by Aggie Chapman
Not a natural writer? You’re not alone! It’s probably the most disliked skill among students and exam candidates. Sadly, there’s no chance of it being removed from exams in the near future, but you may be glad to find out that despite not being keen on it, you can still produce an excellent text and get a good mark for it. All you need is a few tricks, plus, of course your language must be at the right level for the exam. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make any mistakes, only that they need to be the kind that are expected at the level of your exam. What’s the secret then
1. Know the structure of the texts you will be asked to write
For both IELTS and Cambridge exams you need to know how to write an essay. In IELTS you also must be able to read and describe data from the graph. In Cambridge exam you also have to know how to write an email, or letter, an article, a review, and for some exams a report and a story. Looks like a lot, but believe me, it’s doable! They all have distinct features that are easy to remember.
2. Approach the task analytically
When you see the question, you need to focus on two things – the type of the text and the topic.
Analyse the text thinking about the text features:
- My opinion
- General opinions
- Argument (opinion + example/explanation)
- Persuasive language
- Passive / impersonal structures
Letter / email
- Familiar /friendly language
- Advice / suggestions
- Direct questions
- Memorable / original opening (a surprise)
- Questions to the reader
- Informal, chatty style
- Personal opinions / experiences
Then concentrate on the topic and vocabulary connected with it:
Then spend a moment selecting the words and phrases useful for your text. Remember to include some impressive ones! After that draft a plan of the whole text, think about the functional language you need to include (phrases for giving opinions, connecting different parts of the text etc.). You will be amazed how smooth and easy writing the text will be now!
3. Have a ready template in your mind
While you can’t prepare the whole text, especially that you don’t know what type of text you’re going to write in part 2, you can have a ready-made framework. After you analyse the type of the text and the language you need, you can put it in the right frame.
Have a mental check list of typical beginnings, endings, and the language used in the particular kind of the text. You can easily do it if you find an example of the text, ideally on the topic that interests you. Spend a moment analysing its features – how it is structured, what language is used – formal, or informal, is the author conducting a dialogue with the reader, or is the text dry and impersonal? Working on an interesting topic will make it seem less hard work, so you’re in the right mindset to remember new language that you see in the text. New words and phrases will just stick in your memory – you like the topic, so you want to know how to speak about it in English. Also, as you see things in context, learning new vocabulary or phrases is a lot easier than memorising set phrases used in an essay or article that your teacher gives you in class.
4. Practise creating opening and closing sentences
You can’t predict the exact question you’ll see in the exam, but you can get a fair idea about the topics that can be used. If you go through past papers, or exam preparation materials, you will see what kind of questions tend to be asked and the topics. You don’t need to write the entire text, but try to write an opening and closing of the text as a practice activity. This will make it easier writing the real one in the exam. Push yourself (or ask your teacher to do so!) and do an exercise of creating opening and closing lines for various topics, especially the ones that you don’t like or find boring. While it’s not immediately appealing, it will quickly improve your writing skills and by the time you sit the exam, you will do it almost automatically. Make sure that the rest your text is written in a similar style, though. Be careful not to make it look like it’s been written by two different people!
5. Proofread your text when you’ve finished
Yes, for real. Much as you hate the thought of looking at your text after you’ve finished writing it – do it! Rest your eyes for a few second, close them or look around the room before going back to the text, then look one last time. Be very attentive to the spelling, grammar, and correct use of vocabulary, but don’t be tempted to change the major parts of the text. If you have planned it carefully before writing, it probably doesn’t need any last-minute modifications, especially that more often than not these make the text worse rather than better. Watch out for the repetitions – do you keep using the same a word or a phrase in the text? Try to replace it with a synonym – don’t hope that the person marking your writing won’t notice it, they will. Of course, you may not be able to find all the mistakes in the text, that’s fine. If you are trying to use high-level structures, mistakes may happen, and it’s not a problem. Though you may correct simple mistakes like a missing “-s” in present simple tense (e.g. he think, instead of he thinks). You may also be surprised to see that you omitted a word or part of a sentence somewhere, writing under time pressure. That’s your chance to correct it.
And that’s it, really. If you know what you’re asked to do, understand the structure of the text and have some useful, high-level phrases at hand, I’m sure your confidence in your writing skills will be much higher. Good luck!
You can read more about writing and the useful hand technique in The Secret to Writing in English Is at Your Fingertips! – available here.