by Aggie Chapman

For some reason, writing tends to be the least liked skill of many students. Whenever I do writing practice with my students, there is usually an audible moan coming from the classroom. Try as I may to smuggle it into the lesson, the students are no more than lukewarm when it comes to doing the writing. We can be doing all kind of fun activities that prepare them for the main bit, the moment they find out that we are going to do writing, their faces inevitably drop. Why is that? I think the main reason here is that in general, we don’t really write a lot these days, do we? Many people are completely out of habit of writing in their own language, which makes the idea of doing it in a foreign language even more daunting. 

To be honest, it was part of my motivation to set up this blog – to make sure that I do some writing on a regular basis. It definitely helps, like any skill – the more we practice, the better it gets. It’s that simple. 

If you are preparing for any formal exam, you know that writing is going to be a part of it and unlike some other tasks, there are hardly any tricks or techniques that you can apply here. Although, I think that I might have an idea up my sleeve that can make your life a tiny bit easier, but only if you take care to get familiar with the type of the text, the style / register (formal or informal) and make sure that your language level is what it should be.

Personally, I am very visual, so pictures and colours work miracles for me. I thought I’d use them to prepare a check list for the writing task and each of the texts included in the Cambridge exams. Below you’ve got a picture showing the things you absolutely have to remember when doing any writing task. 

Now, let’s explain what it is all about. Here’s the key to the pictures and labels: 

The question – it goes without saying that we need to read the question before writing, but you wouldn’t believe how many students end up answering the wrong question, or not fully answering it. That’s why the highlighter’s there! OK, a pen or a pencil will do just as good a job, but the point is to underline or highlight the key parts of the instructions. In Cambridge exams there are some elements that you must include in the task – highlight them so you don’t miss any. Do the same with all the most important information. 

Plan – before you write, make a short plan. Not a draft of the text, but a few notes to organise the text and avoid crossing bits out and correcting all the time. It should be just the main ideas plus how you can develop them. Perhaps add some good examples of vocabulary that will impress the examiner. The plan work as a checklist – you can tick things off as you are writing. 

Paragraphs – use them! There is no other way to organise your text logically. A big block of text won’t make a good impression or get a good mark for organisation. The overall organisation will depend on the particular text, but as rule of thumb the paragraphs in your text will be:

1)     Introduction (ALWAYS!) – introduce the topic before going into details

2)     Idea 1  

 3)     Idea 2

4)     Idea 3  

5)     Conclusion / Closing paragraph – a summary of what you wrote earlier in the text

Linkers –  they make sure that your text is well connected. Each paragraph of the body will describe a different idea, but they are all parts of one whole. Using linkers (and / because / as a result / then / what’s more/ etc.) shows that all elements belong to the text and what the relationships between them are. As long as you use them correctly, linking expressions act as glue for your text! 

Proofread – I know that reading the text you’ve just finished writing is the last thing you want to do. You want to just hand it in. Take a moment longer, though, and read it to make sure you have not forgotten anything. Check all the spelling and grammar – cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s! Writing to time pressure makes it very likely that you’ll forget a word or miss adding an “-s” in the third person singular – or make other mistakes in things that you know very well! Another thing you can see when re-reading the text is if you don’t repeat the same words, expressions or information. Remember – better safe than sorry!

So, in a nutshell, this is the “trick” that can help you nail the writing paper. As you can see, I’ve only used one hand here – it’s meant to be your dominant one. The idea behind it is that you use your dominant hand to keep the checklist for all kinds of writing, and you can use the other hand for a checklist for the kind of text you are going to write. 

What do you think of this technique? Let me know in the comment! 

You can find more information about exam writing in my books: 

available here

available here

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