Note: this is a re-run (or updated version) of a post from my previous site/blog, so if it feels a bit déjà vû, it’s not you: it’s me.
As teachers, we’re pre-programmed to sigh – or roll our eyes – when students write or say that fateful phrase ‘it makes the reader read on’. But here’s the thing: when we’re talking about things like chapter ends, cliffhangers and clever titles, writers DO choose things to keep us reading. After all ‘page-turner’ or ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is a compliment for a book, right? So why is it such a banned phrase in GCSE English?
The trouble is, when we’re analysing, we’re looking at the micro level – or at least we’re supposed to be. The way to show you can do this is to comment on the effect of the features and words the writer has chosen, and the problem with ‘it makes the reader read on’ is that it isn’t specific enough to show your skills.
What I mean by this is that this fateful phrase – and others like it (‘it puts a picture in the reader’s mind’; ‘it makes the poem flow’; it helps you understand the writer’s view’) – doesn’t tell you anything about the feature, word or phrase you’ve chosen to comment on. It could be said about anything good in a text. And if that’s true, it’s not worth your time saying it.
Look at this simile: “solitary as an oyster” You may recognise it as describing Ebenezer Scrooge in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. If you say it ‘helps us understand his character’ or it ‘makes the reader read on’, you’re not showing the examiner anything about your understanding of this image. It could just as easily be said of any other character detail.
However, there are various more specific things you might say that would help you – and earn marks – such as ‘the simile suggests that Scrooge is closed off to people’, or ‘Dickens uses this image to show how Scrooge may have something of value inside him, like a pearl in an oyster’. Either, or both, of these points are valid interpretations of this simile – and could be credited in a question about how Scrooge is presented (or similar relevant topic). The key is: make what you’re saying specific. Does it explain THIS quote/ image/ feature? If not, have another think.