be greeted by an onslaught of raindrops, I decided to forge on undeterred.
A violent rush of wind suddenly rose beneath me, causing the hood of my coat to blow clean over my head. Maybe it was a sign, I thought. Nature’s way of telling me that I should prepare for the inevitable drenching. But I did my best to not entertain such thoughts. Instead, my mind cast back to the days of my youth. I recollected the numerous occasions I had ventured into the woods with my older brother. Together we would seek out the tallest climbable tree. He would goad and pressure me to reach the furthest branch no matter the risk of danger. His voice was always close behind, providing a safety net in case I fell. I never did, but where was his voice now?
When the rain came, it had been roughly an hour since I last looked down. The terrain had gotten steeper, so much so that my staff was rendered useless and left me all but hugging onto the slope for dear life. There were times when I froze, clutching myself to the earth, breathing in mud and stone, feeling as though I had tasted time itself. The rain came down in sheets, muddying the very soil my hands struggled to claw into as I ascended. Why had I bothered? I asked myself. Don’t worry just keep going, keep climbing. I imagined my brother’s voice not that far behind.
There are two examples in this passage where the language draws visual depictions. Firstly, in describing the colour of the sky as ‘slate-grey’, likening it to a shade taken from a type of stone, successfully transmits the image of a dark sky into the reader’s mind. Furthermore, the adjective ‘slate’ has connotations of hardness and coldness, create an intense atmosphere and a sense of difficulty for the protagonist. The use of compound adjectives through the hyphen also enhances the intensity of the visual image.
The second refers to the protagonist’s determination. He ‘forged onward like a weary soldier, going into battle for the very first time.’ This conjures a feeling of vulnerability for the reader. It presents the idea that the protagonist is venturing into the unknown, with unforeseen dangers ahead, creating palpable suspense.
An underlying sense of foreboding runs consistently throughout the passage. There is a distinct atmosphere enveloping the language that is earthy and rich. Much of this is derived from the detailed scene description. This places the reader directly into the mood and atmosphere of the text. This is portrayed in the depiction of physical hardship, endured by the protagonist. For example, ‘My eyes wept from the wind, without sadness, the tears quickly drying but no less pained.’ The line also contains a subtle hint of irony, the association between tears being linked to sadness. However, in this case it is the harshness of nature that is bringing about the shedding of tears.
Another example of ‘mood’ and ‘feel’ evident in the text can be found in the following line: ‘There were times when I froze, clutching myself to the earth, breathing in mud and stone, feeling as though I had tasted time itself.’ While ‘mud’ and ‘stone’ represent nature, they are also symbolically linked to the ancient age of the mountain and present the idea ‘tasting time’ as though it were a tangible thing. These linguistic techniques of tying nature to feeling, exist to immerse the reader within the voice and tone of the text.
The continuous verbs ‘clutching’ and ‘breathing’ … continuous motion / enduring difficulty / dynamic and physical enhance the sense of struggle / highlight the fragility of man in comparison to all-powerful nature.
The narrative uses first-person through the featured protagonist and unfolds in past-tense. It describes events in a continuous stream of action. However, there are two moments where the action shifts to a series of flashbacks. In the first one, we learn of the protagonist awaking from his bed: ‘I awoke in perspiration merely hours earlier, my T-shirt soaked through,’. In the second, he revisits thoughts of childhood: ‘I recollected the numerous occasions I had ventured into the woods with my older brother.’ Despite these two time-shifts, the throughline of the story commences from the moment the protagonist witnesses the mountain upon his travels, along the path, to lastly attempting to scale it, finding himself stuck upon its steep face.
Features to include for my next creative piece:
- Multiple characters
- A variation of sentences, including one word.
- A specific moment of conflict
- Range of paragraph lengths
- Range of punctuation > ! ? : ; ‘ “” ‘ () …
72 % > B grade
- Effective expression, with a range of language, including some complex structures and less common lexis
- A few minor errors which do not impede communication
- Logical organisation of text; developed ideas in an effective manner
- Good achievement of text; content is relevant
Overall, I believed the last 2 sentences could have been more refined, more poignant, and expressive. The story at this point ends rather abruptly in comparison to the rest. This demonstrates better fluency and reads more elegantly.
However, the earlier paragraphs clearly demonstrate strong use of language. This is visually expressive, symbolic/poetic, and carries a distinct tone. There is much intrigue and suspense to be enjoyed, which in turn engages the reader.
Read more descriptive writing tips here: https://scrbblyblog.com/2022/10/26/spooky-atmosphere-writing/