A new year and a new section of the exam to look at: Writing. Today, I’d like to begin a discussion on the final task of the exam, the 30-minute indpendent writing composition. Before getting into the details of the organizational structure, I’d like to highlight the fact that in this composition, you are presenting, building and defending an argument in response to the question. This is NOT a balanced, «on one hand…on the other hand…» piece of writing.
Instead there is an element of persuasion here in which the writer, using reasons and examples tries to convince the reader that his or her point of view is the correct one.
A second important point to understand is that it is not a good idea to jump in right at the beginning and start writing. Yes, there is a 30-minute time limit and yes, the writer must reach at least 300 words (although clearly, to fully develop your argument and thus, have a chance at a higher score, the composition should be closer to 400 words than 300). It is my belief that it is much more effective in terms of quality and time management to think carefully about how you want to answer the question, and then make a short outline of how you want to organize the composition. This outline can be done in your native langauge, but it must contain the direct answer to the question, the reasons you want to use to support the answer and a mention of at least one example that will illustrate your argument. This should take no more than 3 minutes, but it is quite important as it will allow you to separate the process of deciding WHAT you want to say, from the longer process of deciding HOW to say it. Most cases of becoming «blocked» while writing are caused when someone is trying to resolve the WHAT and HOW questions at the same time. It is a much better idea to separate them and the first step is to create an outline of your argument and its support right at the beginning.
Now let’s take a look at an organizational structure for this composition with comments on each section.
SUPPORTING PARAGRAPH 1
SUPPORTING PARAGRAPH 2
Introduction: Keeping in mind the 300-word minimum and the fact that the better scores are usually given to those who can write more than 350 words at an advanced level, we should see that just offering a simple direct answer and then building your argument from that point may not help us get to the number of words we want. Let’s look at an example to highlight this. Imagine the following topic for this composition:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: «It is better to marry someone similar to you rather than someone different from you». Use reasons and examples to support your answer.
Now you could begin with a direct statement to clearly answer the question. Something like this: «I believe it is better to get married to someone who is similar to you because…» and from that point, you can begin to build your argument. However, that only gives us 15 words, putting a lot of pressure on us to reach our word-number objective with reasons, an example and the conclusion. Therefore, I prefer using the introduction to first put the question in context and then answer the question directly. Using the question above, let’s see a way to do this:
The decision to get married is one of the most important decisions people make in their lives. A correct decision can ensure years of happiness and satisfaction. However, an incorrect decision may cause great pain and frustration. Thus I believe that marrying someone similar to you makes it much more possible that you will make a correct decision and below I will give the reasons why I believe this to be true.
Here we have 72 words which have put the question into context and offered a direct answer to it. It is fundamental to understand that your reader must begin the second paragraph with clear idea of what your argument is. I would also add that although «it depends» is probably the correct answer to most TOEFL question of this type, it is not a good idea to answer this. If you do, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to explain all of the variables in which the question depends, and this may keep you from building a strong argument.
After the extended introduction, the next two paragraphs are the one in which we support our point of view with reasons and at least one example. Normally, we will want to offer one developed reason and one example for each paragraph, but there may not be enough time for two examples, so it may be a better idea to give one example, but make sure it is complete and detailed. On the subject of examples, remember that your examples do not have to be true, there will not be a TOEFL investigation to determine if your uncle has been married 7 times. However, your examples must have the details necessary to effectively support your argument.
Finally, you must finish the conmposition with a conclusion in which you summarize your argument and its main points, using different language to explain them, and thus, adding variety to your writing.
In future posts on this topic, I’d like to discuss the most typical grammatical mistakes that I see and offer some ideas for an effective transition sentence between the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs.