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TOEFL Independent Writing: Organizing Your Ideas

There are many ways to ensure that an essay you write is well-organized. As Kate mentions, pre-writing is important. You should brainstorm ideas, and plan the essay’s basic structure. Your TOEFL essay will probably only be two or three paragraphs. Still, it will likely contain important elements from the five-paragraph essay, particularly an introduction and conclusion.

Even with the best brainstorming and planning, sometimes your essay simply doesn’t unfold the way you’d hoped. Paragraphs can drift off-topic. Ideas can be placed in illogical, disconnected order. Important parts of your essay could simply be left out. You’re most in danger of making these mistakes when your time for writing is very limited. Students who haven’t done much timed writing practice are especially likely to make these mistakes. I’ve certainly seen my students make mistakes like this when they’re under deadline pressure. My writing can be disorganized too, when I’m pinched for time.

In the TOEFL Independent Writing task, you are given only thirty minutes to write an entire essay. This essay must be written from your own thoughts, with no integrated source material. This limited time and lack of structure makes it particularly challenging to write a well-ordered essay. With little time for pre-writing, sometimes the trick is to catch and correct your mistakes as you make them. How can you learn to do this? The first step is to learn how to correct mistakes in essay structure after you make them.

You can re-order a disorganized essay after the fact through a four step process:

1) Look at the essay you’ve already written, and make an outline of its structure.

2) Look at the outline you’ve made. Identify ideas that seem out of place or incomplete. Which ideas should you move to a different part of the essay? Which ideas should you remove entirely? Are there any missing ideas that you should add?

3) Make a new outline based on your observations.

4) Re-write your essay based on the new outline.

This is a pretty straightforward process. I’ve had many of my students revise essays through these four steps. I would encourage you to use these four steps on essays you’ve already written. You may be surprised at how many organizational problems you’re able to find and correct by this method.

If you’re having trouble practicing this method, I have some good news. In my next post on essay organization, I will directly demonstrate my four-step method. You’ll get to see me revise a very poorly done essay that I myself wrote as a first year university student.