Updated: Aug 5, 2021
How to revise for Unseen Non-Fiction in GCSE English Literature.
We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the English Literature elements of the English GCSE, but the next type of unseen text we’re going to focus on is a main component of the English Language paper: non-fiction.
A lot of the advice for writing unseen answers applies just as well to non-fiction as poetry, so have a look at the unseen poetry blog for the basics. But here are some tips and techniques specifically tailored for your non-fiction questions.
Firstly, and I think most importantly, just because something is a non-fiction text doesn’t mean the author is free from any bias in writing – their purpose may very likely not be to purely inform, but also persuade or influence. When we read an unseen text in an exam, we may be so absorbed in taking in the information in front of us that we forget to examine it critically. So never lose sight of the author’s purpose – why have they bothered to write this text? Is it out of a disinterested desire to inform people, or is there more to it?
A good way of spotting the purpose is to notice the pronouns! They’re such tiny words, but ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘we’, and ‘us’ have an enormous effect in the way the reader receives the text. This is important on the larger scale, as it tells us whether the piece is written in the first or third (or second, though that’s much more unlikely) person, and therefore where on the slider between subjectivity and objectivity we can expect it to fall. But it also tells us useful things on a more detailed level: by describing a group of people as ‘they’ and ‘them’, the speaker is distancing themselves from that group, and influencing us to do the same. But if there are lots of uses of ‘we’ and ‘us’ when describing a community, the writer wants the reader to side with them, and is subtly prejudicing us in their favour. (For practice, why not look through this, or any other, blog posts, and see which pronouns the writers have used – what effect are we trying to create, and how effectively do we do it?)
This sort of detective work will really help us establish the text’s intended audience. In a GCSE exam, you’re unlikely to get something exclusively aimed at the over 60s, but you never know… Audience is really linked to purpose, and is a key thing to discover to understand what the author is doing and why. Think of a piece on climate change: if its intended audience is people already actively combating climate change, it might be full of encouragement to keep going, inspiring stories of the efforts of others, and suggestions for what to do next. But if its audience is those who think climate change isn’t real or doesn’t matter, then the text might be full of scientific evidence, quotes from trusted sources, and guilt-tripping stories about dying baby polar bears. Same topic, different audience, therefore different purpose, therefore different text.
The above points have all been about the unseen text’s language. As mentioned above, we can be so keen to mine detailed information from a non-fiction text that we look straight at the language, and exam answers frequently talk almost exclusively about language techniques used. But most exam boards ask about the writer’s use of language and structure, so it’s vital to remember to include structural elements, or you’re missing out on a lot of marks. Structure can include: specific format and layout, including any images, bullet points, or headlines; paragraph lengths; sentence lengths and complexity; and punctuation. Even something as seemingly tiny as whether a writer has chosen to punctuate a startling statement with an exclamation mark or a full stop is worth investigating, and can back up much bigger points about tone and intended effect.
Last but not least, don’t think it has to be boring just because it’s factual! If the author’s sole intention was to convey information, they would have written a list of statistics, maybe with some graphs. By choosing to write a piece of text, they’re willingly engaging with persuasive and descriptive devices, and using literary techniques, to help them with their purpose. A good non-fiction text is just as likely to use metaphor, simile, repetition, rhetorical questions, even pathetic fallacy, as a fiction text. Don’t treat these as of secondary importance to the information being shared – remember, you’re being asked how the writer achieves their effects, not what it is they’re saying. So, dig out all the key terms you used for English Literature and apply them here.
Some encouragement to close with: we encounter non-fiction text every day, in newspapers, textbooks, and online. Especially in this era of ‘fake news’ we’re constantly using our critical skills to examine and judge these texts and see what we believe and what we agree with. This is a skill you already have: you just need to practise putting it on paper!
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.