Vigorous Writing on the TOEFL

When it comes to writing, there is one major difference between the expectations of language learners and language users. In language class, you’re constantly practicing and showing off new words and structures, so that when test time comes, complicated language is the order of the day. In an English classroom, this is a great chance to practice and experiment, but on the TOEFL or in college classes, you should focus on writing as cleanly and clearly as possible. When writing your essays, you will have a maximum of 30 minutes to make your point, so it’s crucial that every word count.

Elements of Style

If you’ve never heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, try to track down a copy. Although it sometimes seems outdated, it’s still an excellent resource for English stylistics and composition, and many teachers consider it the Bible of English grammar. Strunk and White were masters of precise language; here’s what they had to say on the subject:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Source: Strunk, William, Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Bartleby.


Make every word tell

When you write in a foreign language, it’s tempting to include series of modifiers to clarify your writing, but strive to rein yourself in. Repetition and parallel structures have a place, but when you’re faced with such a limited time frame in which to make your point, it’s far better to choose the best word and move on. You may have heard the acronym KISS—“keep it simple, stupid.” As you prepare essays, make this your guiding principle. Instead of choosing  a few words that fit, find the one word that fits best. Instead of cluttering your paragraphs with ornate sentences, use the most direct sentence that effectively communicates your point and gives your writing a pleasant rhythm.

Common Over-Complications

Here’s a handful of common over-complications I encounter in students’ writing and how I recommend they fix them.


Remember that the scorers of the TOEFL writing section will care as much about the development of your argument as your language ability. If you are confident in your writing abilities in your native language, then this should come as a relief. In any case, keep practicing your writing and reading from lots of different sources, and you should have no problem creating beautiful essays!


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  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!

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