1. Read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read
What does this mean? It means that you should go back and read the paragraph you have just written before you start the next one. You may think that this is a waste of time. If so, you’d be wrong.
– It’s important to link your paragraphs together
– what more practical way to do that than just read what you have written?
– It helps you with words for the next paragraph – it is good to repeat some words as this improves your coherence.
2. Don’t be smart, be clear – select your best idea
The practical advice here is to select your best idea and write about that. That means not writing everything you know – leave some ideas out. Don’t worry if it is not your best explanation, worry about whether it is your clearest explanation.
3. Write about what you know – relax about ideas
This is a similar idea. Some people stress about finding ideas. They shouldn’t. The ideas you need are generally simple (eg”I disagree”, “This is not a good idea”).
The practical solution is to think about what YOU know and what YOUR experience is. If you look at the question, this is what it tells you to do. If you come from Bonn, write about Bonn; if you come from Ulan Bator, write about Ulan Bator!
4. Examples are easier to write than explanations
You want to make things as easy for yourself as possible. One practical idea to achieve this is to focus as much on examples as explanations when you write. Why?
It’s simply harder if you only think “because”. Some of the ideas may be very complex and, under pressure, it can be difficult to explain these with reasons. What may happen is that your sentences become too long and the ideas confused. The practical bit is to concentrate as much on examples. This is a good idea as examples tend to be easier to write as you are simply describing situations. All you need to do is make sure that your examples are relevant to the main idea.
5. Don’t write too much – the examiner is paid by the minute
Examiners will only spend so much time looking at any essay. Write too much and they will read what you wrote “less carefully”.
The more you write, the more likely you are to make language mistakes.
The more you write, the more likely you are to go off topic. The examiner won’t read/grade anything that doesn’t directly relate to the question.
If you write less, you give yourself more time to choose the best words – and that’s what you are being graded on.
If you write less, you give yourself more time to go back and check what you have written.
6. Writer – know yourself
The idea is that you should check for your mistakes when you write. The practical part here is that you shouldn’t check for mistakes generally. The really practical thing is to have your own checklist in your head before you start writing.
7. See the whole essay in your head before you start writing
It’s very important that your essay is a whole – that all the bits fit together. If you don’t do that, you may lose significant marks for both coherence and task response.
This means planning of course. Planning bothers some people and bores others. There are different ways to do this, but at the very least have a map of your essay in your head.
8. Focus on the backbone of your essay
This is a related point. All the essay matters of course, but perhaps some bits matter more than others. I’d suggest the practical thing to do is concentrate on the backbone of your essay, the bits that help you write better and the examiner to understand better. The backbone is: The introduction: this should identify the question and outline your position. Don’t rush it as it is the first thing the examiner will read. First impressions count.
The first/topic sentences of each paragraph: these should be clear and to the point. They should identify exactly what that paragraph is about and show how it relates to the rest of the essay. The practical tip is to keep the detail/clever ideas for the body of the paragraph. Start off general and then build towards the specific.
The conclusion: this is the easiest part of the essay normally. Most often, all you need to do is go back to the introduction and rephrase it.
Get these bits right and the rest of the essay tends to take care of itself.
9. Don’t just practice whole essays
You do need to practise writing complete essays, but it may be a mistake to do only that. The different part of essays require slightly different skills. To write an introduction, you need to be able to paraphrase the question. To write a body paragraph, you need to be able to explain ideas. To write a conclusion, you need to be able summarise. The practical suggestion is to practise writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions separately. Focus on skills.
10. Focus on the question and refocus on the question
Leaving this one to last as it is the most important idea. Essays go wrong for different reasons. Some of these you may not be able to avoid: the quality of your English may not be good enough yet. The one mistake you can always avoid is that you didn’t answer the question. Too many essays go wrong because candidates didn’t read and think about the question properly. The practical suggestion: before you write each paragraph, refer back to the question to remind yourself about what you are meant to write about.
You may start off on topic, then you have a “good idea” as you write. So you write about that. Sadly, that “good idea” may not fully relate to the question. Big problem.