Top Twelve Writing Tips for TOEFL

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A number of people have asked me for the best advice on preparation for the writing part of TOEFL exam. I have decided to compile all of the tips into one post. I hope it will be a helpful resource for you.

  1. Clear structure (paragraphing) is essential for a successful essay. If your paragraphs are unequal in length and/or your essay is not structured well, you will lose your precious TOEFL points!
  2. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, supporting arguments, and a concluding sentence. A topic sentence is like a preview of a movie. Can you summarize all that you are going to say in a simple sentence? The following two or three sentences support the idea you initially introduced in the topic sentence. Finally, your concluding sentence wraps everything up nicely.
  3. Don’t beat around the bush! “Beating around the bush” or saying a lot of things with no substance seems to be a very popular writing technique, especially for those educated in the former Soviet Union. Be precise, and use words and sentences to make a point that will fit into your overall essay.
  4. When writing an essay, keep in mind a very simple structure: a) Introduction (paragraph 1); b) Body of the essay (paragraph 2, 3 and maybe 4); c) Conclusion (the last paragraph). Introduction makes exactly that: introduces your subject and your line of reasoning (a thesis); The “Body” of your essay introduces and explain the arguments (two or three) for or against the topic. Each argument opens up a new paragraph. The paragraph should be medium length (5–7 sentences) and speak in support of the argument introduced.
  5. Using complicated structures (correctly, of course), i.e. conditionals, complex sentences, clauses, works in your favor. Also, good writing is characterized by a variety of synonyms used and their appropriateness (consider the style, the context, and the audience).
  6. No matter how alluring the topic may sound, try to present a balanced view. Many times you will be asked for an opinion about a particular subject, and there is a danger in such essays of taking an extreme viewpoint. Try to be diplomatic and non-dogmatic about your own opinion.
  7. Find ways to incorporate “politically correct” language, not for the sake of the language, but to show that you are familiar with this issue. Thus, instead of saying “many old people in our country are poor,” reword your statement to sound like, “a number of senior citizens in our country do not enjoy the same retirement privileges as those in the west.” Of course, when you have to use the word “poverty,” there is no way around it. At the same time, politically correct language is the language that tries to give dignity to people despite their physical and/or mental restraints.
  8. Think of how you may incorporate transitional words and phrases into your writing. Having transitional phrases will make your writing smooth and logical. However, they must appear in the appropriate context. I suggest you look through this list of transitional words and phrases when preparing for writing.
  9. Familiarize yourself with the commonly misspelled words. Pay attention to such common misspellings as their/there’re, it’s, its, etc.
  10. No contractions, please. When writing an academic piece, any contractions are discouraged. Use full forms (I have) instead of (I’ve).
  11. Too many “be”-s in your essay usually shows that you may not have enough verbs to express yourself. Whenever you want to use “be” (except some Grammatical structures where “be” is a part of a verb form) think about how you can change it, i.e.: He is a fine man = He seems like a fine man. He presents himself well.
  12. Remember: good writing is re-writing. Do not hesitate to re-write the same essay several times. In fact, it works better if you re-write the same piece three times, polishing it up to express your thoughts precisely, than writing three sloppy compositions without even having it checked.

This is not the exhaustive list of tips, but these are some guidelines that can help you in your preparation for the dreaded writing part in TOEFL. Personally, I have found that having peer review is essential for the success in your writing.

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