So I received an email from a listener, Maria Giulia in Italy, asking about how to prepare for the writing part of her English exam. So I thought it would be a good idea to give a few tips to you lovely listeners also, tips that are relevant for all English levels and tests. I think writing is one of the areas that it is easiest to improve in English, it´s like a big formula, you just need to know the formula for each type of writing and then on the day of the exam it´s just a matter of changing the language to suit the question. Before you start preparing, its very important to understand how your writing is going to be marked. Different English exams have slightly different methods but they all want to see the same things more or less.
So to start, you have to get your content right. This means that you have to answer the question or questions that you are being asked. This sounds really basic but it´s amazing the amount of writings I´ve seen where students have done a very well written piece of writing but don´t answer what the question has asked. So for instance, if you are asked to write a review of a restaurant, commenting on the food and the service and if the restaurant would be suitable for tourists, and you only comment on the food and the service, then you will not receive full marks , no matter how brilliant your English is. Conversely, if you do a writing where your English isn´t great then you can still pick up maximum marks for content if you answer all of the questions to a satisfactory level. So when you read your exam task make sure to underline the different things you are being asked and plan how you are going to include each one.
Style and Format
Ok, secondly you have to make sure you are writing in the correct style and format. That means that if you are writing a proposal to a town council for example, that you are using formal language and you have the correct format for a proposal which is with a title and usually sub-headings. It´s crucial to know what is required for each of the different types of writing as they all require different conventions. You can usually find this information at the back of any good textbook and this needs to be studied and you need to practice it a number of times so that on the day of the exam you know that for X type of writing you need to begin with X and finish with Y.
Next you have organisation. Is your writing divided in the correct number of paragraphs and are those paragraphs structured well, beginning with a topic sentence and being backed up with some examples, or contrasts. As you are all probably aware English examiners love connectors so your writings should have a nice range of connectors, no repeats, and you will have to tailor them depending if you have a formal or informal writing.
Vocabulary and Grammar
Lastly you have the language, which is basically vocabulary and grammar. So in terms of vocabulary your writing should include some topic relevant vocabulary. For example, if you are writing about the environment you should have things like greenhouse gases, global warming, carbon footprint, deforestation, Greta Thunberg, all of that stuff. Also examiners tend to like big words, so maybe instead of something like I was satisfied, you could say I got a lot of satisfaction. At higher levels you should be trying to include things like compound nouns and adjectives, idioms, expressions, and phrasal verbs are a must for all levels. Relating to grammar, you should have some advanced grammar structures in your writing to impress the examiner. At a B2 level you should have passive voice, reported speech, mixed conditionals, that kind of stuff. At a C1 and C2 level you should have inversions, participle clauses, cleft sentences, inverted conditionals and so on.
It´s best to think of this before you start writing, to ensure that you can squeeze them in somewhere into your writing, which brings me to the question of planning. I´m a big fan of planning your writing. I feel that this way it is easier to guarantee that you get all of that fancy vocab and grammar into your text. It´s worth taking 5 minutes before you start writing to do a rough paragraph plan and brainstorm all of the nice connectors, expressions, advanced conditionals, etc that you are going to get into your piece. Having said that, some of the best writings I have received from students in the past are from people who don´t do a plan, but they are the exception, it is definitely more common to see people who don´t plan not doing great writings.
Some people also want to know how many different types of writing should I study, can I just study the essay and the letter. My advice, obviously, is to study and practice them all. The more you know, the more options you have on the day. If you really struggle with maybe one of the options then ok, skip that, but I would really advise against skipping any more than that.
Another common question is whether to use a dictionary or not. I´m all in favour of using a writing guide as well as a dictionary when you are starting out and you´re exam is in the distant future. It´s a super way to acquire new vocabulary and to put into practice all of that boring grammar that you´ve been studying. Needless to say, the closer you get to the exam the less assistance you want to use. And also, you want to start putting yourself under time pressure. Try to stick to the same time that you are given in the exam.
Which brings me to the last point which is practice. I know from personal experience of preparing from Spanish exams that writing can sometimes be the last thing that you want to do, because it is so time consuming, it´s much easier to do a reading or some grammar exercises. But in order to feel comfortable on the day of the exam you have to know exactly how you are going to structure your writing, what your first sentence is going to be in each writing, what grammar and vocab are you going to include, if it´s formal or informal, what connectors you are going to add, all of that kind of stuff. And the way to feel comfortable, is to have done loads of practice beforehand, right! You literally can´t do too much, the more the better. So make your English teacher earn their money and give them plenty of your masterpieces to review. Also, for the more frequent topics like technology, the environment, education, that kind of stuff make sure you have a nice list of fancy words that you can include on the day of the exam. That way when you have to write, say, an essay about technology, then you know ok I´m going to write these ten words, those 2 phrasal verbs, that conditional, this inversion, 4 paragraphs, this opening sentence, that conclusion, those connectors, and it´s just a matter of piecing your formula together and you´re gonna blow that examiners mind, right! Easy peasy, in theory!
Ok guys, I hope I´ve covered most of the doubts you have. I´ll post the transcript of this in the blog on the Real Exam English website, realexamenglish.com and feel free to comment at the end of the page, to let me know what you think or if you have questions. Also, in the shownotes on the podcast and on the blog I will include links to the Cambridge teachers handbooks for B2, C1 and C2 levels, they have excellent advice as well as a bunch of sample writings along with the examiners marks so you can see what scores well with the examiners and what doesn´t.
Links to Cambridge Teachers Handbooks