For those of you having to take a writing test, these are some of the tips I can think of:
- Before you start writing, think:
What text type is it? (Is it an article, a discursive essay, an opinion essay, a report, a formal letter, a letter of complaint, a review…?)
Please read the question carefully, and answer the question: do not give general views on a general topic/do not go off-topic. [For example, if you are asked to write an article discussing the potential consequences of most workers working remotely, please do not write an essay on the advantages and disadvantages of remote working; if the question is ‘What would happen if cars were banned from cities to curb the effects of climate change?’ do not talk about climate change in general and say that ‘governments should take the bull by the horns and do something’ (that’s a platitude)- discuss the implications of the situation you have been given].
2. Remember to make paragraphs to make your ideas clear; to use C1-level discourse markers, signposting language and linking words; and to use the right punctuation.
3. Regarding your range of language: yes, please, do show that your English is up to C1. If your structures, grammar and vocabulary are too basic/easy, you will be graded down in that area, as well as, probably, in terms of the general impression you will make on the reader/examiner. Having said that, however, please do not overuse sayings and idioms, especially if they are not suitable to the context. Together with that, do not use showy language just because, just to show off, but without any actual relevance to what you are trying to say.
Let me give you an example. Imagine you had to write an article about overprotective parents, and the effects this overprotection may have on children’s future development. What would you say about this extract?
The topic of parents who are overprotective is a hot potato, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, some parents can be afraid that something is going to happen to their children, so they protect them too much. On the other hand, not all that glitters is gold, and children can become too dependent on their parents.
If I were in the government’s shoes, I would grab the bull by the horns and take action to convince parents that children should have some freedom.
As I see it, several problems spring to mind:
- hot potato, not all that glitters is gold, if I were in the government’s shoes, grab the bull by the horns…yes, this student has used lots of ‘interesting’ expressions (very popular with 90% of students lately, I have to say). Are they relevant at all to what they are saying (or to the topic in hand)?
- The topic of overprotective parents- is it really, really a hot potato (look up definition here as well)? Think carefully before you actually use it. Not every debatable subject is actually a ‘hot potato’. There might be two sides to the argument, of course, but I wouldn’t say it is ‘highly controversial’. (The lifting of COVID restrictions; compulsory use of face masks/coverings; the economical policies implemented; the role of the monarchy in contemporary Spain…these are, in my view, ‘hot potatoes’ now).
- This is not actually a discursive essay, so there is no need to discuss the advantages and disadvantages. Focus on the effects it might have on children instead (this is what you are being asked to do).
- ‘All that glitters is gold’ Why? Has this student mentioned any really positive aspect/asset before? Unless you have just mentioned anything which looks very attractive/is a positive asset/ will bring about a positive outcome…that idiom is not really relevant. (As with any other idiom, they are great, but make sure you use them in the right context!)
- In this particular context, is the government actually required to do anything? (And in any case, in this context, you could have also used the expressions ‘take swift action’, ‘make a (bold) move’, ‘take decisive action’, ‘implement new policies…’)
Please, do not take me wrong: teachers do love to read/hear lovely language, expressions…we love to use our green pens to underline/highlight beautiful language being used by our students. I’m not saying you should not use these expressions you have learned, not at all! Just make sure you are using them in the right context.
4. Do not use idioms in formal writing (never use them, for example, in a formal letter or report). They tend to be used in informal language. They are not considered ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ if you are addressing, for example, someone you do not know, or someone who holds some power over you. In Spanish, for example, if you are writing a formal email to the head of a company you would not say, probably, things such as ‘este ordenador me ha costado un ojo de la cara’ or ‘hay que llamar al pan, pan , y al vino, vino’. You would not be striking the right tone. The same applies to phrasal verbs: please do not use them in clearly formal pieces of writing.
5. Do not use contractions in formal writing. Contractions are a reflection of what happens in connected speech (when you are talking). However, they are not appropriate for formal pieces of writing. They might be used in an opinion article, for example, if there are parts of it where you are intentionally addressing the reader in an informal way because you want to create a certain effect of familiarity. However, if you are not sure whether you could be using contractions or not, be on the safe side: do not use them.
You can have a look at these three sample annotated articles from a British newspaper. The yellow highlight indicates there is a contraction; green is used to highlight interesting (formal) language; finally, words/expressions underlined or circled with a purple marker are examples of informal (sometimes strong) language. [*I would advise you against using strong language yourselves]:
- Fit in my 40s: learning the cricket basics is full of surprises– source
- My English will never be ‘perfect’ – and that’s what keeps a language alive– source
- Why be a performative Insta parent when your kids will be happy in front of the TV- source
6. Please , proofread your writing task before you hand it in. Watch out for:
- awful mistakes (3rd person singular present simple, ‘people’ as a plural word, verb tenses and patterns…). You can see a list of these “awful” “scary” mistakes here.
- slips of the pen
- spelling mistakes
- Writing an essay (C1/C2)
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