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Three tips on writing a great essay!

Essay writing is a tough skill to master, even in your first language. Being able to write good essays in a foreign language, then, is even more challenging. However, IELTS, TOEFL, the Cambridge exams and many others all test candidates on their ability to write an essay so if you are working for an exam, or even just considering it, this is a skill you will need to master. In this post, I share three tips for how you can learn how to write great essays!

  1. Paragraph Structure

The biggest single problem I see in student essay writing is undoubtedly structure. Although most people understand that they need an introduction, conclusion and main body paragraphs, the structure of those components can be quite poor. This can be due to a number of factors such as:

  • differences between paragraph structures in your first language and those in English

  • trying to fit too many ideas into one paragraph

  • lacking a clear topic for the paragraph

  • focusing on 'advanced' vocabulary and grammar at the expense of structure

To be blunt, if your paragraphs are not well-structured, no matter how advanced your vocabulary or how clever your grammar, your ideas will not shine through and the paragraph will be hard to read.

There are numerous ways you can organise paragraphs and I am not going to go into details about this here. However, at the very least, you need to have a topic sentence that outlines what the paragraph will be about, and two or three sentences that give information about the topic. I have highlighted the topic sentences in my paragraphs in this section of the post so that you can see them easily. Can you notice how they introduce the topic and then how I add more information afterwards?

When I am teaching exam writing, I teach unique paragraph structures for each exam. I do this because the exams are asking you to do slightly different things. In addition, because exam essay questions tend to be formulaic, particularly in the case of the Cambridge exams, you can learn a formula to your essay structure as well as the structure within each paragraph. This will ensure that you are able to fully answer the question. Once you are familiar with the structure, then you can focus on upgrading your vocabulary and grammar as necessary.

  1. Practice essay-writing 'subskills'

Many exam candidates practice essay writing by writing lots of essays. While it is essential that you do this, particularly as you get closer to your exam date, you also need to practice the different skills that go into essay writing. This is something I believe people do not do enough! Essay writing subskills might include:

  • generating ideas

  • planning the essay

  • having an adequate range of vocabulary

  • having the right level of grammatical awareness

  • structuring the introduction

  • structuring the main body paragraphs

  • structuring the conclusion

  • writing the right amount of words

  • writing the complete essay within the permitted time-frame

I think it is extremely helpful for candidates to work on these skills individually as well as in conjunction with one another. For example, if you struggle to generate ideas, you can practise this skill on its own. Find an essay question, or a whole load of questions, and practise coming up with ideas for them within a specific time-frame (5 minutes should be enough). Alternatively, if you find it challenging to write a great introduction for an IELTS Task One essay, find lots of Task One questions and practise writing introductions until it feels more natural.

You can think of essay writing as training for a marathon. If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn't run a whole marathon every day! You would have a training schedule that included different tasks on different days. Essay writing is the same. You don't always have to write a whole essay! It's okay to work on separate parts of the writing process.

  1. Read other people's essays

I have very clear ideas about how to write essays, but my ideas are definitely not the only ones that work! It's vital, therefore, that you expose yourself to other people's writing so that you can see what works (and copy it!) as well as what doesn't (and avoid it!).

Reading what other people write gives you great ideas into how you can write better essays. It shows you what's possible. Even better is to learn a little bit about the scoring criteria for your exam. You can do this by using one of the past paper books for the exam you are working towards. Read one of the model essays and grade it. Then, compare your grade with the examiner's. Note the differences.

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