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How can a formative essay help you?

It seems that the formative essay is not always popular. The reason for this is that it means that as a student you have to do the work and then analyse what you have done, why you have done it and how you could improve upon it. As a student this can seem as an irritating waste of time as you feel that if you have done the work, that should be enough. This can be understandable when your workload seems too much and you are tired and stressed. However, if you can learn how to assess your own work formatively, your grades will go up. Fundamentally, being able to write a formative essay gives you power over your work and therefore your own future. Essentially, this means that you are no longer reliant on your tutors or professors to be able to understand how you can improve.


In this article, we will explore:

How to formatively assess your creative writing

Formative assessment is a large part of a Creative Writing course whether it is at undergraduate level or above. It is important in this subject because it is not enough to be able to write a literary piece or a travel piece, you also have to explain in full detail the journey from the genesis of the piece right through to the finished text. Let’s look at how you might formatively assess a piece of your writing. Let’s imagine for instance, you have written the first draft for a short story about a woman that wants to find her adopted son but she hasn’t got time because she is going bankrupt and her husband is an alcoholic.

Writing an essay on your writing journey will immediately make you think about the problems that you have got with your first draft. If it’s a short story of 1,000 words and you start off by analysing the plot, you can immediately see that you’ve got too much of it. In fact, you have got enough to sink a ship in there. The plot is actually enough for a novel not a short story. This is a mistake that most learner writers make. However, if you have to write an essay that formatively assesses your writing journey on that story and you point out your mistake, you will get marks for being able to spot potential mistakes in your writing. This depicts to the examiner evidence of knowledge. Therefore, it is imperative that you point out steps like this. It is tempting when writing a formative piece for Creative Writing to suggest that your finished piece is what you created originally. Don’t ever do that, examiners are expecting you to demonstrate a creative journey that highlights your expertise on your subject.


Let’s imagine at this point that you decide that the plot needs to trimmed down extensively and you pinpoint it to a couple of scenes where the woman is meeting her adopted son for the first time outside Lincoln Castle, a place that she never been to before. In your story, you decide that she will take the three children from her marriage and also her mother so that she can meet her new grandson. You also decide that as they sit in a coffee house, the boy’s father that she hasn’t seen for thirty years turns up because this will give it a dramatic twist. Let’s look at how you can formatively assess these ideas:

If we stick to the idea that it is a short story of 1,000 words, there is usually only enough room, at the very most, for three characters. To get the best depth of characterisation, two characters is better. Can you imagine trying to fit in the other children and the mother too? It would take away the depth of the story and make it chaotic.

Dramatic twists are all very well in their place but in this situation it is problematic. For one reason, the likelihood of them bumping into the boy’s father is unrealistic. Secondly, there is not enough room in the 1,000 words for this to happen well. The emphasis is on the mother’s emotions when meeting her son again. Learner writers are often tempted to throw in dramatic twists that are either unbelievable or excessive; this is why formative analysis is such a wonderful learning tool for Creative Writing.

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  • Formative assessment is as essential in all aspects of Drama and Theatre Studies as it is in Creative Writing. In essence, it is one of the most useful tools that you can have. For instance, if you are rehearsing Chekov’s ‘The Three Sisters’, you may have to keep a journal of all your rehearsals. This can seem like an annoying waste of time because you want to act not write about what you did. If you feel like this, the temptation may be to not write the journal after every rehearsal but to leave it all until your journal and essay are due in. Do not do this because even if you think that you have a prefect memory, the memory plays tricks and basically you are missing a golden opportunity to learn about your acting. Furthermore, your essay will not get the best grades.
  • Let’s imagine that you are playing the part of Irina, the youngest sister and at the beginning, you feel uncomfortable playing her because you feel that she is just too impressionable and not at all cool. You should write about your feelings of discomfort when trying to be Irina. For instance, if you remember that during the first rehearsal, you felt that you really did not do well because you feel too modern and world wise to play this character, you should state this. Remember, the journal is what you will use to write your essay and all of this is evidence of your acting journey and what you are learning.
  • If you always wear trousers and big heavy boots, you might decide to wear a flowery dress to get into the character of Irina. In your next journal entry, you can explain how you have reflected on the fact that you are experimenting with different ways of getting into the character of Irina. If it helps, say so and explain why. However, if you still feel at odds with the part, you must write about this also.
  • If you have been studying Stanislavsky and are using his theories to feel the part of Irina, you need to write about this too. Do not be afraid to critically analyse the theories of Stanislavsky. If you think they are not helping you with the part explain with. If you use Brechtian theory and find that works better, explain why.
  • If you have kept your formative assessments up in your journal, you should go back and notice how your acting journey has transpired, this will ensure that your essay is the best that it can be. Formative writing is not about you being perfect at the beginning; it is about your learning process and how you can see what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you can improve.

It can seem like your university is trying to whip you if you have spent a mountain of time and effort in writing an essay and then you are told that you have to write an essay about your essay. On the surface, it is enough to make anyone want to bang their fists against their chests and hollow ‘why?’ at the top of their voices. This is understandable. However, painful though they are, writing a formative assessment of one of your own essays does help you to evolve into a better critic.

Let’s explore this further. If we imagine that you have written an essay about ‘The Duchess of Malfi.’ For instance, “The Duchess of Malfi’ explores the problems for a woman living in a world ruled by men and masculine ideals. Discuss.” At this point, you may be thinking that you written to the best of your ability so how are you supposed to criticise it. Ironically, that is the point – to teach you how to criticise your own work so that you can improve upon it. It’s not easy and it can be downright frustrating too so let’s see how it can be clarified.

Look at your introduction. Is it clear which angle you are arguing from? For instance, the essay question is wide open to interpretation so have you made it obvious what you are focussing on? For instance, you could suggest that you need to define what the problems are and then you can judge how the play treats them. Ensuring that your argument is focussed is imperative. If it is loose then you can criticise that.

Look at your essay structure. Read through your essay again and ask yourself if your argument is convincing or could it be stronger? How could you have made it stronger? Look through your points and notice if you are using the same points more than once and are simply paraphrasing them. Go through the main body again and check if you have gone off on a tangent and brought in issues that are not relevant to your point.

Consider your use of text. When writing a literary essay, your main point of evidence is the text. Check all the quotations that you have used and then go through the actual text to see if there are any stronger pieces that could have been used.

Critical theory. Read how you have used secondary sources of critical theory again. For instance, if you used ‘Tragedy and Social Evolution’ by Eva Figes for the Duchess of Malfi essay, were you merely paraphrasing Figes? If so, you could suggest how you could critically analyse her theory about the Jacobean revenge tragedy. By doing this, you are demonstrating that since you wrote your essay you have learned to distinguish between simply reiterating academics’ theories and actively critically analysing both the text and how they think about it. At this point, you should congratulate yourself because great grades should be coming your way.

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