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Prewriting in TOEFL Independent Writing: Outlining

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

TOEFL independent writing outline

As I mentioned in my last post, prewriting a TOEFL Independent Writing essay involves two steps: brainstorming and outlining. Brainstorming involves writing down your ideas for the essay, in the form of words and short phrases. From there, you choose which ideas you’ll actually use in your outline and essay. In my previous post on brainstorming, I used this TOEFL Independent Writing question:

  • Some people prefer to leave their house and see movies in the theater. Others would rather stay at home and watch movies on their TV screen or on a computer. Which one do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

And I came up with this as my list of brainstorm ideas for making my outline and essay:

watch at home
theater = too expensive
more choices @ home
home = easier w/small children
theater = stress

From here, we’ll build on these brainstorm notes to make an outline for the essay.

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Making a TOEFL Independent Writing outline

Now to turn these simple brainstorming notes into an outline. For the outline, I will create a brief description of the essay’s introduction, body, and conclusion. Here is my outline:

Paragraph 1: Introduction, prefer watch movies @ home
P2: more choices at home — all available movies, recent and past (theater — only newest ones)
P3: home watching = best if you have kids — hard to get kids into car, to movies, kids more comfortable @ home
P4: home movies = cheaper, theater many expenses (gas, snacks, movie tickets)
P5: conclusion: choices, family friendliness, budget >> home watching = best

Now obviously this outline doesn’t have anywhere near all of the things I’ll write in the essay. But that’s the idea; the outline should be a short list of the main ideas that you’ll write. Think of the outline as a “recipe” for your essay. Each idea is one of the ingredients for the essay. And the order of the ingredients, with paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, are the instructions on how to put the ingredients into the essay, so that the final product is good.

But we’re not done with this “recipe” yet! Notice that the outline provides for five paragraphs of writing, the kind you’d see in a five paragraph essay. But as Kate has mentioned before, your TOEFL essay should be a simpler version of a five paragraph essay. You won’t have time to write a full five paragraphs. So you’ll want to put your introduction, body, and conclusion into just three paragraphs.

So we’ll revise out outline slightly, just as we made small changes to our brainstorming notes before we moved on to the outline itself.

Here is the changed outline, now designed for a four-paragraph TOEFL Writing response:

Paragraph 1:  Introduction, prefer watch movies @ home, for choices, convenience, save money
P2: more choices @ home, home = more kid friendly environment, save money @ home
P3: Movie: inconveniences (smaller selection, kids not comfortable) expenses (gas, snacks, movie tickets),
P4: Conclusion: choices, family-friendly, save $ >>> home watching = best

As you can see, I’ve now rearranged the outline so that all the benefits of watching movies at home are in one paragraph. Then, all the disadvantages of watching movies in the theater are mentioned in the second part of essay body.

And now we have an outline that’s perfect. It’s simple, well-constructed, and ready to be expanded into a full essay. In my next post, we’ll look at the next step after prewriting: changing your TOEFL Independent Writing outline into a full essay.

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2 Responses to Prewriting in TOEFL Independent Writing: Outlining

  1. Soheil Ershad August 9, 2018 at 7:44 am #

    Hello and thank you for your useful tips.
    Could you kindly help me with questions like this:

    “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

    People today spend too much time on personal enjoyment-doing things they like to do-rather than doing things they should do.

    Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

    For example, I agree with this statement. In support of my view, I am not sure whether I should address the reasons that caused this issue (for example, people focus on short term goals rather than long term ones), or explain the results of this over-spending of time (for example, we can see that people are destroying nature for the sake of enjoyment)?

    I would be most grateful if you would answer this question.

    • David Recine
      David Recine August 11, 2018 at 11:55 am #

      Great question, Soheil! 🙂 Both reasons for the problem and results of the problem should be used together in this kind of TOEFL Task 2 essay. In the case of results, however, you want to be as specific as possible, since results would likely fall under the “examples” category in the question instructions. So for your result, it would be better to go into more detail as follows:

      “For example, we can see that people are destroying nature for the sake of enjoyment. Often, a community will destroy a forest to build a movie theater or mall, but these short term pleasures cause long-term environmental problems.” For your examples/results, in other words, you want to describe a very specific situation– something the reader can picture.

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