On the eleventh day of Geekmas, teflgeek gave to me:  11 tips for writing

Welcome to the teflgeek Christmas celebration!  Themed around the classic Christmas carol – but going backwards, mostly because it’s more like a countdown that way:

12 blogs worth clutching

11 tips for writing

Although to be more accurate this should be called “11 tips to give your students to help them develop their writing (for exam classes)”, but again, that just wouldn’t scan properly…

Teachers – feel free to cut and paste and print out (some editing may be required!)

  1. Read the question!  It shouldn’t need saying and I’d be willing to bet this is a constant cri-de-coeur for many a teacher, but failure to read the question – or more importantly failure to respond to the required aspects of the question – is what costs learners the most marks.  Cambridge exams are lovely and kind.  They tell you what to write about – massive amounts of thought not required – just good identification technique….. (see below)
  2. What’s important here?  Every question has “content points”.  If you miss one you fail.  But on the plus side they’re easy to spot – they usually appear in sentences that read:  “You should write about….”  /  “Include information on”.  Or sometimes they have little arrows pointing to them (only in part one).  Teachers – give your learners a copy of the sample writing paper from the handbook and a highlighter pen – take the time to go through it step by step.  It won’t be wasted time.
  3. Don’t get word fear!  Word fear is when learners worry too much about how many words they need to write.  Key symptoms include:  (a)  obsessively counting the number of words they’ve written to make sure they have enough.  (b)  Using a lengthy and inappropriate style to try and increase the number of words in a sentence.  (c) adding additional random sentences and paragraphs to the end of your text upon realising they don’t have enough content.  There is a simple cure:  relax.  No-one’s going to count the number of words.  Examiners have lives too!  Besides – the only true way to eradicate word fear is in proper planning.
  4. PPPPP – PROPER PLANNING PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE.  Very very few learners actually plan their writing.  This also explains why very very few learners get top grades for exam writing.  Having insisted all my learners submit a plan along with their compositions, I was once accosted by a worried student before class:  “I’m really sorry I haven’t finished it all.  I can give you the essay now, but can I give you the plan next lesson?”  I don’t insist anymore.  If you can’t be bothered, then fine.  It doesn’t work for everybody, and I hope you’re happy with your “c” grade.
  5. Know your genre.  Again, it seems silly to state it so obviously, but learners need to know what the different texts types (a) look like, (b) feature stylistically.  If learners have a clear visual representation of the text type, it makes the planning process easier.  I tend to do block diagrams of the different text types as a labelling task, so that learners get a clear idea of what all the different sections involve.  This then leads into a language matching task, with key phrases matched to the relevant sections.
  6. Who’s the reader?  A mistake that many writers make is in mis-imagining the reader.  A letter for publication in a newspaper or magazine is written as personal correspondence between the writer and the editor – but not written for the wider audience who’ll read the published letter.  Another common fault is writing for the Examiner, not for the target reader.  Knowledge of who the reader is also affects register choice (as well as genre does).
  7. Leave a blank line.  This is possibly a personal bugbear of mine, but I speak as someone who’s sat down and gone slightly insane whilst attempting to mark over a 150 FCE writing scripts in a single afternoon (with some help).  The blank line is a psychological trick.  Learners need to leave one blank line between each section of their writing text as it is more pleasing to the eye, clearly indicates attempted paragraphing (and hence organisation, even if the organisation doesn’t actually exist) and basically puts the examiner in a much better frame of mind.  Generally, you want a better disposed examiner marking your paper – they tend to give higher marks!  (Apparently research bears this out, but I don’t know whose.)
  8. Don’t draft – plan.  It’s not unknown for learners to write out an entire first draft of a text and then copy it out again neatly.  Fine, if you can get away with it and not run out of time, but why go to all the trouble of doing twice the work?  Couldn’t you just do the work once, but twice as well?  If you plan, you don’t need to draft (at least not in an exam situation).  Also, planning gets rid of all those unsightly crossing outs and substitutions and insertions.  If you know what you want to say before you start writing…..
  9. A brief note on paragraphs.  Earlier, I may have given the impression that a paragraph is a collection of words separated from a similar collection of words by one blank line.  Psychological trickery will only get you so far – there does also need to be some substance behind the style.  In an attempt to help with paragraph structure, I’ve been talking to my learners about TARS – Topic Sentence / Argument / Reason / Specific Example.  As a basic paragraph structure it works quite neatly, though obviously there are variations…
  10. It’s the way you tell ’em.  With some answers, you feel really engaged, as though the writer really cares about the topic and wants to share that with you.  With others, you feel as though the writer is going through the motions.  And let’s face it – why shouldn’t they?  It’s an artificial situation that wouldn’t occur to them in the real world.   But to get the top marks, the writing needs to make the reader feel loved.
  11. Role play it then write it.  Which is why, I like converting writing tasks into role plays.  If, for example, a task asks the learners to write a report for the principal on the use of technology in the college, it can be nice to put half the class in the position of the principal and half in the position of the writer and ask them to converse on the topic.  It can give both parties a new appreciation of the roles and requirements of the task!