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TOEFL Tuesdays: Formatting Your Essays

When I’m reading students essays, sometimes I have trouble understanding because of formatting. I actually like this problem a little bit, because it’s so easy to fix! It can cause trouble for the reader if you don’t format your essay well, but you only need to spend a few minutes learning the rules and practice using them to solve the problem and make reading the essay easier. And for the TOEFL, it helps your score if the reader can understand more easily!


These are one of the simplest and most important tools for organizing an essay. If you don’t use, it is still possible to write a perfect-score essay, but usually the best essays will have clear paragraphs. That’s because writing without paragraphs makes transitions and organization much harder to understand. If you separate your thoughts clearly, the reader can see the organization without thinking about it.

Paragraphs are sections of text with different ideas. Right now, you are reading the second sentence of a paragraph. This paragraph is about the definition of a “paragraph.” The paragraph before this was about why they are important. Each section of your essay should also have separations like this. The first paragraph will be an introduction; the second paragraph will be details and explanation, etc.

There are two ways to separate paragraphs. The way I am using right now is by adding a blank line between the paragraphs. If you hit the “enter” key twice, you get a blank line. If you only hit “enter” one time, you will not make a clear separation! There must be a full blank line to separate them.

The second way is to indent. When you start a new paragraph, hit “enter” one time, then “tab” one time. That way is more common American writing, and it is completely acceptable for the TOEFL.

Hitting the enter key is easy! Don’t write in one big square of text. Break your writing into paragraphs to make reading and understanding your essay easier.

Capital Letters

Capital letters, like the big “C” at the beginning of this sentence, are not very important for meaning, but they are very standard and simple. If you don’t use them, the essay reader might think you are not experienced with written English, because they are so basic. Yes, SMS messages sometimes avoid capital letters, but the TOEFL is not an SMS. In fact, any time you write on a keyboard, you should use capital letters, including email. If you don’t use capital letters, your writing will look childish.

There are three main times to use capital letters in your essay: at the beginning of the sentence (every sentence, after every full stop), at the beginning of a name, and for the word “I.” Be sure that you capitalize all three if you want to look like a comfortable English writer.

Unlike other languages, you do not capitalize every noun in English. If the word is not the name of a person or city, for example, it probably doesn’t get a capital letter (although languages like “English” do get capital letters). Look at this post carefully and see how few capitals there are. Don’t capitalize for emphasis either. The TOEFL is an academic test, so you should follow the rules of academic English. Capitalization is never a choice on the TOEFL. Either it is a word that should be capitalized, or it shouldn’t be—the writer doesn’t decide.


There are four common punctuation marks I want to mention here:

  1. the comma [ , ]
  2. the period [ . ]
  3. the semicolon [ ; ]
  4. the colon [ : ]

The rules for using these are very complicated, so I won’t explain them all here. But I want to make one simple, clear point: after all four marks, you must include a space. Hit the space bar one time after any punctuation mark (but not before).

For example, you should write “My brother, John, is a dentist” and not “My brother,John,is a dentist.

To be honest, including or missing spaces won’t change your TOEFL writing score. No single formatting issue alone will change your score—other parts are much more important. Correct vocabulary, correct grammar, clear details, good transitions, and advanced language all affect your score much more. But including spaces after punctuation is very easy, and if it might influence the reader a little bit, it’s worth doing correctly!