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Writing is not just about producing a text without mistakes. It is about showing the reader (or examiner) your capacity to use a variety of structures, vocabulary and grammar. If you are not native, some mistakes are inevitable. You have to compensate by expressing yourself as richly as possible. Here are some techniques that you can apply to almost any written text.
First of all, let’s take a simple topic and see how we can improve it. This is a grammatically correct, but very basic account of an incident. At the end of the text we will apply what we have learnt:
“Yesterday I got up and had breakfast. Then I got dressed and went to the gym. On the way I met an old friend and we had a coffee and talked. He was very happy to see me. He invited me to his wedding. I accepted, although I wasn’t sure.
I couldn’t explain this to my friend, but his future bride was my ex-girlfriend, and I still had feelings for her…”
Look at these techniques, and let’s see how we can improve this account.
Preposition + Gerund
Without realising, Mary had met the man who….
Before meeting his future employee, Samuel had always thought that…
By inviting his ex-girlfriend to the wedding, Brian had set in motion a train of events he had not expected.
(Notice that these structures are often used with the Past Perfect – ‘Had’ + Past Participle. This is another advantage, as it adds another tense. I will speak about this later)
(Soon) After discovering that his father was missing…..
On hearing of the accident, we immediately drove to the hospital.
Despite losing again, the team felt confident that the worst was over.
If visiting Canterbury, you should not miss the seaside town of Whitstable.
Another similar option is to use Having + Past Participle:
Having read the book, Jane was prepared to be disappointed on watching the film.
This is a stylistic device generally used only in writing. The structure of the sentence is basically the structure of a question after certain negative or limiting phrases:
Rarely do we understand the pain of the economic immigrant.
Never (before) had I seen such beauty.
No longer will the Government tolerate dissent or sedition.
No sooner had he arrived when he was offered a glass of wine.
Only when we arrived did we realise the extent of the damage.
In no way am I prepared to carry out this task.
Not only does he paint, but he also plays the piano wonderfully!
Seldom can I describe my feelings to strangers.
Never again would he see his parents.
No contractions, except in Dialogues
As a general rule it is better not to use contractions in written text, unless it is clearly informal – an email or letter to a close friend or family member, for example. If you are writing an article, a story or an academic text it is always safer to avoid DOESN’T, WON’T, IT’S, CAN’T, etc…
If writing a story, a conversation in direct speech would repeat word for word what the characters supposedly say. In this case contractions are obvious.
Use the Passive
It always amazes me how students manage to pass levels of English without dominating the Passive, which is as essential as it is easy. If you have any problems with when or how to use the Passive, click here. If not, START USING IT TODAY!! It is essential. Enough said….
Use a Full Range of Tenses
This is a typical exam trap – you are given a theme which is easy (Your Daily Routine, Your Holidays…) and you get a poor mark, or a fail. What went wrong? You didn’t make many mistakes, but your composition was simply too basic. You need to be very careful about this.
This is why you are always advised to write a quick outline before you start. Everybody tells you this, and you always ignore them because you don’t have enough time, because you know what to write, because the topic is easy…… and you end up with a text that is basic, repetitive and below your real standard.
By separating the task into paragraphs you can plan a tense for each. For example:
TOWN vs. COUNTRY
Introduction – Why this topic is relevant (Stressful City Living, Lack of Public Spending in Rural Areas….) PRESENT SIMPLE.
Comparing two points of view – 30 years ago vs. Nowadays. PAST SIMPLE, USED TO, PRESENT PERFECT, PRESENT SIMPLE, COMPARATIVES (AS…..AS).
Example – Personal Experience, Event in the News, etc. PAST SIMPLE, PAST CONTINUOUS, PAST PERFECT.
Conclusion – Your Personal Opinion, What you think will happen in the future. FUTURE (WILL-MIGHT), CONDITIONAL (WOULD).
…and within this structure you can include Phrasal Verbs, the Passive, Specific Vocabulary.
I have written a separate article on how to create a structure which can be used for Writing and Speaking Monologues….
Replace Basic Vocabulary
An easy exercise. Just when you are going to write the word ‘GO’, stop and change it for another verb:
They went to the cinema:
They walked to the cinema
They drove to the cinema
They hurried to the cinema
They strolled to the cinema…..
You can also add an adverb:
They walked hurriedly to the cinema
They quickly drove to the cinema
They hurried fearfully to the cinema
They strolled cheerfully to the cinema
Easy, isn’t it? Try the same with these words:
Look: Gaze, Stare, Examine, Peruse, Spot, Inspect,Contemplate, Focus on (Double-click for its exact meaning)
Say: Assert, Answer, Exclaim, State, Affirm, Claim, Inform, Explain, Remind, Beg, Add, Declare…
Meet: Come across, Bump into, Come face to face with, Encounter, Gather, Assemble, Convene…
Have you got the general idea? Go and look for a piece you have written, underline words that you have repeated, or ‘basic’ words and look for alternatives in a thesaurus (or in Google: ‘Synonym for “……”).
The same applies to adjectives. Every time you write GOOD, BAD, VERY HAPPY or VERY ANGRY, it is like a footballer failing to score in front of an open goal – An opportunity missed! Have a look at the diagram, and down load the pdf:
PDF. Extreme Adjectives
Forget the bottom right SLANG section. It has nothing to do with this article. In any case, I am not a fan of a non-native using slang (and I apply this to myself speaking in Spanish).
The same can apply to:
VERY: Extremely, Immensely, Especially, Uncommonly, Unusually
QUITE: Rather, Somewhat, Fairly, Relatively, Reasonably, To a certain degree
OK, I have to explain myself here. There are many texts where your style should be impersonal (Academic texts, for example). I do not mean this necessarily in a grammatical sense:
- Do not plagiarise!
I do not say this in any moral sense. If you need to pass English to get your degree, and you copy or adapt something from the Internet, that is your decision. If you want to learn English however (and I suppose that is why you are reading this), plagiary makes no sense at all. Making mistakes and being corrected is one of the most important processes of learning, and you will eliminate an essential part of that.
Do not use one text as a source. Write from memory and double-check the details later. Use your own structure (see above).
- Use personal experiences as a source of inspiration.
One of the universal truths is that it is far easier to explain yourself when you have a clear idea of what you want to say, whether it is an anecdote, a documentary that you have seen or an article that you have read. This does not have to be explicit – it is enough for you to know the direction of your piece.
I’ll give you an example. Here is a question from the IELTS writing exam:
“Increasing the price of petrol is the best way to solve growing traffic and pollution problems.”
Not a very inspirational subject, from my point of view at least, so I would think about how the Congestion Charge has affected the centre of London, and then compare the relatively unsuccessful ‘Park and Ride’ schemes in Canterbury. I can mention this explicitly, or just use this to give a better base for my arguments. Automatically, and with no effort, you will be able to introduce details that enrich your text.
So, here’s the result
“After waking up, I sat down for my usual breakfast of toast and milky coffee. Having got dressed I wandered slowly down to the gym, at the end of my road. No sooner had I left my house when I was called from the other side of the road. I suddenly that I had bumped into my long-lost friend, Jamie, who I had not seen for years!
He looked overjoyed to see me. Not only did he embrace me, but he begged me to join him for a coffee. Without hesitating he invited me to his wedding – I naturally accepted, although I was somewhat uncertain. I would have liked to refuse. Rarely have I felt so uncomfortable! I don’t know whether to find an excuse. Without realising, my friend had invited me to my ex-girlfriend’s wedding, and I was sure I would not be able to remain neutral at the sight of her…”
Is this personal experience, or something from a film? I’ll let you think about it! 🙂