If you’re preparing for one of the Cambridge English exams (B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency), another English exam like IELTS, TOEFL, and TOEIC, or even if you’re not preparing for any exam, it’s useful to learn how to write better. Generally, language learners don’t practise writing as much as they should and it’s usually the one skill they’ll find any excuse to avoid.
Although we spend a lot of our time chatting on Whatsapp and other messaging apps, frantically typing and texting, we rarely sit down and write a complete, well constructed composition. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students really struggle with this part of the Cambridge English exams and often the biggest problem they have is that their compositions are a little bit too basic. A little bit too simple The examiners are looking for complex sentences and these five tips that I’m going to share with you now will help you to level up your writings… and it’s not as complicated as you may think!
1. Compound sentences
The first tip is very quite simple but very effective. As I mentioned, a lot of my students tend to form quite basic sentences in their writings. They tend to write paragraphs with five, six or even seven short, simple sentences and what you need to be able to do is link those sentences by forming compound sentences. A compound sentence is simply a sentence with two or more subjects. So, basically, it’s two independent clauses which you link together, or you connect, with a linking word of some kind (but, so, yet, nor, or, for).
“The first text discusses issues of technology in modern society. It doesn’t mention social media.” These are two simple sentences but you can easily link them by using “but”:
“The first text discusses the issue of technology in modern society BUT it doesn’t mention social media.” You think that’s too simple? Well, maybe substitute “but” for “yet”. “The first text discusses the issue of technology in modern society YET it doesn’t mention social media” – “Yet” in this context is a synonym of “but”.
This may seem like quite an obvious tip, but it’s so easy to include in your compositions and very often overlooked.
2. Relative clauses
Tip number two is to use more relative clauses in your compositions. The examiners in the Cambridge English exams are looking for a wide range of grammatical structures so this is a very simple way of forming complex sentences and using another grammatical structure.
With relative clauses we use one of these words: who, whose, that, which, where and when. They can be defining relative clauses or non-defining relative clauses – don’t worry too much about the the terminology and the grammar, when you see the examples, it will be clear and you’ll see that it’s not so complicated and quite simple to add to your essays, reports or your articles to make them more advanced and sophisticated.
Example of a non-defining relative clause:
“Climate change, which has been an issue for many decades, will continue to be a problem.” Here we have “Climate change will continue to be a problem.” That’s a sentence on its own, but if you include a non-defining relative clause in the middle between the commas then you’re adding extra, non-essential information. It’s not defining the subject, it’s just extra information.
Example of a defining relative clause:
“The issue which concerns most people nowadays is climate change.” Here, the relative clause is not between commas because it’s a defining relative clause, it’s defining “issue”, in this case. There are many “issues” but you need to define the “issue” with the clause. It’s essential information, it’s necessary for the sentence to make sense.
Inversion is a grammartical structure that we don’t use that much in spoken English, especially not colloquial, day-to-day English. However, it’s very useful for your writings, above all the more formal compositions. Watch this video for a detailed explanation on how and when to use inversion. For the purposes of this article, I’ll give you an example sentence:
The normal sentence is. “We can reduce our carbon footprint by taking public transport and eating less meat.” (You’ll have noticed that i use a lot of examples about climate change and the environment because it’s very common in the exams) That’s just a normal sentence but with the inversion structure it would be “Not only can we reduce our carbon footprint by taking public transport but also by eating less meat.”
Remember, with inversion the verb and the subject change places: they invert. If you can use one example of inversion in your essay, for example, you will get more marks because it’s what examiners are looking for: a range of grammatical structures
4. Cleft Sentences
Cleft sentences are also examples of complex sentences, so they contain more than one clause. The idea of a cleft sentence is to change the order of the information in the sentence in order to add emphasis or to focus on one particular piece of information in the sentence. Cleft sentences are similar to inversion in that way but they use a slightly different structure and with different clauses.
Example: The normal sentence would be “More investment needs to be made in education:” but as a cleft sentence you could say “It is education that needs more investment.”
So, here, you’re starting with “It is education”. It’s an extra clause and, although it contains the same information , it’s expressed in a different way. Again, the examiners are looking for that type of structure: somethingwhich can demonstrate to them that you understand and can use these more complex grammatical structures and form complex sentences.
5. The Passive Voice
My final tip is to use the passive voice. That may seem a quite basic tip but I’ve noticed with my students that they don’t use the passive voice enough, and it’s a very simple structure to use when you want to make a text more formal. This is particulary useful for the essay, the report, the proposal, some articles and reviews (depending on the target reader).
Example “Scientists believe that the earth is getting warmer.” That’s a normal, active sentence but if you change it to passive it looks like this: “It is believed that the earth is getting warmer.” In this case it’s not really necessary to specify that it’s scientists who believe this. You imagine if you’re writing an essay or a report or whatever that you know it’s some kind of an expert, so scientists are probably the ones who believe this, so it’s not necessary to mention the agent of the action. That’s a much more appropriate structure for a formal writing composition.
You should know how to construct the passive voice, it’s just about actively thinking about it and while you’re writing, or in your planning stages of writing, decide how you’re going to include it in your essay or whatever composition you’re writing.
Bonus tip – Use cohesive devices!
You really should be using a wide range of cohesive devices (linkers, connectors) because they are very important to help with the flow and organisation of the composition. They could be very basic linkers like “and, but, because, so” or they could be more advanced and sophisticated like “furthermore, moreover, nevertheless.” but you need to think about how your composition flows and how the reader is going to read it.
I correct dozens of of my students’ compositions every month and some are just nice and pleasant to read because they flow in a natural way whereas with others, I have to force myself to get through them because the cohesive devices are not used effectively or maybe not used at all. You can use cohesive devices to link sentences, to link ideas to present ideas or to contrast ideas and if you use them effectively it really will improve your your compositions.
Now… stop procrastinating and start writing!!!