Essay Writing for IELTS and CAE

Essay writing is by far the most frustrating part for most. It is a serious challenge even for native English speakers. In this article, I will share my view on writing exam essays, what difficulties you are likely to have and how to overcome them. This was made as a stand-alone entry because the essay basics are universal for most exams (or even most writing assignments for that matter).

Difficulties of writing

Writing an essay can be a challenging task both for new and experienced students. There are three main challenges when writing an essay in English.

  • Essay structure
  • Lack of ideas
  • Idea development

Depending on the task you face one of the difficulties may be more difficult to overcome than the others. At times, you are held back by all three of them — such predicament would discourage even the most eager of writers. We will take these problematic aspects one by one.

1. Essay structure

When we talk about text structure in an English exam, we usually mean paragraphing and sentence sequencing. The latter will be covered in idea development chapter; we will concentrate on paragraphs now.

The purpose of having multiple paragraphs in an essay is to make it more clear and informative by grouping relevant information. This means that the sentences belonging to the same paragraph should be about a certain aspect of the main idea the text is dedicated to. This approach allows for smooth transition between several aspects making the text more accessible and pleasant to read.

Let us take an IELTS exam text to illustrate this. You are given a limit of 250 words which affects both the number and volume of paragraphs you can use. An ideal number is usually two or three body paragraphs plus introduction and conclusion. Fewer paragraphs will mean a mostly one-sided narrative concentrating on just one aspect of the text, which is inadvisable. More than three paragraphs will not allow to fully develop your ideas because of the word limit.

It goes without saying that introduction is going to be your first paragraph. Use it to introduce the topic and briefly state your view on it. Don’t go into details, you will do that in the subsequent paragraphs. This paragraph shouldn’t take more than three of four sentences. It is important for introduction to be shorter than the body paragraphs, otherwise the text will look out-of-balance.

Body paragraphs is where you expand on the notion or idea, that you mentioned in paragraph one. Your aim is to develop the points as fully as you can, without being too verbose i.e. not using non-essential words to convey the meaning (see article on concise writing for further reference and examples). To achieve said points development, we will be using multiple paragraphs for different aspects of the discussed issue. For example, if the task is to provide your opinion on welfare system, you can focus on its advantages (paragraph two) and disadvantages (paragraph three). With this type of task, another body paragraph seems redundant – you will have compared both aspects by the end of paragraph three. It is time to wrap it all up.

Some students find the concluding paragraph to be difficult because everything has already been described and summarising seems to them as repeating it all over again. There is nothing wrong with going over the things you have mentioned before when it comes to the concluding paragraph. It is advisable to paraphrase your key points slightly by any means possible – using synonyms, changing active voice to passive, changing sentence structure. Adding a summarising sentence as the last one can be a good way to end your essay i.e. “Having considered both advantages and disadvantages of welfare, I came to believe that it is an integral part of our society as it helps people in need to …”. You get the idea. Just don’t use one single sentence like that to finish your work. You have to substantiate the conclusions with ideas and examples from your essay.

2. Lack of ideas

Getting the essay started can often be the hardest challenge for a new essay writer. This is commonly referred to as “writer’s block” — inability to make that first step.

Nobody likes wrestling with a blank page. One reason for this could be extreme level of self-criticism. Young people feel reluctant to write anything but the best, top-notch material. When you find it difficult to get your writing started, then consider the following — your text will only be read by a handful of examiners. No matter how bad or good it comes out, it will never be seen by people other than the assessment committee. This should take some pressure away as some people tend to be too self-conscious about their work.

Another fact to keep in mind is the quality of your writing. You writing is assessed on four criteria and artistic value isn’t one of them. Don’t be discouraged by lack of insight on the question you should write about — it’s just a base that you use to show your ability to produce a piece of writing. They want to know that you can handle the language well, its words and constructions. That you can structure your text and make its parts stick together.

3. Idea development

The ideas that you are going to write about should be mentioned (or at least hinted at) in your introduction. By doing that you show respect to your reader and make your writing more cohesive. These ideas are normally placed in the last sentence of introductory paragraph:

Juvenile delinquency, or crime among young people, is a serious social issue. Over the past decade the crime rate among teens rose by a staggering 17 %. This phenomenon can be caused by a number of factors, such as peer pressure, insecurity and lack of sound judgement.

Writing about a topic you are recommended to follow a simple rule – go from basics to specifics. This is effectively applied to any body paragraph in your text — and it’s body paragraphs that help you develop your topic.

In your first sentence you present an idea, a statement or anything else that you want to discuss. The following sentences in that paragraph serve to expand on your first statement. That way your reader doesn’t get lost and your ideas are easier to follow:

Peer pressure seems to be the most contributing factor. In an attempt to find acceptance among the people of their own age group, young men and women commit offences, both minor and serious ones. Disregard for societal norms is seen as “cool” by the young and therefore openly defying the law is an easy way to gain respect of one’s peers.

In the paragraph above we slowly develop our ideas. First we explain our understanding of peer pressure and then present reasons for it to be a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency.

Finally, you want to wrap all your ideas up by presenting a conclusive paragraph. As it was mentioned before that if you choose to repeat the ideas do your best to paraphrase them.

English Essay Writing: Extra Tips

  • Practice makes perfect. Use sample essay topics and write mock essays at home — this will do you a world of good
  • Get to like writing. It is a skill that will probably be useful throughout your life. It will improve your literacy, promote imagination, it will look good on your CV. Think above and beyond of your exam
  • Always, ALWAYS proofread your writing. This will eliminate most if not all of your spelling and grammar mistakes you could have made. This skill requires some practice, so writing some essays at home is highly advised
  • Don’t feel bad about making corrections. A correction that is clear and easy to read will not affect your final score negatively
  • Avoid these common mistakes in writing
  • See some user-submitted essay samples here
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