I’m often asked about tips for writing essays, particularly for exams. There is a section on this in my book, Advanced Writing Skills, but it’s such a universal topic I thought it would be good to share the general advice here.
Planning to Succeed
Writing for exams requires specific skills fitting to the particular format of the exam. In fact, writing well for exams is typically not a reflection of fluency, but more a case of practice within the exam constraints. This practice will hopefully translate to your wider use of English, but everyday English alone is not always enough to perform well in an exam.
Practising effective exam writing requires timed conditions. Plan how to use your time in logical, detailed chunks. Assign time for planning and checking your work. Both of these are as valuable as the time allocated for writing itself. Also be aware, before starting, how much time each question should need, based on how much they are worth.
For an example of allocating time, consider a typical IELTS format:
Writing Exam – 60 minutes
Task 1 – Write a summary of a graph (20 minutes)
Task 2 – Write an essay discussing an opinion point (40 minutes)
The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam scores each question on the IELTS band system and combines the scores proportionately. As Task 2 is worth more points, you are advised to spend more time on it. With 60 minutes available, it is possible to easily break this down using five-minute chunks – this would be a typical way to do it:
IELTS Writing Plan
- 5 min Plan Task 1
- 10 min Write Task 1
- 5 min Edit Task 1
- 5 min Plan Task 2
- 10 min Write Task 2 Paragraph 1
- 10 min Write Task 2 Paragraph 2
- 10 min Write Task 2 Paragraph 3
- 5 min Edit Task 2
The specifics may vary within a given exam (in an IELTS Task 2 question, you may need more than three paragraphs, for example), but even sticking to broad guidelines like this will ensure you have enough time to finish and edit your work.
Applied Writing Skills
Selecting and presenting information in the way expected of an exam is a specific skill. In English exams, you will be expected to use phrases relevant to the topic or task, such as comparative language for discussing a graph or persuasive language for arguing a point. In exams for other subjects, language will be expected that is relevant to the topic: expect to use specialist language in essays, such as medical terms in medical writing or accurate names and dates in history essays. For every important exam, you will find a wealth of study material available to demonstrate what is expected.
The more specific your language is, the more efficient your writing will be, and the more convincing your points. Sometimes the most important step towards presenting the right information is knowing what you can leave out. In the IELTS Task 1, for example, when presented with a complicated flow diagram, you can decide which points are the most important and summarise the remaining details, to complete the exam in time.
To achieve maximum marks, the information you present, and how you present it, should fit the expectations of the exam rather than your personal preference. As well as writing in a neutral style, you may be expected to give a balanced argument. If asked to discuss something in positives and negatives (which most discussion essays require), to include only the positives or only the negatives, or to present a biased summary of either, will cost you marks. Remember your purpose in an exam is to score well, not to champion any particular cause. Positives and negatives can, of course, be presented strongly, but be sure to demonstrate an understanding of how the other side could be argued.
Also remember that tone of voice is important in exams, particularly in language-based exams. Exams are typically formal, though more flexible when answering opinion-based questions. Colloquial language, phrasal verbs, and idiomatic expressions are typically best avoided, unless they somehow fit the purpose of the exam (for example, an English essay reflecting natural use, like writing a letter to a friend).
Be warned, English language exams in particular may reward a variety of correctly used phrases to demonstrate an understanding of English in use. This goes against my general advice that clear and efficient language is best, as some exams reward uncommon and advanced English. However, this is an example of how important it is to know the expectations of a particular exam. Study your exams’ marking criteria to find out if demonstrating complex language use, or including certain types of language, is required.
The final, crucial step in practising for exams is getting feedback. Writing is a subjective field, but within exams there are certain criteria that must be satisfied, and in many cases only a trained eye can tell you where your exam writing needs improvement. You can read practice exam examples, but there is no substitute for someone with the right experience looking at your work and advising you on improvements.
Hopefully these tips help but the main overall advice I can leave you with is this: first, get to fully understand the exam, then practice, practice, practice.
This is an abridged version of the advice offered in my book, Advanced Writing Skills, do check out the book if you’d like more tips on improving writing skills in different areas.