Sunday, 22 November 2020

How can we use sonnets to teach non-fiction?

The sonnet, for me, represents the perfect structure of a literature text. A perfect structure that allows for flexibility yet maintains a high degree of control at the same time. You have an idea and then  you explore the opposite or a part of the idea. Then, you top it off with an inversion of the original idea. Simply put: idea, but and however. A sonnet is a thing of beauty. Yet, when we come to non-fiction we lack anything close to this level of control, structure or even beauty when getting student to write non-fiction.

Whilst storytelling is in our blood, non-fiction writing isn’t. I love it, but mostly I am in the minority. There are, for me, some problematic ideas surrounding the writing of non-fiction, which along the years have been stumbling blocks for students and ultimately the writing process. Here are some of things I recommend teachers to think of in planning the teaching of non-fiction:


We’ve got into our heads, collectively, that planning for non-fiction involves writing loads of ideas down on the paper. Ideas. The plural. If I am honest, when I write this blog I have one idea. I sit on that idea, like a hen and wait for it to hatch. Yet, we get students to rush to get them down on the paper. Come on Frank: bullet point your ideas on the page. We probably say: ‘List all your ideas down on the page.’ We talk of ideas in the plural rather than the singular. Writers take a germ of an idea and develop it. That’s why some students go blank, because there is a false expectation for lots of ideas to be produced in the planning stage. They think they cannot do it because they can only think of one idea.

We must challenge the (singular) idea. Look at any editorial piece. You’ll see that it focuses on one idea rather than cover every possible thread and perspective on an issue.

What if, like a sonnet, students structure their whole text around one idea? Then the writing is about developing that idea.  

Structuring ideas  

Students default to listing ideas naturally in non-fiction writing. One idea … Another idea… A final idea … Sadly, this creates no cohesion in a text. You simply have different floating ideas in a sea and the only thing that ties them together are discourse markers – and those are particularly loose. There’s no development and that’s what is needed. More ideas don’t develop or extend an idea. They water them down instead.

Here something I have shared with students:

There are number of ways that you could develop an argument.

·       Pick an aspect of the idea and investigate it – Parents track our bedtime, our meals, our free time.

·       Give a hypothetical situation or scenario – Imagine parents being tracked.

·       Explore the end consequences of the issue - There will be no surprises. No surprise visits. No surprise presents. Everything becomes predictable.

·       Draw attention to the flaws or weaknesses Phones are easily lost, forgotten or stolen.

·       Share the emotional impact – Freedom is precious, but parents are looking to rip that away from young people.

·       Share a history of the issue – Parents since the dawn of time have always wanted to know where their child is and what they are up to.

·       Define or give a clarification of something people might not know – Tracking means watching and following the movement of a person.

 The connection between paragraphs is explicit. What are you doing with the original idea? It is not adding another idea to dwarf the previous one. You are building cohesion across the text. They are doing something purposeful with the idea and avoiding the ‘next please’ principle.

 What if, like a sonnet, students worked on the relationship between the idea and the however element? What if we looked at how to create a volta within the flow of ideas?  



Counterarguments in my personal opinion are subtle and tiny things that are sneaked into a piece of writing. They are not a juggernaut for shaping an argument, yet they’ve become behemoths for non-fiction writing. When you are spending time teaching students to communicate an idea, you then go tell them to water it down with other perspectives. When you want students to convince a reader of an idea, we then get them to think about another perspective and another way of seeing things.  I shudder when I see the words ‘for’ and ‘against’ when used in association with non-fiction writing. That is cause to explore and water down thinking.

What if, like a sonnet, students work on just expressing their voice and opinion?  



Quite a few years back, I got rid of the idea of teaching the writing triplets. The National Curriculum created triplets around writing. Instead of writing, students would write to argue, persuade or advise. Teachers would ensure they taught students how to argue, persuade and advise for exams. This created a huge problem. The emphasis was on the features associated with those fictious writing styles rather than develop and extending thinking and ideas. I, you can give me a squillion pounds now DfE, reduced all of them to the concept and word: ‘convince’. Convince the reader to agree with your perspective. Naturally, when we convince we argue, persuade, advise, inform, describe, explain, narrate all at the same time. Like the zords in Power Rangers they combine together in that one concept. Teach students to convince a reader and the rest follows.

 What if, like a sonnet, students work on convincing the reader to their way of thinking?


Fluffy writing

Through secondary schooling, there is a snowball effect on writing. Students get good at writing in a particular style of writing. I tend to call it ‘beige writing’. That’s how they can include ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ repeatedly in their writing. It also includes classics such as ‘one reason’ and ‘another reason’. The writing is pretty formulaic. That’s because it is a formula that works for most lessons and that’s fine, but the problem that this is the default method for writing. Students get story writing is different so that isn’t a problem, but non-fiction writing gets sucked up by their functionary style of writing. It is the default writing style which is easy and automatic. That means with non-fiction writing we need to spend more time breaking the ‘default writing style’ and focus more on writing with more clarity.

What if, like a sonnet, students work on communicating that one idea in the most succinct and effective way?

There’s a lot we can use from sonnet when teaching students how to write a piece of non-fiction. For me a sonnet represents everything we are aiming for with writing. Focus. Depth. Clarity. Structure.

For too long we’ve looked at non-fiction in terms of pretty baubles that will make the writing look impressive. Maybe, we need to go back to the beginning. Non-fiction is about communicating an idea. A real idea. We need to get back to communicating things clear and succinctly. A sonnet does it, so why can a piece of non-fiction do it?


Thanks for reading,




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