Five Key Essay Writing Tips For Students


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Essay writing asks students to critically analyse arguments and write convincingly.   

Here we give you five tips to do this successfully…

 

  1. Understanding the question

If you don’t understand the question, then I’m afraid you have fallen at the first hurdle. Everything you do after this will be wide of the mark, so make sure you understand what the question is really asking.

The wording will give you the best indication of this. It may include words like ‘evaluate’, in which case you should be weighing up merits as well as shortcomings. Spend some time going over the question and thinking critically about what it is you’re going to do.

 

  1. Read widely

You need to know the key ideas and writings on the subject you’re arguing. This means you must read a lot. There is no escaping this.

Read from a variety of sources; historical essays, contemporary journals, newspaper articles, as well as primary sources. The greater the variety of reading material, the greater your understanding and your essay will be.

Tip: The balance of time spent reading versus writing should be heavily in favour of reading. Think long, work chop-chop.

 

  1. ‘Yes… No… But’

An essay is an argument. To know what you are arguing for, you must also know the arguments against your own position. This can be broken down (in a very simplistic form) to: ‘Yes, No, But’. This is the structure of your essay, sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion.

‘Yes’ – in favour of your position; ‘No’ – you outline the key points against your position; ‘But’ – you criticise the shortcomings of the ‘no’ position and bring further points in favour of your argument.

This is your plan and structure all in one. It’s a tried and trusted formula.

 

  1. Key sentences

Every paragraph you write should start with a sentence that gets to the point. This indicates to the reader what the following paragraph will argue. It’s very easy to get side-tracked as a writer, so you need to keep focus and bring the reader along with you at every stage.

Get to the point quickly then you can expand on the idea. The key sentence helps to signpost to the reader what’s coming next. It may sound obvious, but it is effective.

 

 

  1. If you can speak, you can write

The tendency for university students is to think that they have to use lots of long, academic-sounding words to get a good grade. But, using clear language helps get your argument across best. Being wordy for the sake of it only papers over the cracks.

When writing, imagine you’re talking to a close friend (or pet cat) who knows a little bit about the subject. If you can get your arguments over to them in a clear, concise and convincing way, then you can write: it’s the same.

The best writers do – and so should you.

5 Tips to Ace IELTS Letter Writing (Part 2)


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In the first part, we spoke of two tips to score well in the IELTS letter writing task: following letter-writing rules and adding finer details.  Here are three more:

 

  1. Fully develop bullet points

The letter-writing task in IELTS requires test takers to include specific information, which is generally presented in the form of three bullet points. Here’s a sample task:

 

 

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter

 

·         give contact details for when you are away

·         give instructions about how to care for your pet

·         describe other household duties

 

 

 

Remember, each bullet point has to be fully developed, so a passing reference wouldn’t be enough. For example, to fully extend the first bullet point, you could provide alternative ways of contacting you.

 

Example text

I’ll be staying at The Grand Hotel in Krakow, so you can always call me there, or leave a message if I’m out. If it’s something urgent though, I’d like you to ring my colleague Jake’s mobile, as I don’t have international roaming. I’ve jotted down the numbers on a sheet of paper and stuck it on the kitchen door so that you don’t lose them – we both know your memory isn’t great!  

 

  1. Keep the writing style consistent

The writing style you employ mainly depends on two factors: how well you are supposed to know the person you are writing to and why you are writing. It’s important that the style you use is consistent across the letter. In the above example, a reference to your friend’s poor memory lends the letter an informal feel. Further, the use of the exclamation mark at the end, and informal words such as jot down, help maintain the friendly tone.

 

  1. Produce a full, connected text

Your letter should be a full, connected text, which means use of bullet points or note form will attract an immediate penalty. While most candidates are aware of the importance of linking sentences within a paragraph, few think of establishing a connection between paragraphs. See if you can achieve this.

Most importantly, no matter how well-written your letter is, all that hard work will go down the drain if you don’t meet the word limit, so be sure to write more than 150 words.

 

So, follow these tips, and you’ll be on your way to doing well in the IELTS letter-writing task.

 

GLOSSARY

 

passing reference (to something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : brief mention (of something)
Example : The boss made a passing reference to lack of punctuality among staff.

 

employ
Form : verb
Meaning : to use something
Example : The police had to employ force to stop protesters from entering the mayor’s office.

 

lend
Form : verb
Meaning : to give a particular quality to something
Example : The minister’s presence will certainly lend the campaign some importance.

 

go down the drain
Form : phrase
Meaning : to be wasted
Example : If it rains, the sand castles will collapse, and all our hard work will go down the drain.

 

5 Tips to Ace the IELTS Letter Writing (Part 1)

 

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In the IELTS General Training format, test takers are given a situation and asked to respond to it by writing a letter, which may be informal, semi-formal, or formal.

 

Situations deal with everyday topics, such as writing to a friend about recent changes in your life, writing to a neighbour inviting them to an event, or writing to the council about some problem that people in your locality are facing.

 

Letter writing might look simple, but if IELTS test takers disregard certain aspects of the task, they could end up scoring a lower band than what they are capable of.

 

So, here are 5 tips to help you ace the letter writing task in IELTS…

 

  1. Follow general letter-writing rules

This task assesses the test taker’s ability to follow English letter-writing conventions, so it’s important that you provide enough evidence of it: start and end the letter appropriately, organise information logically, and use an appropriate style of writing.

 

For example, if the salutation at the beginning is Dear Sir or Madam, you should end the letter with something suitable, such as Yours faithfully. Similarly, a letter should have an opening sentence that is appropriate and sets the scene for what is to follow. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Formal Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with a meal I had at your restaurant last Friday.

Informal Dear Jane,

Thanks once again for agreeing to look after Bruno over the weekend – you’re a star!  

 

 

 

  1. Make your letter look authentic

You may be attempting this task as part of an exam, but the reader should still find your letter authentic. So, how do you do it? Simple! Keep adding finer details that make your letter believable. For instance, if you are asked to write to a friend inviting them to an event, make sure you add enough details about the location.

Bad example

The party is at a popular club in Central London.

 

Good example

The party is at the Grooves club in Leicester Square, London. It’s directly opposite the National Art Gallery, so you won’t miss it.

 

Remember, the more authentic your letter looks, the better your chances of getting a high score.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

disregard
Form : verb
Meaning : to not consider something as important or ignore
Example : Mary burnt after disregarding her mother’s advice to wear sunblock.

 

Ace (slang)
Form : verb
Meaning : to succeed/perform in a competitive situation
Example : Clive studied hard so I’m sure he’ll ace the exam.

 

convention
Form : noun
Meaning : A well-established rule
Example : Her novel doesn’t follow the narrative conventions of modern fiction.

 

 

 

set the scene (for something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to give someone enough information so that they understand what comes next
Example : He set the scene by telling us a bit about life in 19th-century New York.

 

authentic
Form : adjective
Meaning : The original / genuine
Example : Criminals try to make fake banknotes look as authentic as possible.

 

Handy Tips for Using Bullet Points

Image courtesy of Danel Solabarrieta (CC 2.0 Flickr)

 

These days people are too busy to read long texts, so improving readability has become important. Make content uncomplicated and interesting to read, and you may have the reader’s attention.

 

Bullet points can be very handy in this context, as they help break up clunky text into tidy chunks that are easy to take in. Use a bulleted list, and your text begins to look organised, with all the important points highlighted.

 

Though there are no hard and fast rules about using them, here are some tips to help you.

 

Keep it uniform

A bulleted list should be uniform. For example, make the text following all bullet points fragments, complete sentences, or questions; do not combine different forms.

 

Punctuate if necessary

Broadly speaking, if a bullet point is a complete sentence, it should begin with a capital letter and end in a full stop. On the other hand, if each bullet point comprises a fragment, these things don’t matter.

 

Avoid linking words

It is best to avoid linking words (e.g. firstly, secondly, thirdly), as they are unnecessary; bullet points naturally introduce a sense of structure to the text. Linking expressions, if added, may slow down the reading process, so leave them out.

 

Keep it short

Brevity is the key to making bullet points noticeable, so avoid making them extremely long. Ideally, bullet points shouldn’t look like paragraphs. Remember, the longer the text following a bullet point, the lower its impact.

 

Create parallel lists

Try to have similar-looking words at the beginning of each bullet point – for instance, start with action verbs or nouns. That way, it is much easier for the reader to follow the text.

 

Use numbers if necessary

If you have a lot to include, say more than five points, it may be better to have a numbered list instead of a bulleted one.  The reader can then easily refer to each point by quoting the corresponding number.

 

Overall, there’s no doubt that bullet points can make content attractive and easy to read, but overuse will most certainly lessen their impact.  So, steer clear of too many bullet-pointed sections when you put together a text.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY                                                                                                              

 

clunky
Form : adjective
Meaning : heavy in a way that is awkward
Example : His house is full of clunky furniture.

 

take in
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to understand something that your read
Example : Irene felt sleepy while reading the manual, so she didn’t take in most of the details.

 

hard and fast
Form : phrase
Meaning : describes something that cannot be changed
Example : There are no hard and fast rules about who can use this car park.

 

fragment
Form : noun
Meaning : a smaller piece of something larger
Example : I overheard fragments of the conversation that my parents had in the kitchen.

 

 

brevity
Form : noun
Meaning : the use of few words while speaking or writing
Example : The brevity of her speech surprised us – it was over in less than a minute.

 

steer clear (of something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to try to avoid something
Example : You are diabetic, so steer clear of desserts at the party.

 

 

 

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 4)

Image courtesy of Iain Farrell (CC 2.0 Flickr)

 

In this part of the series on punctuation, we’ll explore different uses of the colon, semicolon, and slash.

 

Colon

The colon usually introduces a list or an explanation. It can also appear before direct speech, or be used to highlight the last part of a sentence.

 

Used Example
before a list We need the following: eggs, butter, sugar, and flour.
to introduce an explanation My motto is simple: live and let live.
to signal direct speech (i.e. a speaker’s actual words) She pleaded: ‘Please let me in!’
to highlight a single word or phrase at the end of a sentence Having starved for two days, I had only one thought: food.

 

Semicolon

Stronger than a comma, weaker than a full stop: this is possibly the simplest way to define the function of a semicolon. Its main use is to separate sentences that are closely linked.

 

Used Example
between two sentences that are too closely linked to be separated by a full stop Students can’t use mobile phones in class; teachers can in an emergency.
in a long list with internal commas We have stores in Bremen, Germany; Krakow, Poland; and Moscow, Russia.
between two independent clauses joined by a transitional phrase (e.g. consequently, for instance, thus) It has been raining heavily since yesterday; consequently, many trains have been cancelled.

 

Slash

Also known as the virgule, the slash has several functions but is seldom used in formal writing.

 

Used Example
to carry the meaning per 100 km/h
as shorthand for or Each passenger must carry his/her passport at all times.
to carry the meaning cum Don’s dad was his manager/coach till 2005.
in abbreviations c/o (short for care of)
to indicate a period spanning two years 2015/16 season
to show the connection between two things The London/New York flight is delayed.

 

Just like how the meaning of spoken words can vary, depending on the use of various pronunciation features such as tone or pausing, the meaning of written words may change by the use of punctuation marks. So, as far as punctuation goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 1)

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Ever felt punctuation is just a set of decorative symbols that can be done away with? Well, think again!

 

A poorly punctuated sentence can severely distort meaning, thereby confusing the reader. Here’s a good example:

  1. I had lunch with my parents, an architect and a Labrador.
  2. I had lunch with my parents, an architect, and a Labrador.

 

What these two sentences mean are entirely different, the change in meaning caused by the presence or absence of a comma after the word architect.

Sentence 1 means: I had lunch with 2 people, i.e. my parents. One of them is an architect, whereas the other is a breed of dog (Labrador).

Sentence 2 means: I had lunch with 3 people and an animal, i.e. my parents, an architect, and a dog.

 

Though many of us make an effort to use punctuation, we often restrict ourselves to just two – comma and full stop. It’s a shame that a dozen other punctuation marks that can make our writing cohesive remain largely ignored.

 

In this series, we’ll explore the entire set:

 

full stop comma exclamation mark question mark hyphen dash apostrophe
. , ! ?
quotation marks colon semi colon slash ellipsis square bracket round bracket
“ ” : ; / [ ] ( )

 

  1. Full stop

The most common use of a full stop is to signal the end of a statement; it is also used in indirect questions and abbreviations. Do keep in mind that there is no space between the last letter (in a word) and the full stop.

 

Used Example
to signal the end of a statement I work as a teacher.
at the end of an indirect question She asked me where I had been.
with abbreviated (shortened) forms etc. | e.g. | Sept. | p.m.

 

 

  1. Comma

Generally speaking, commas indicate slight pauses or breaks in a sentence: they may separate items in a list, extra information, or clauses.

 

Used Example
to separate each item in a list We bought flowers, fruit, pudding, and sweets.
to separate extra information that is not part of the main sentence Graham’s brother, Phil, is very naughty.
to separate a clause Tim, who lives in London these days, was at the party.

 

Remember, efficient use of punctuation can make your writing a lot clearer.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

do away with (something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : remove; get rid of
Example : We’re doing away with all the traditions this Christmas and not having a tree.

 

distort
Form : verb
Meaning : to change a piece of information so that it is no longer accurate
Example : Newspaper articles sometimes distort the truth. 

 

a shame
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to mean that something is disappointing
Example : It’s a shame that they lost the match even after playing so well.

Collocation: Finding The Right Words For The Job

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Even Words Love and Hate Each Other!

 

Many of us are picky when it comes to socialising. We hang out with the people we like; and as for the others – we don’t tend to bother.

 

Guess what? Words do the same, in the sense that they are often seen together in exclusive groups. This relationship that words in a language share with each other is known as collocation. For example, you can have a drink or make a cup of tea, but you can’t do a drink.

 

Types of collocations

There are different varieties of collocations in English. Here are some:

 

Type Example
adjective + noun express train
verb + noun run a marathon
noun + noun car salesman
verb + adverb speak softly
adverb + adjective newly married
verb + prepositional phrase run out of

 

Why words collocate

There’s no specific reason. It’s just that users of a language put certain words together more frequently than they do others. This also means that there are no clear rules that govern the use of collocations. So, as a learner, you just have to know which words go with which others.

 

Why learn collocations?

When you learn collocations, you are learning words in chunks, or groups of words. Naturally, this not only improves your accuracy but also fluency. For instance, suppose you learn the word ‘good’ along with the many other words it collocates with; this will widen your vocabulary and enable you to speak more fluently.

 

Adjective Preposition Meaning Example
good at something able to do something well He is good at singing.
with something able to use something well She is good with computers.
for health having a useful effect This drink is good for health.
to me Loving, friendly My Grandma is really good to me.

 

Remember, English tests such as IELTS assess a candidate’s ability to use collocations correctly. So, learn new vocabulary in chunks, never in isolation.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

picky
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes someone who is difficult to please
Example : Olga is quite picky about what she eats.

 

hang out
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to spend time with particular people in a particular place
Example : Sylvan enjoys hanging out with his cousins at the local pub.

 

bother
Form : verb
Meaning : (often used in a negative sense) to spend time or energy doing something
Example : Miguel doesn’t bother brushing his hair.

 

fluency
Form : noun
Meaning : ability to speak or write a language easily and to a high standard
Example : Philip is fluent in Swahili.

 

isolation
Form : noun
Meaning : the state of being alone or separate
Example : Prisoners at this prison are kept in isolation if they cause trouble.

How to Master Letter Writing in English (Part 2)

stamps

Image courtesy of Chris (CC Flickr)

 

In the first part, we looked at the concept of tone and its importance in making your letter sound appropriate. To decide what kind of tone is suitable, we said it’s useful to consider who you are writing to (the recipient).

 

Another important fact to think of is the purpose, i.e. the reason for writing.

 

The purpose

How we write may change depending on why we are writing, even if the recipient happens to be the same person. To understand this better, let’s consider the following:

 

Situation A: Write a letter to your manager informing him/her about some problem you face at work.

Situation B: Write a letter to your manager inviting him/her to your house-warming.

 

Though you’re writing to the same person in both cases, situation B is personal, whereas A is work-related. Naturally, situation B may make use of language that’s less formal than the one in A.

 

Consistent use of tone

Once you identify the appropriate tone, how do you then ensure it is used consistently across a letter or email? Here are some ways to do this:

 

More formal Less formal
Do NOT use contractions

E.g.: We are pleased to…

Use contractions

E.g.: We’re really happy to…

Use long words / less common vocabulary

E.g.: hold a discussion

Use simpler vocabulary

E.g.: have a chat

Do NOT use abbreviations

E.g.: February, Monday, as soon as possible

Use abbreviations

E.g.: FebMon, asap

Complete sentences

E.g.: I am sorry about the confusion.

Incomplete sentences

E.g.: Sorry about the confusion.

Use one-word verbs

E.g.: Can you visit my office and collect the files?

Use phrasal verbs

E.g.: Can you drop into my office and pick up the files?

 

So, the next time you attempt a letter writing task, begin by identifying what tone is appropriate for the given situation. Then, use various language features (some are given in the table above) to keep the tone consistent throughout your letter.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

concept
Form : noun
Meaning : an idea related to something
Example : Oliver finds it difficult to understand even the simplest concepts of science.

 

appropriate
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for a particular situation
Example : I think it isn’t appropriate to wear jeans to work.

 

abbreviation
Form : noun
Meaning : a short form of a word or phrase
Example : St is an abbreviation for the word ‘Saint’.

 

Five Cardinal Sins to Avoid in the IELTS Writing Test

 Look out for an overall trend in the maze of data; identifying it is half the battle!

In the IELTS Academic Writing test, candidates attempt two tasks of 150 words and 250 words. The first is an information-transfer task, asking you to describe information given in a graph, table, chart or diagram. Simple, right? Why then do so many candidates make a real hash of it?

It’s quite possible that they are guilty of one (or more) of these five cardinal sins…

 

  1. Not meeting the word limit

Even a cursory glance at the writing booklet will tell you that your response to Task 1 should have at least 150 words. Fail to meet this word limit and you’re hurting your score. Scripts that are under the minimum word length attract a penalty, which could be severe if the response is very short.

TIP: Learn to identify how long 150 words looks in your handwriting beforehand!

 

  1. Not using figures to support descriptions

Are your descriptions of the pictorial data just a series of words that describe trends?

Does it, for instance, say: “Even though the price of crude oil hit a trough, it soon surged to its earlier level, remained stable for a short period, before peaking towards the end of the year?”

Without any figures to substantiate these descriptions, it’s difficult for the reader to fully comprehend how exactly crude oil prices fluctuated over an entire year.

TIP: Add figures where necessary to provide a clear context to the reader!

 

  1. Answering the wrong question!

Example: “As per the data provided on the question paper, it’s evident that crude oil prices saw a great deal of fluctuation in just 12 months. Could it be the Gulf war? Perhaps it’s the result of a change in foreign policy?”

Why prices varied is well and truly beyond what’s provided as task input, so do not attempt to speculate. If you do that, you end up wasting time, adding totally irrelevant information to your response.

TIP: The test shouldn’t be used as a platform to showcase your general knowledge. Your job is to summarise the information provided by selecting the main features; so focus on that!

 

  1. Not producing full, connected text

IELTS Writing tasks require candidates to produce answers as full, connected text. Obviously, this means that use of bullet points and note form are inappropriate; scripts that use of them are penalised.

TIP: While writing, just stick to creating paragraphs. Disregard this simple rule and you may have to pay the penalty!

 

  1. Not drawing a conclusion

A report is a document written after careful consideration of various aspects of a situation; it needs a logical conclusion. If your response doesn’t refer to the bigger picture ‒ a statement that summaries the pictorial data provided ‒ it would be incomplete to say the least.

TIP: Look out for an overall trend in the maze of data; identifying it is half the battle!

 

Remember these handy tips when you begin preparing for the writing test; they’ll save you from underperforming when you eventually take IELTS.

Best of luck!

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