If your students are taking an official exam, it’s likely that they will need to produce at least one longer piece of writing. Whether it be an essay, a letter, a report, a story, or even a complaint or an application, there are lots of possibilities. Chances are that one of these will need to be a written in a formal style. This presents a problem for several reasons;
- Formal writing rules differ from those of other languages.
- Younger students especially might have little to no experience with writing of this style in their own language, let alone another one.
- Often, these essays are also timed, making it difficult for students to consider everything properly. So they include things or leave out things that they shouldn’t.
When trying to answer a writing question, students should always look at who they are writing to, to ascertain the necessary style. This is often overlooked. If they are addressing their boss, a teacher or someone else in authority, it should be formal. But a letter to a friend or a coworker might be more chatty and warm. Having figured that out and planned a rough idea of the text, they can start writing!
So here’s a few simple rules to follow to achieve top marks for style and register.
Shorter word forms are a hallmark of an informal register, they will bring a grade quite far down from what it should be. Academic writing should be clear and precise, contractions are used in text messages, emails and lots of other less formal situations. But not here!
Similarly, try to also steer clear of other types of abbreviations. Words like ‘Prof’ instead of ‘Professor’, or ‘KM’ instead of ‘Kilometre’. Examiners won’t like it in any kind of formal style, and so the student will lose points.
It is very common for students to, for lack of a better expression, run out of ideas. They have developed their initial observations but still need to write more for their answer to be considered acceptable. So often, they will rehash something they have written before. Also, since it’s difficult for them to be creative on demand, learners might repeat the same words they find in the question, leading to a very repetitious essay.
Unwittingly, half of their writing has become redundant, having written very similar ideas twice or other ‘word filling’ techniques. So how to avoid this?
A good knowledge of vocabulary and synonyms will be useful here, this is something that should be encouraged right from the beginning of the year. Practising essays and other writings in class and for homework will help them realise what is genuine content and what is filler. Also, tell students to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. That is to say, many students might try to fit in difficult and unnecessary phrases to impress the examiner. While language versatility and range is to be applauded, they needn’t spend five minutes thinking of the perfect expression when one or two words will do the same job.
Lastly, discourage any obvious words being added to adjectives or nouns. For example; “most preferable”. In this case, the superlative serves no purpose at all and, especially for higher level exams, might bring the mark down.
Here is the real mine field. A series of do’s and don’t’s I’m afraid.
DON’T – Use phrasal verbs or idioms unless very appropriate for that particular topic. Phrasal verbs almost always have an equivalent main verb they can use to substitute it, so a phrasal verb is almost never necessary. Unless the main verb is actually less formal than the alternative; (‘Die’ is less appropriate for formal writing than ‘Pass Away’). Idioms are typically informal and don’t have a place when writing academically like for an essay.
DO – Use formal vocabulary. This endears learners to examiners like nothing else. Instead of employing chatty, everyday words, encourage them to use a less common vernacular. Specific and concise verbs and phrases are necessary, put together will the correct adverbs or adjectives and finished off with some nice linking words. In short, words with more syllables are usually preferable! For example; ‘Inebriated’ might be better than ‘Drunk’.
DON’T – Use any cliches or slang! Maybe the most important rule is not to use slang terms such as ‘Unreal’ for expressing surprise or admiration, or ‘Kudos’ instead of ‘Well done’.
DO – Use nice transitions where possible. The use of ‘But’ or ‘And’ is fine for a lower level learner, but anything beyond an intermediate means that nicer words should be used. ‘On the other hand’, ‘While’, ‘Whereas’ and ‘On the contrary’ are all better and shouldn’t really be used more than once each in the same writing. It is worth doing a whole lessen on transitions of this type, as the possibilities are endless! (Cliche!)
Did you find this article helpful? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comment section below!