‘How Does The Author’?

If I had 30 minutes, a gun to my head, and a mandate to improve a ten-year-old’s comprehension mark by as much as possible, this is the question with which I’d start.

It’s hard to overstate just how frequently this question comes up on 11+ papers, and how heavily it’s weighted in their mark schemes. Take a look at this Sevenoaks paper, for instance – there are only 5 questions, and two of them begin ‘How does the author‘. Or consider this LIGSC paper, where the question (#7) is valued at a fearsome ten marks – 20% of the whole paper. When candidates practise other styles of questions, there’s a risk that these questions may not come up at all, but this one is as close to a certainty as they come.

It’s not just its frequency or mark allocation, however, that makes the ‘How does the author‘ question such an easy way to pile on extra marks. Rather it’s a simple and rather unfair fact – that most untutored students have no absolutely idea how to answer it. Teaching a candidate how to polish a 3-out-of-4 answer into a perfect one can be months of work, but here, even quite good students are usually starting out from a base of fewer than half marks. Considering how frequently the question comes up and how heavily it’s weighted, it’s not at all unreasonable for a proper answer to ‘How does the author‘  to be the difference between success and failure.

So, without further ado, here’s how to answer the ‘How does the author‘ question.

“How does the author do what?”, one might start by asking. In fact, however, it matters very little. The structure of a good answer is essentially always the same, whether we’re diagnosing how the passage was imbued with excitement or tedium, terror or joy.

In the first paragraph, go through the words that the author uses when they explicitly mention the state of affairs that you’ve been asked about. For example, suppose the question was “How does the author communicate Pamela’s excitement in this extract?”.

In this passage, Pamela is “thrilled” and “quivering with anticipation” at the thought of Christmas. She “cannot wait” until the day arrives.

This is all that’s required for half marks. A less polished answer (one without the “in-flow” quotations, for example) would probably score just under 50 percent;  two marks out of five or six, say, or three out of eight. This is the level of answer typically produced by an untutored student with some feeling for English.

A second paragraph is required for the other half of the marks. It looks something like this:

Furthermore, the author uses two techniques to help the reader feel Pamela’s excitement. Firstly, employs short sentences, such as “Christmas!” and “It was all too much”. These sentences rush past, and cause the reader to feel just as excited as Pamela. The author also uses personification, stating that “the days crawled past”. This image helps the reader to feel, like Pamela, that time is going unusually slowly as Christmas approaches.

The job of this second paragraph is to go beyond listing vocabulary, and instead list techniques that the writer uses to get their point across. A technique is really anything even mildly out-of-the-ordinary – it’s almost impossible to write a paragraph without using one or two. In this case, the techniques are Sentence Length and Personification.

For each technique, I’ve ensured maximum marks by also including a short follow-up, indicating what the writer achieved by using it. This is only required by the most challenging schools, but it’s a good habit for students to get into if they are aiming for the top.

The first technique I mentioned was sentence length. This isn’t a coincidence, even though I’m ‘quoting’ from a made-up passage. There’s always something to say about sentence length. Are some sentences short? Are some long? Unless the answer is “no, every single one is identically medium in length” (which would itself be rather remarkable), there should be something to comment on here. Mentioning sentence length in a how-does-the-author question is the closest thing to a free mark on the whole paper – it’s something that every student should be aiming to do. Given that one seldom needs to comment on more than two techniques for a high mark, and how few candidates actually know this trick, this information grants any student who’s been let in on the secret an enormous head-start on their competition.

For the second point, I used personification, but there’s countless other tricks to look for. In rough descending order of importance, students might partner the obligatory Sentence Length point with:

Sentence Structure (“Run-on”? Verbless? Lots of adjectives or adverbs?)
Repeated Words
Repeated Sentence Structures
Unusual Punctuation
Alliteration / Sibilance
Similes & Metaphors

There are likely others, and I’d be lying if I said that students always find it easy to select one of the ‘right’ answers. That means that what I’ve written here isn’t a completely clear path to scoring ten-out-of-ten; some practice is still required before success is guaranteed. Sometimes candidates, no matter how well prepared, will slip up, grasp the wrong end of the stick entirely and only score 75%.

I really do believe, though, that this second paragraph will magically transform an answer that asks politely for half marks into one that requests the maximum. It’s two or three immediate extra marks on a question that comes up on every paper, every year. If you’ve got half an hour to improve your child’s mark in English, it’s hard to imagine doing better than that.