You can use these tips for letter and email writing as well as for essay writing.
I want to tell you about a student I’ve been working with in the past weeks, because we did some interesting stuff that I think you might learn from as well.
This student came to me because he needed to improve his writing. He wasn’t getting high grades for his essays; he needs to do his matriculation exam when he’s 18 and he wants to do it at the highest level.
Okay, no problem. First I asked him to write an essay. The assignment, that we copied from a school website, was like this:
Your school newspaper has asked you to write about a day that you will never forget. Describe this day and what made it so special.
Twenty minutes later, the student laid down his pen. We went over what he had written and corrected a few spelling mistakes.
Then he asked me: “Well, what grade would you give me? I can get 40 points for this essay.”
It made things needlessly complicated. So he changed it to: “If the highest grade were 100 points, how many points would you give me?”
I answered, “Maybe 60, 70 points.”
“That’s all?” the student asked disappointedly.
He thought that if the story is coherent and entertaining and there are no spelling mistakes, you’ll get full points. Of course the essay also has to be the right length (this one had to be 120-140 words).
But it’s not that easy! Otherwise every student would get a high grade, wouldn’t they?
You will also score points for:
– Structure. How well the essay is built up. Does it have an intro, a middle part, and a conclusion.
– Sentence structure. Can you construct a grammatically correct sentence, and are you able to use more sophisticated sentence structures.
– Interesting descriptions; using suitable and lively adjectives and adverbs.
– Using expressions and more advanced forms of style (such as simile and metaphor etc.)
Have a look at the student’s essay here.
How many points would you give it?
My Fake Birthday
One Friday in September I was really bored at my boarding school and my roommate had a great idea to make it much more interesting. He would tell the counsellor that it was my birthday and we could all enjoy a piece of cake and snacks all through the weekend. I will not forget this because it was really funny. Everybody in the boarding school thought it was my birthday and “surprised” me by partying for me because they didn’t know I was fooling them. So first of all after Shabbat dinner we all had a piece of cake and all the students celebrated my birthday and the following afternoon our counsellor gave us some snacks and another cake. I don’t remember many details but I can remember it was fun.
As you can see, the student’s essay is grammatically correct, but there are far too many sentences that are running on (with and… and…).
That’s one of the reasons why it’s not too interesting to read this essay, despite it being such a wonderful subject!
Make some changes
So the first thing I told the student is to use shorter sentences and use full stops (.) where they need to be.
For instance this sentence: One Friday in September I was really bored at my boarding school and my roommate had a great idea to make it much more interesting.
We changed it to: One Friday in September I was really bored at my boarding school. Luckily, my roommate had a great idea to make it much more interesting.
As you can see, we put a full stop (.), because this really are two separate sentences. The next sentence begins with a connector (“Luckily”). With this you’re guiding the reader to expect something that is a change from what went on in the first sentence.
This sentence is also in urgent need of shortening: So first of all after Shabbat dinner we all had a piece of cake and all the students celebrated my birthday and the following afternoon our counsellor gave us some snacks and another cake.
First we put in some full stops, and a comma (,): So first of all after Shabbat dinner we all had a piece of cake. All the students celebrated my birthday. The following afternoon, our counsellor gave us some snacks and another cake.
It still doesn’t look that great, so we made another change: So first of all after Shabbat dinner we all had a piece of cake. I couldn’t stop smiling when all the students were celebrating my birthday. The following afternoon, our counsellor gave us even more snacks and another cake.
We put in “I couldn’t stop smiling when” to make the story more imaginative.
Of course, you can do many more things to improve this essay, but making good sentences that don’t run on and on and on is one of the basic skills that one should learn in writing. It makes it much easier also to learn more advanced skills if you know how to make basic good sentences.
More writing practice: Next time!
If you’d like to practice your own writing, have a look at some old essays or letters that you’ve written and see whether you can make them better.