Step by Step Guide to Improve Your Writing for the TOEFL Writing Section

The TOEFL Writing Section will test how well you can write in English. In order to become a better writer, follow this step-by-step guide and you will improve your writing for the TOEFL exam.

Step 1 – Start Small

The first place to start is to read, study and practice writing academic sentences. To do this, find articles and passages in college textbooks, language books or reading materials online on academic subjects. The best ones to look at will contain reading comprehension follow-up questions at the end of the passage.

Once you find your academic article or passage, read it thoroughly. You should not only pay attention to the content of the passage, but also the way the main ideas are laid out. See the way the paragraphs and sentences are structured and examine the vocabulary and grammar variations used. Take notes on the article, and underline or circle words you think are important.

Finally, after you read the passage, answer the follow-up questions at the end. Use the same academic style of writing you saw in the passage. And then check your answers with an answer key or by asking a teacher to review your work.

Step 2 – Paraphrasing and Summarizing

Often in academic writing, and in the TOEFL Integrated Writing task, you are expected to write about something else you have read or listened to. This can be done in three ways: quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing.

When you directly use the exact words of another in your writing, then you are quoting them. In order to avoid plagiarism, you must use quotation marks (“ ”) around the text. To be a good writer, you should rarely use quoting. In the TOEFL exam, especially, quoting another does not show your writing skills and should be avoided.

Paraphrasing is similar to quoting, but you don’t use the exact words of another. You come up with your own, different words to say the same thing. When you paraphrase, you still need to give credit to the original source. In an academic paper, this is known as a citation. You won’t need to use citations in the TOEFL exam, but you will need to give credit to the source. You can do this by starting your sentence with, “According to the author/speaker…”

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Finally, summarizing is recap of the main idea for the entire paragraph or passage you have read. A summary typically appears when writing the introduction and conclusion. Summaries should always be in your own words and don’t need to be cited.

Step 3 – Make a List

Now that you have read several academic articles and have written about them, it is time to try your hand at writing. Practice writing your opinion on a given topic. This is what you will be expected to do in the second TOEFL writing task, the Independent Writing.

To prepare for this, first make a list of topics to write about. Think about some of the topics you saw in the academic passages. Were you interested in any of them? The best place to start is with controversial topics that you are passionate about and opinionated on. For example, maybe you are passionate about global warming or gun control. Also write down topics from everyday life like getting married or travelling. Lastly, you should also write down some topics that you are not that interested in. You never know what kind of topic you will get in the TOEFL exam, so you should prepare for topics that both interest you and ones you don’t care about.

There are many online sources with lists of opinion topics. Search for questions like, “Do you agree or disagree…” and “Which would you prefer…” to compile your list of topics.

Step 4 – Brainstorming

Once you have your list of topics you are ready to start brainstorming on those topics. First, choose a topic. Then, spend two to three minutes brainstorming about this topic.

Your ultimate goal should be to think about only one side of the issue and expand your ideas. What experience do you have that causes you to feel this way? Have you read or seen anything in the news that has persuaded you? This may be easy for the topics you care about, but for others, your brainstorming may be all over the place. That’s okay at first, but eventually, you want to be able to write passionately and persuasively about only one side.

In the TOEFL exam, you won’t have a lot of time for brainstorming, so having a large list of topics and brainstorming on each of them in advance will help you save time on test day.

Step 5 – Debating

Now that you have brainstormed a topic and thought of ways to persuasively argue one side of the issue, it is time to debate that topic. Before you start writing down your ideas, say them out loud. Are you convinced with that position? Are there other ways to better elaborate your point? Maybe ask a friend to help and debate the other side of the topic. Through debate, you will discover more ways to add support to your opinion in your writing.

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Step 6 – Outlining

Creating an outline is one of the most important steps in essay writing. An outline provides you with the structure of your essay and makes it easier for you when you are writing. A traditional academic essay looks like this:
1. Introduction Paragraph = State the thesis statement (your opinion) and 3 main reasons
2. Body Paragraph 1 = restate 1st main reason with 2-3 supporting details
3. Body Paragraph 2 = restate 2nd main reason with 2-3 supporting details
4. Body Paragraph 3 = restate 3rd main reason with 2-3 supporting details
5. Conclusion Paragraph = summarize the thesis statement and 3 main reasons

Your outline should follow a similar structure:
1. Thesis statement (your opinion) =
2. Reason 1 =
a. Supporting detail 1 =
b. Supporting detail 2 =
3. Reason 2 =
a. Supporting detail 1 =
b. Supporting detail 2 =
4. Reason 3 =
a. Supporting detail 1 =
b. Supporting detail 2 =

Note, in the TOEFL exam, you will probably only have time to write about 2 reasons for your opinion, and only 1 supporting detail for each reason.

At first, your outline may take you 5-10 minutes to write. In the TOEFL exam, you should only spend 2-3 minutes on your outline, so practice getting faster at outlining each time you do it.

Step 7 – Start Writing

Now that you have an outline, and know the structure of your essay, it is time to start writing. Start with your introduction, where you advocate your position on the topic, and name your reasons for that position. In each body paragraph, cover one of your reasons with supporting details. The best supporting details for the TOEFL come from past personal experiences. End your essay with a conclusion that summarizes your position and reasons.

While you write, keep in mind the academic writing style you studied before. Use transitional words and phrases to connect one concept with the next. Use a wide range of grammatical structures and vocabulary as much as possible.

Try to write your essay in 20 minutes or less and aim to write about 350-400 words. This is the recommended time limit and recommended length in the TOEFL exam.

Step 8 – Review

Once you have finished writing, it is very important to review what you wrote. In the TOEFL exam, you should only have about 1-2 minutes left for editing, so first do a quick read through. Then take more time to analyze what you have written a second time more slowly. Check your grammar and spelling. Did you overuse the same word or use simple words when there is a better synonym? Correct your essay and make changes to it. Revising and reflecting on how you did is the best way to improve.

After reviewing your essay by yourself, ask for help. If you need someone to read your writing, we have a team of TOEFL-trained teachers who can correct your mistakes and give you detailed comments. Click here for more information.

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