How to pass FCE … WRITING

The writing paper consists of two parts: There is a compulsory question in Part 1
and one question from a choice of 5 in Part 2. Each question carries equal marks.
You have 1 hour 20 minutes to complete the task.
The aim of the exam is to establish that you are able to write in different styles and that you understand the concept of “register”. (If you don’t know what this is – see below.)
You should start to practice the different tasks as soon as you have decided to take the exam and it is a good idea to create a writing file.
In the writing file you should keep all the writing work you have done yourself as well as examples of good English, such as model letters or reports. You could also add magazine articles or a short stories.

What is “register”?
Register is the correct style of writing (and speaking) for the situation. You don’t speak to your boss or your bank manager in the same way as you speak to your friend, do you? You use different words for different people: “I apologise” to your boss, and “I’m sorry” to your friend.
We do the same thing when we are writing. You write an e-mail to a friend in a very different way to writing a covering letter for a job.
So the “register” is the choice of vocabulary plus the style of writing (formal or informal).

When you are writing your letter or report, you should think about the person who is READING it. The exam question will tell you to write to a friend, or to your teacher or for a school magazine (so the readers will be students in this case).
The examiner will consider himself as the reader (your friend, your colleague, a magazine reader or the Director who asked for the report.)
So, don’t think, “Oh, I’ve got to write 120 – 180 words for an exam.”
Think: “I have to write a 120 – 180 word report for my boss.” Or, “I’m writing a magazine article for teenagers.”
Imagine that the situation is REAL.
Before writing you should brainstorm your ideas & organize your answer. When you are satisfied with your ideas write your answer as clearly as possible. You will get zero points if the examiner can’t read your writing.

The exam:
Part 1: This compulsory question asks you to write a letter or an e-mail. You will be given information (from an advert, a letter, an e-mail, a schedule etc) and other notes which you need to read carefully before you start to answer the question.
Use all the information you are given but do not simply recopy it. Add some ideas of your own.
Don’t write any addresses for letters & e-mails.

Formal letter: Do not use contractions. Use a formal register : Dear Mr & Mrs Smith (not “Mister” & “Missus”)
I am writing for further information about…
I look forward to hearing from you,
Yours sincerely,

Informal letter, for example to a friend: use contractions and a bit of chit-chat to make the letter seem real (Hi, how are you? How’s your family? I haven’t seen them for ages!) but get to the point of the letter quickly.
Be natural : Just thought I’d drop you a line to tell you that…/ to ask if you could…../ to see what you think about…./
Finish with an expression such as: Hope to hear from you soon/ I’ll be in touch/ Can you let me know as soon as possible? Then: Love, (if you are a girl or VERY good friends) or Best regards, (men)
Don’t write “kisses”. If you want to express a kiss, do it like this: Love from Jenny, XXX

E-mails are semi-formal, somewhere between the two, even if it is about business. Start with Dear — & finish with Best regards or Kind regards. You can use contractions, but don’t use “text” language. For example, don’t write “C U L8TER” (see you later).

Part 2 The options may include: an article, a story, a report, a review, an essay or another letter.
Letter: If you choose this option, read the instructions carefully. It will tell you to write “in the appropriate style”. If the compulsory letter was informal, this one will probably be formal & vice-versa. Make sure you get the style & register right.

Story: You are often given a sentence to start or finish your story. Eg: “It was midnight and I was all alone in the house. Suddenly someone knocked loudly on the door.”
Or “Without saying a word, John got up and walked out of the room.”
If you enjoy telling stories, then this is a good choice for you. If you have no imagination and you have never practised writing a story before, choose another option.
You should be able to use the story telling tenses: simple past; past continuous; past perfect; past perfect continuous.
There should also be plenty of descriptive adjectives .Use absolute adjectives where possible. For example, don’t say “big”, say “enormous”; don’t say “dirty” say “absolutely filthy”.
You should also use adverbs: suddenly, amazingly, unbelievably…

Click on the link below to go to an American website which has short stories which have been written by amateur (but native speaker) writers. It might give you some ideas.

Essay: This is the classic piece of writing demanded by schools everywhere. It should have an introduction, a clear development or discussion of the subject and a conclusion which gives your opinion. The essay should include your reasons for your opinion and you should give examples which can be from your own experience, from historical or scientific facts, from current affairs etc. Use a formal style, good linking words, make sure there is a logical progression and don’t repeat yourself.

If you do not know what linking words are, ask me for a list of them.

Article: If you enjoy reading magazines & newspapers and you have noticed the journalistic style of writing, then this could be a good choice, but it is quite difficult to do well. Magazine articles use journalistic headlines and sub-headings. They often use rhetorical questions. You must get the reader’s full attention and give some opinion or comment.

Review: This is to describe and give a personal opinion of a book, a film, a restaurant, a holiday, a website… Use your own experience and conclude with your recommendation. There are examples of book, film & restaurant reviews on this blog which I suggest you have a look at. Keep the register formal or semi formal.

Report: This option usually demands factual information which you should present in a clear, logical way. Use subheadings, don’t use contractions and make sure you control your tenses. Is the report about something which happened in the past or which is going to happen at some future date? You can invent some data or statistics to make the report seem real (eg: the vast majority of students (85%) were in favour of ….). Your personal recommendation can be given throughout the report or in conclusion at the end of the report.

Finally, there is a question about a set text (a book). Do not answer this question unless you have studied the book with your English teacher. English Connection students should never choose this option as we do NOT study for it.

Marking system:
When you understand how the exam is marked, you can get a better result.

There are 5 bands. I have written a simplified version of what the examiners are looking for. The University of Cambridge examiners have a much more detailed list which is too long to publish here.

Band 1:Lack of organization, lack of vocabulary, lack of control of grammar, irrelevant answer, question not understood, no understanding of register.
Band 2: Although the task is attempted, communication is limited, many errors make it difficult to understand, poorly organized, register inconsistent.
Band 3: All content points are included, ideas are properly organized, linking words used, correct register is attempted, errors will be present but will not stop the reader from understanding.
Band 4: Ideas are clearly organized & linked together. All points are included, shows good range of vocabulary & structure, an understanding of the appropriate register is demonstrated and is consistent. Grammatical or spelling mistakes do not stop the reader from understanding.
Band 5: The candidate’s writing full achieves the task. All points are included and expanded. Synonyms are used showing a wide range of structures and a rich vocabulary. Errors are few, do not stop understanding & are probably due to ambitious attempts at difficult structures. The register is consistent and appropriate to task.

One more thing. Have you noticed that throughout this article on FCE writing (which is about 1,500 words, by the way) I have only used an exclamation mark once and I have not found it necessary to use the word “indeed” at all.
Would all lycée students please note that we do not want to see “indeed” used four times in 180 words and we don’t want to see more than two exclamation marks in your text either.

I hope this information will help you to achieve a Band 4 or Band 5 result.

There will soon be examples of reports, stories, essays and articles at FCE (B2) level on this blog, as well as a writing competition, so come and visit it often.