You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 56 - why clear is not the same as basic and how being succinct does count as being sophisticated.
This episode is all about making sure your teen’s writing is succinct and clear, and avoiding the temptation of being overly wordy or trying a little bit too hard to sound sophisticated.
Hello Very Important Parents! I hope you’re really well and either surviving the end of term, or enjoying the school holidays depending on your state and school system. I know that my friends over in the UK are just finishing up their finals with GCSE exams and A-Levels which always brings back memories for me. Especially because I just had my birthday a couple of weeks back and back as a teenager in England, I always had an exam on my birthday in the exam years. Both for GCSE’s and A’Levels I had an exam on my birthday. It was never a year where it happened to fall on a weekend or just not have one of my subjects scheduled that day- That was harsh and not very fun I have to say.
I know that a lot of Aus and New Zealand students have also been sitting semester exams and trials recently too. So I think there are a lot of you out there right now who are breathing a bit of a sigh of relief right now having gotten through all of that.
I’m hoping that what I’m going to share today on the podcast might also bring a bit of a relief to you and your teens as well. Because I’m going to explain why your teen being clear in their writing is more important AND more rewarding in terms of marks and grades, than them trying to sound fancy and sophisticated, especially if trying to be fancy and sophisticated can actually verge into being a little bit confusing or waffle-y or vague and unclear.
Now, I first shared this information and these insights on my recent Facebook Live and I had a lot of feedback from parents who were there live and found it really helpful and so I wanted to share it here on the podcast. But what I won’t be sharing here is the open Q&A that followed on that live, because actually, this advice on being clear rather than verbose, was just a little intro to the June Open Q&A session.
Every month I host a Live Q&A on the Rock Solid Study Facebook Page where you or your teen can ask me anything you like about study, exams, even hit me with a real list exam question or essay question that might be stumping them in some way. Plus I often start out by delivering some bonus tips or my latest observations and insights and I like to do that because as I’m on camera I will sometimes have visuals - which also means I can do things a little bit differently than on the podcast. Not necessarily better, but a bit differently which is nice. Plus, I love the interaction and being able to explain things in real time, AND of course you get to pick my brain for the information YOU want, so we have a two-way communication system, rather than me delivering things one-way here on the podcast.
So, if you don’t already like and follow the Rock Solid Study Facebook Page, then definitely do that, and join me live on the third Wednesday of each month through the rest of 2023. Plus, if you go over there you can find our past live sessions to get some more bonus tips and see my answers to things you might not have even thought to ask. And maybe there will be something in this episode that will be one of those things for you and your teen, so let’s dive in to why clear does not mean basic and being succinct IS being sophisticated.
Because how your teen writes and their QWC (Quality of Written Communication) is one of the 6 elements of exam technique. I cover those 6 elements in detail in Catapult 6 of the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program. But the problem is, that when students are trying a little bit TOO hard to sound fancy and make their writing high quality, it can sometimes actually reduce the clarity AND therefore also reduce their marks.
Now, let’s break this down a bit.
There are some elements of their writing that will directly correlate to marks - like using subject-specific terminology and knowing and using key words and definitions appropriately.
But generally, what I’m seeing quite a lot of and what I’ve been coaching students on quite a lot recently, hence why I want to share a little bit of this here, is the trying a bit too hard to sound sophisticated and having it verge on becoming a bit confusing for the reader - i.e. the Marker, or a bit waffle-y or just verbose and overly wordy.
So, if your teen is someone who struggles to write with sophistication, whether that’s in their word choices and vocabulary, which isn’t very varied or expansive, or maybe it just sounds a bit pedestrian where their sentence structures are always quite simple, then this will be good news for them. Not that they shouldn’t still aim to increase their vocabulary or use higher level terminology, but the good news is that CLARITY always trumps sophistication.
And if your teen is able to or does naturally write in a more sophisticated and high quality way, then this is a bit of a check point for them to make sure that it is ALSO clear.
The second thing I do want to note is that it is also important that your teen adapts their writing and style to the genre or audience and task type.
In English this likely to be worth some marks explicitly, and in other subjects it may well be considered as part of their QWC.
But, again, if that comes at the expense of confusion, waffle or making it difficult for the marker to follow points or deduce arguments, then the benefits will be outweighed by the negatives. The content and the actual points in the response are always more important than the way they’re written.
Okay, so those are a couple of ways that writing quality, vocabulary and writing style do, or at least CAN indeed count towards your teen’s mark or grade, but the importance of have a clear and concise response to the question or clear and focused argument or clear and succinct report, is always more important. If something is beautifully written, but the marker can’t make sense of it or really grasp what your teen is trying to say, or determine whether they truly are ‘answering the question’ then they are unlikely to score highly.
This came up for a student I was coaching recently in Next Level.
They are a high achieving and able student and so their vocabulary and subject knowledge were very high. But they were making the marker work too hard.
I had to tell them ‘Make it easy for the examiner to give you marks’. Don’t wear them out, don’t make them wonder if you’re going to get to the point. Because here’s what happened. I read through about three quarters of their introduction and although I got the gist of what they were saying and could see what their thesis statement was getting at, it just wasn’t clear. And as we went through it together and I shared this observation with them, they told me it would become clearer as I read on. They said, if you read on a bit, it will make more sense. And I pulled them up on this. Kindly - but clearly - hah. And this was because, like I said, they are a high standard student and the coaching we were doing was on the small but mighty nitty gritty details that would take them from maybe a B+ to an A or an A- to an A+. If there were more glaring or lower criteria issues that needed addressing more than this, then I may not have mentioned it. You’ve got to work on the things that are the current block. There’s no point in sorting an A grade tweak when other aspects are stuck at a C grade for example.
But in this situation, I explained to them that even though that might be the case, things might get clearer later on in your writing, you don’t want the examiner to have to read on to be able to understand your point.
They shouldn’t have to go back and re-read what you wrote earlier to then join the dots.
This is part of having a structured and logical piece of writing; a STRONG response. And because I know that they would be loathe to almost ‘dumb-down’ for want of a better phrase - in fact that really isn’t a good phrase - I’d say ‘simplify’ their writing - they’d be loathe to simplify their writing because they think that simple means basic, I also shared with them that the clearer your writing is from the very start, the more knowledgeable you look as a student. The more powerful your writing. The more competent you come across to the examiner. They need to know exactly each point you are making so they know that YOU know.
The point being that clarity is powerful and shows confidence. And being able to put something across in a succinct way actually shows skill and sophistication.
Yes, high quality vocabulary and more complex sentence structures are valid in terms of the quality of the writing, but clarity trumps sophistication every time if there’s any confusion coming with that sophistication. If the marker isn’t sure what you’re really trying to say, or if you’re really answering the question, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the QWC, the mark is going to be low.
And on the note of marks, I’ll share with you some proof of this, in the form of mark scheme criteria and examiner feedback, just in case you or your teen doubt this advice.
First up, it’s worth just considering the adjectives used in each of the levels of descriptors. At the lower end we might see a descriptor like attempts to link, or attempts to make a judgement. Now, that could mean that the student just doesn’t do it very well, or a student could end up in this band because even though they wrote about whatever it was that was required, their point was not clear. The examiner couldn’t discern exactly what that link or judgement was because it was too waffly or vague or confusing.
And at the higher end of the descriptors, we might see adjectives like effectively or discerning. And yes, that will relate to the detail and the content, but it will also relate to the clarity. If a student EFFECTIVELY explains or writes a DISCERNING analysis, then it must be clear. If it isn’t then it isn’t effective and it certainly isn’t discerning.
Following on from this, I actually went and found some chief examiner reports to see how clarity and succinctness are reflected in these. These reports can be found online for free. Sometimes they’re called retrospectives or examination feedback. But I’ll put the link to this one I’m going to refer to here, which is the HSC Advanced English paper from 2022. And these reports are a goldmine. They are where, after all of the external exam papers have been marked and the scores or marks and grades reviewed a detailed post-match analysis is written up. And yes, clarity and succinct writing are things that are picked up on year after year and across all different subjects.
So, I’ll give you a couple of examples. From question 2 of the 2022 HSC Advanced English exam, the exam board wrote that “in better responses, students were able to:
That was one of three bullet points listed for that question. Providing a coherent and succinct analysis was one of the characteristics of answers that scored highly.
And then, in Question 5, it says that one of the areas for students to improve included:
And I think there’s a good reason that that is all one bullet point. Technically - writing a succinct and clear response could have been one point and addressing all parts of the question could have been another area to improve. BUT in this case, given that they are one bullet point improvement, I would predict that that means it was hard to tell is a student was really answering all parts of a question IF their writing was vague or wordy or waffly or unclear.
So, rather than your teen aiming to use high level language and trying to SOUND sophisticated and smart, get them to SHOW sophistication and that they are smart by aiming instead to be clear and concise.
Because clarity means the marker doesn’t have to work hard to award credit.
And clarity means that they present a powerful argument, thesis statement or answer. Succinctness is a skill and clarity shows confidence. And coming across as a confident student who can create a direct AKA powerful response is the best way to impress the marker. They can still use high level language and vocabulary and complex sentence structures and they definitely should use subject-specific terminology, but they ALSO want to use as few words as possible to present their idea.
Those words do not have to be basic or simple. But they do have to be clear.
Have a brilliant rest of your week, make sure to follow Rock Solid Study on Facebook and join me for Live Q&A and bonus tips each month and I’ll see you back here Tuesday for another episode of the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast!