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.

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6 Responses to TOEFL Independent Writing: Organizing Your Ideas

  1. Kole April 21, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    I have a question about the writing section.
    For practice writings, I have some students that tend to write single-sentence introduction paragraphs and then move straight into the supporting details.
    If someone writes an excellent writing, but has just one sentence for the intro paragraph, is this likely to negatively affect their score? Could a near-perfect writing be knocked from a 5 to a 4 for this?


  2. David Recine April 27, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    Hello Kole,

    That’s a very good question. I agree with you that single-sentence opening paragraphs are not necessarily “bad” writing. However, such opening paragraphs are shorter than expected by the standards of academic writing. I would advise your students to have longer opening paragraphs. A one sentence opener may seem abrupt, and scorers may perceive that in the opening “some points” are not fully elaborated. A very short opening paragraph can also make the progression of the essay seem less smooth by US academic writing standards. I base my advice to you on the official TOEFL Writing Rubrics: . Feel free to double check the rubrics yourself as well—- it’s always a good reference point for TOEFL Writing practice.

    Have a great day,
    David Recine

  3. Haytham Karar September 11, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    The writing section is my nightmare now a days, i have done TOEFL and scored 93. The worst score was in the writing section where i scored 20. I have been through all Magoosh writing materials but still i didn’t improve in this section, Any advises?

    • David Recine
      David Recine September 13, 2016 at 10:18 am #

      The writing section definitely is a challenge. I have a few pieces of advice that may help you boost your writing score, though. If you haven’t done so already, you should definitely look at some official TOEFL Writing materials from ETS. ETS has a free PDF of sample TOEFL Writing responses written at different score levels. And you get more sample responses with scorer commentary in the Official Guide to the TOEFL.

      You should also consider showing your TOEFL Writing to someone else, either through a TOEFL tutoring session or through a TOEFL forum on the Internet. Sometimes, you really do need feedback in order to improve your TOEFL Writing and figure out how to boost your score.

  4. Krishanu September 17, 2016 at 11:05 am #

    I have got a question on writing section section.
    Should I write in a simple language or should I use fanciful literature for getting optimum marks. Any suggestion for this.
    Thank You.

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