How to Write Good Pieces of Writing for the Cambridge CAE Exam

The writing part of the Cambridge Advanced exam is the one parts where most candidates get their lowest mark on. I've seen many students get high marks on the other parts of the exam and do badly on the writing.

The main reason why many students do badly on this part is not their knowledge of English (otherwise they wouldn't pass - and some pass very well - on the other parts), but because of their lack of ability to write well.

Learning how to write well

Normally, I find that students who write well in their own language are the ones who get the highest marks in the writing part of the Cambridge Advanced exam. The reason why is that apart from the language, there is little difference between writing well in English and writing well in any other language.

But that doesn't mean if writing doesn't come naturally to you - in either your own language or English - that you can't improve it. You can, you just need to understand a few things about what makes a piece of writing successful.

Once you understand the logic of writing, it will not only make writing easier, but you'll be able to produce a successful piece of writing. And for the CAE exam, this means something which passes.

So, let's look at what you need to know. And you'll start by learning what the most important thing to know is to write well.

What decides if a piece of writing is successful or not?

When I ask this question to my students, they always respond by saying the vocabulary, the structure, the argument, not making many mistakes etc... And although all of these contribute to making a good piece of writing, they don't decide if a piece of writing is successful.

In fact, it is not a 'what' makes a pieces of writing successful, but a 'whom'. And that is the reader(s).

As the writer, you may think you've written something pretty good, but if the person reading it doesn't agree, then unfortunately you haven't.

Realising that it is the reader that decides and giving them what they want and expect is essential if you want to consistently produce good pieces of writing.

What do they want when they read something?

When anybody (including ourselves) reads anything, they have a reason(s) for doing it. For example, why would you read a news story in a newspaper or on a news website?

The answer is that you want to learn information about what has happened or is happening. If you don't get this, then the piece of writing is not successful.

Why people read things and what they are looking for differs depending on what they are reading (it's not the same when reading a review for a mobile phone as it is when reading an essay from a school student, for example).

You need to think from the perspective of the reader of the type of piece of writing and give them what they are looking for. This may seem difficult, but it actually isn't because of the following.

Each piece of writing has a main purpose

Generally, a reader has one main purpose in mind when reading something. They want it to do a specific thing. If it doesn't do that, they won't be happy.

To demonstrate this, what do you think is the purpose for the majority of people who choose to read a review for a mobile phone?

Although some people reading it may be interested in reading about mobile phones or want to see what the reviewer's opinion is of a mobile phone they've already bought, for the vast majority of people reading that review, they are reading it so that they can make a decision: Do they buy it or not. So for a review, its main purpose is to help someone make a decision.

And it is the same for the other types of pieces of writing (and the ones you'll also find in the Advanced exam (a report, an essay, an email or a proposal)) as well. The purpose of the reader may be different for each (for example, the purpose of a teacher reading a student's essay is not to make a decision to do something obviously), but each has one.

And knowing what this main purpose is for each will help you to choose what you do and don't need to include when writing it.

Everything you choose to include in a review for example should be focused on helping somebody make that decision.

In the Advanced exam you do, this purpose will often be directly said or implied in the writing task you are given.

For example, look at the below parts which I have underlined of a writing task for a report from an actual Cambridge Advanced exam and decide what the main purpose of the reader is:

You have just finished a three-week study and work programme in an English-speaking country. You studied English language in the mornings and worked for a local company in the afternoons. The programme organiser has asked you to write a report about your experience. In your report, you should evaluate the programme, explaining which part of the programme was more useful, and suggest changes you would recommend for next year's programme.

Write your report.

The purpose of the reader (which is the programme organiser) reading it is to know whether they need to make changes/improvements (and to what) to the programme they are responsible for. If your report enables them to do this, then it should be successful.

You are told what you have to include, mostly

In the task for the piece of writing in the Advanced exam, you'll be told about what you need to write about and what things you have to include in the piece of writing you do.

For example, in the below task for the same report as before I have underlined the area you need to write about and the things you need to include:

You have just finished a three-week study and work programme in an English-speaking country. You studied English language in the mornings and worked for a local company in the afternoons. The programme organiser has asked you to write a report about your experience. In your report, you should evaluate the programme, explaining which part of the programme was more useful, and suggest changes you would recommend for next year's programme.

Write your report.

If you don't include or talks about these, you will lose points for not doing the task.

However, the tasks you are given won't tell you what exactly you have to write about. For example, for the above report what the changes are you'll recommend. You have to come up with these. And this requires you to do a bit of thinking about what is relevant to write about for these things. And what is relevant depends on who the reader is going to be.

It needs to be relevant to the reader

What you write about needs to be relevant and/or useful for the reader. For example, if you are giving advice about what to do in a city to a person who's going to it, would you recommend the same things to do for somebody who is 20 as you would to somebody who is 60? No, you wouldn't.

You'll find who the reader is in the task for the piece of writing you are given in the exam (like in the previous example of a report from the exam, the reader is the programme organiser of the study and work programme).

As I have repeatedly said before, it is the reader who decides if a piece of writing is successful or not. So put yourself in the position of the reader and include things which are both relevant for them and help them to achieve the purpose they are reading it for.

If in the exam, you write about things which are not relevant or useful for the reader and their purpose for reading it, you will lose points.

But it's not only what you choose to write about that matters

Although knowing the reader's purpose, writing about the things you were asked to and choosing things which are relevant are very important in making a piece of writing successful, if what you've written is confusing or difficult for the reader to read, then the piece of writing won't be successful.

To make a piece of writing easy to read, there are certain things you also have to do when writing it.

Use a specific structure

To make our lives easier we form habits and have certain expectations of what certain things will do and where certain things will be. For example, the location of your toothbrush. When you go to brush your teeth, you expect your toothbrush to be in a specific place. If for some reason it changed position everyday in the bathroom, it would cause us to get confused, frustrated and maybe even angry.

And it's the same with reading a piece of writing. Before reading it, we all have certain expectations (based on experience) of what we are going to find in it and where this is going to be. If something is missing in the piece of writing or the order of it is different to what we expect, then like with the changing position of the toothbrush, it will confuse and frustrate us.

So when writing it is important to know what the structure of a type of piece of writing is and what each of these parts is there to do.

For the types of things you will be expected to write for the Advanced exam, each of them as a three part structure. However, what each part does and includes differs depending on what you are writing. The structure of an essay for example is going to be different to that of the structure of an email.

What you write needs to flow

Using the specific structure for a piece of writing, is the first thing that makes reading it easier for the reader. However, in order to make it easy for the reader (and stop them getting confused, lost and frustrated), you also need to connect the parts (sentences and paragraphs) of what you've written together so that they are understandable and the piece flows.

You do this firstly by using words and phrases that clearly explain to the reader what some sentences are going to express (e.g. surprise, happiness, sadness, a different time etc...) or do (e.g. state if something is a fact or an opinion, emphasises something, lists reasons etc...).

This is often done by using adverbs and linkers like unfortunately, firstly, regarding, especially, besides, due to etc... For example:

I failed my maths exam. Consequently, my parents have got me a maths tutor in order to improve my scores.

There are two reasons for why this happened. Firstly, the cost of travelling to the country. And secondly, the time it takes to get a visa for there.

And secondly, you need to make them aware of any changes they are going to encounter when reading. You do this especially if they are going to be reading about a new topic (e.g. if you change from talking about the present situation to the future) or a change in opinion (you go from talking about the positive effects of something to the negative effects for example) in the text. If you don't do this, the reader will become confused by the change.

When you talk about new things or give a different opinion on something you've said before, you should always do this in a new paragraph. When people reading see a new paragraph in a piece of writing, they instinctively expect a change in something.

To help people know what exactly they are going to read in a new paragraph, the topic/focus of that paragraph should be introduced. This can happen either in the last sentence of the previous paragraph or in the first sentence of the new paragraph.

If it is in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, you refer to what the topic of the new paragraph will be. For example, see the part in bold of the below exerts of 2 paragraphs: a result, the company decided that they needed to delay the launch of the product until they had found what was causing the problem.

In order to identify it, they began to perform rigorous testing on every component in the mobile...

If it is in the first sentence of the new sentence, you can refer to the topic of the previous paragraph (often using linkers, like however, in addition to etc...) in this opening sentence. These linkers also tell the reader if you are going to contradict what you have said in a previous paragraph or give more evidence to support the opinion you have made in it. For example, see the part in bold of the below exerts of 2 paragraphs:

...But after they did, that wasn't necessary anymore, we had a small device that could be easily carried anywhere and could pretty much do most things that could be done on desktop or laptop computers."

However, it wasn't just having a computer in our pockets that made them so revolutionary, it was the change in our behaviour that they caused. Carry it everywhere meant that...

Doing this is especially important to do if the topic of the new paragraph is not what people would expect to read (it doesn't logically follow). For example, if the previous paragraphs of a piece of writing have been on bicycles and the topic of the next paragraph is on cars.

If you don't introduce what this big change in topic is in such cases, it will make the readers become very confused when reading it. And this is bad writing.

Using the right register/style of vocabulary

Like with speaking to people, the style and type of vocabulary you use in writing differs depending on who the reader is. For example, you wouldn't use the same type of words when you are speaking in a job interview as you would when talking to a good friend. And it is exactly the same in a piece of writing. Depending on what it is you are writing and who the reader(s) is, will affect if you have to use formal English (e.g. require) or less formal English (e.g. need) vocabulary.

In addition to the vocabulary you use, also certain types of grammatical and vocabulary structures are or are not used. For example, you can use contractions (e.g. I've or she'd) and phrases verbs (e.g. show off or pop round) in pieces of writing which use less formal English, but never in those which require formal English.

Use vocabulary for the topic

When writing for the Advanced exam, you need to show that you have a good knowledge and use of the vocabulary that is used for the topic you are writing about. For example, if you are writing a review on a book, you need to include many words which are connected to both books (e.g. chapter, plot, narrate etc...) and when giving an opinion about a book (e.g. a page turner, dull, thrilling etc...).

Use a range of vocabulary

In the Advanced exam, you are marked on the range of vocabulary you use in your pieces of writing. So, you need to show that you have a good command and use of vocabulary by frequently using a variety (i.e. not just using the same word again, but using synonyms of it (such as using 'due to the fact that' or 'since' in addition to 'because')) and some advanced terms instead of simple English equivalents (e.g. gasp, enquire, rule out etc...).

This is especially important to do with cohesive devices (words and phrases which link ideas in a single sentence and between different sentences together). So make sure you use both a variety of these terms (like linkers (e.g. nonetheless, besides, for instance, etc...) and adverbs (e.g. firstly, consequently, eventually etc...)) in your pieces of writing.

Also learn set phrases which are used in different types of writing you will be given questions on. For example, "This report examines whether...", "It's great to hear from you..." etc...). And learn in what specific part of the structure they are used in (e.g. the introduction, the conclusion etc...).

Use a range of grammatical structures

Like with the vocabulary, you need to show (and are marked on) that you have a good command and use of grammatical structures in English. Both simple structures (like the present simple, comparatives etc...) and more advanced structures (like inversions, conditionals, reported speech, reduced clauses etc...).

Learn and practise using these advanced grammatical structures correctly before you go to the exam and make sure you include some of them in all the pieces of writing you do.

Don't contradict yourself

In many of the types of the pieces of writing you have to do for the Advanced exam you will have to give different opinions on the thing that you are writing about. For example, when writing a review about a hotel you stayed at on holiday, you will talk about the good and bad things about the place.

This is fine to do (and it is expected that you will do it for many of the things you are asked to write). However, don't contradict what you have written in the majority of the text with what you write at the end.

What I mean when I say this is that the last part of the piece of writing you write (apart from letters/emails) is a summary or a conclusion of everything you've written before it. By the time the person gets to that last part, the reader should already know what they are going to read at the end. If it's a review, they should know or be able to guess whether you are going to recommend the thing you are reviewing. If it's an essay, they should know which of the two factors you've written about you believe is the most important one. This is because of everything you've written before.

If they get to this last part and are surprised with your recommendation or conclusion, then this means you've contradicted what you've written before (for example, recommend somebody to say at a hotel at the end after being more negative than positive about it in the rest of the review you've written).

Make sure that the things you choose to write about support the opinion that you express in that recommendation or conclusion at the end. And doing this is easy when you do something just before you start writing.

Plan what you are going to write

There is one more thing you must do when writing something for Advanced exam; and that is to spend time planning what you are going to write before you actually start writing it.

Planning is essential to writing anything well. And when I read my own students pieces of writing, it is easy for me to know who has planned what they've written and who hasn't.

By spending 5 to 10 minutes thinking about what you have to write (the purpose of it, doing what the task asks and choosing what things you should and shouldn't write about) and how you write it (the structure you need, what advanced vocabulary and grammatical structures to use etc...), you will not only make a lot less mistakes, but you'll also make something which is easy to read and does what it should do.

You have more than enough time to both plan what you have to write and write the piece of writing in the exam.

Learn about the different pieces of writing

Although you can use everything from above with all the different pieces of writing you'll be asked to write in the Cambridge Advanced exam (essays, reports, letters/emails, proposals and reviews), there are differences between them which you need to know (for example, each will have a different main purpose and structure) if you are going to write them well.

Learning what these differences are before you start writing them will make them far easier to write when you do.

Learn from your mistakes

Now you know what makes a good piece of writing and what you have to do to make it successful for the Cambridge Advanced exam. However, like with learning anything new, it takes time to put all these things together and produce a good piece of writing. So don't worry if after reading this, the first thing you write doesn't get a high mark from the teacher who has marked it.

Your pieces of writing will improve with both practice and (more importantly) with you identifying in them the things you've done well and not well in them. Once you know what areas you need to improve (and not improve) on in your writing, the quality (and the marks) of the pieces your writing will get better.

To help you do this, we have a writing checklist which you can use to quickly evaluate if a piece of writing does or doesn't do all the things it should do.

To see the writing checklist, go to the below web page:

Cambridge Advanced Exam Writing Checklist.