First class writing


Welcome to this workshop, in which we will explore what is required for effective exam writing and look at strategies that will help you succeed. Within this handout you will find several exercises, which you may complete and return to the Writing Centre for feedback if you wish.

We are very limited as to what we can cover in a one-hour session so if you feel you would benefit from more in-depth guidance please make an appointment to see the Writing Centre Co-ordinator.

We hope you find this workshop useful. It is one of a range of services provided to you by the Writing Centre. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to know more about what the Writing Centre offers.

Exercise 1 – What is different about writing for exams?

This exercise is intended to help you think about the particular challenges that you face when writing under exam conditions.

Firstly, if exams are so horrible, why do you have to do them?

Now list the problems that you can encounter when writing an exam answer.

Finally, suggest ways in which you might overcome these problems.

So why do we have exams?

An exam tests all kinds of qualities and abilities, as well as your subject knowledge. These qualities read like a person specification in a job advertisement:

• Good under pressure
• Organised
• Able to think on your feet
• Logical
• See the bigger picture
• Good with detail
• Accurate
• Able to prioritise
• Focused
• Flexible
• Decisive

These are just some of the things you are being asked to demonstrate when you sit an exam.

Everyone knows about the kind of problems you can encounter when sitting an exam. The pressure of having to get it right first time can make some people freeze. We all dread opening an exam paper and finding that we have revised the wrong thing. Some of us feel that we just do not have enough time to say everything that we want. Sometimes we are so tired and stressed that we cannot think clearly.

We are all familiar with the problems, but what can we do about them? Over the next few pages we will explore some strategies that you may find helpful.
Get the basics right

This is a workshop about writing, and we will get to that in a moment, but first, a few words about keeping yourself in good working order. Your brain is just like a car – if you do not maintain it properly, you will not get the best performance from it.

• Eat properly (see Appendix 1)
• Try not to drink too much caffeine and alcohol.
• Get enough rest. (See Appendix 2)
• Make time to do something you enjoy every day.
• Try to get some fresh air.

For more information about looking after yourself during the exam period, see the following websites: How to recognise and deal with stress. Excellent guide to coping with exams. Brief guide to planning revision. Good exam strategies.

So, we have dealt with the basics. Now what about the writing?

A professor of English once said to me that in all exams, no matter what your subject, you are being examined in the art of passing an exam.

There are certain things that you can do to maximise your chances of passing this test.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Start planning your strategy for dealing with exams as far in advance as possible.

Writing an exam answer is just like writing an ordinary essay, except that you have to do it very quickly with reference to nothing but what is in your head.

As you will know if you attended our workshop on essay writing, planning is crucial. Of course when you are writing an ordinary essay, you can decide what you need to know and then go and look it up in the library. The key to exam answers is that you have to anticipate what you need to know and commit it to memory before you start writing. This is often easier said than done. Here are some strategies that might help.

For each exam that you will have to sit, take some time to list what your strengths are and what you feel you need to do more work on. If you have time, you can then address your weaknesses. In any case, no exam can ask you everything about a subject, nor should you attempt to memorise everything about your subject. The key here is to draw up a list of possible exam questions and try to edit it. There will be some things that you know are almost certain to come up. Your tutors may be able to give you some pointers as to what, in their experience, is likely to come up this year. You should be able to find out the structure of the exam in advance. For example, you may have to answer three essay questions in three hours. If you know this, you can edit your revision list accordingly. Perhaps you could identify three things that are almost certain to come up, and concentrate on them. However, it would be a good idea to revise two other topics that are likely to come up. This gives you some room for manoeuvre if one of the expected questions does not appear, or you do not feel confident about answering one of the questions because of the way it is worded.

Once you have your revision list down to, for example, three main topics and two reserves, everything should seem more manageable.

Now you can start revising.


Revising for exams is all about getting the relevant facts and ideas into your short-term memory for easy recall. There are many ways in which you can do this. You will revise more effectively if you understand your own individual learning style and what works for best for you.

Here are some pointers:

• Take regular breaks. Your brain gets tired after 20 –30 minutes, and your concentration will lapse.

• Make sure you are not tired, hungry or cold.

• Try to schedule regular revision slots.

• Reward yourself. If you have done an hour’s revision, allow yourself a treat, such as watching you favourite TV programme.

Your revision style

• When revising, do you find you just keep reading things over and over again in the hope that you will remember them?

• Do you find yourself copying out notes, word for word, in an effort to make the facts stick?

• Do you test yourself to see what you have remembered?

• Do you condense your notes into plans, diagrams or summaries?

• Do you practice writing essay plans?

• Do you practice writing timed essays, as if you were in an exam?

Compare your answers with the person next to you. What revision techniques work for them?

Different methods work for different people. Repeated reading and copying out are not always the best ways of remembering things.

Do you try to summarise when you revise?
Think of revision like the process of producing a rich sauce – you have to keep condensing and concentrating your knowledge until one key word will be enough for you to recall a whole line of argument or group of ideas. There are various ways of doing this.

• Reduce the amount of information you have to learn by taking the most important points from books or lectures and compiling them into ‘revision notes’.

• Work from these notes, rather than the original sources. Work on summarising these notes until you have really refined, concise notes.

• Make sure that these notes contain all the things you will need to know.

• Try condensing a page of notes into 3 or 4 really important points.

• Leave a wide margin on one side of your notes and try to reduce each paragraph or section to one or two key words.

• Use diagrams. For example, write a topic or essay question in the middle of the paper and produce a spider diagram, with all the important points leading from the main topic.

• Try listing points about a topic in order of importance. Then edit them – are there any that aren’t relevant or useful to you? Cross them out.

• Try writing summaries on index cards and carry them with you so you can read them through whenever you get a spare moment.

• Try re-writing your detailed notes using only your summary as a prompt, then look at your original notes to see if you have missed anything out.

• Consider sharing summaries with other people on your course. They might have different perspectives on what the important points are.

Now practice your summarising skills. Summarise the ten points we have discussed above.

Pick out the three most important points. Number them in order of priority.




Exercise adapted from Professor Phil Race, cited in The Effective Learning Programme, University of Sunderland, 1993
Applying your knowledge
Revision should give you the chance to review your learning, and see how it all fits together. At this stage you may start to make connections or see new relationships between the things that you have learned. Try to think critically about your revision – for each fact that you want to learn, ask yourself ‘so what?’ If you know why something is important, you are far more likely to remember it than if you just know you have to learn it ‘because I’ll be asked about it in the exam’.

For example: ‘Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, was first performed in 1603.’


‘Elizabeth I died and James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in this year, so the play may have different meanings when viewed against this political backdrop.’

Looking at things in this way should make you remember them, because you can see how they are connected – things always make more sense when they are not viewed in isolation. Strategies for connecting your ideas include:

• Diagrams or flow charts
• Images or pictures
• Using initial letters to prompt your memory (sometimes called mnemonics, for example Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet)
• Turning your notes into an essay plan
• Testing yourself – writing timed essays
• Putting key ideas on post-it notes around the house (for example, a note on the cupboard where you keep the tea bags means you will read it every time you make a cup of tea).

What about the exam?

So you have prepared properly, summarised your notes and gained a new insight into your subject through focused revision. Now what?

A good exam answer, just like a normal essay, has certain characteristics. If you attended the session on ‘How to write an essay’, you may remember the criteria that a group of tutors listed:

Rank Tutors’ Criteria
1 Answer the question
2 Understanding
3 Argument
4 Relevant information
5 Structure/organisation
6 Evaluation/own views = Presentation/style (equal ranking)
8 Wide reading
9 English/spelling

These criteria remain the same for exam answers. Tutors value your ability to construct an argument and demonstrate your understanding of a subject far more than they do your knowledge of it. In other words, it is not what you know, but what you do with it that counts.

Let us deal with each point in turn.

1. Not answering the question is probably the most common cause of disappointing marks. The temptation to dive in and write everything you know about the subject can be overwhelming, especially when the clock is ticking. This can be overcome by taking five minutes at the beginning of the exam to read through the paper and decide which questions you are going to answer. At this point, you may want to write an essay plan for each question, before you start to write your answers. If you do this, you can add to each one if thoughts come up while you are answering a different question. However, when starting to answer a question, ALWAYS make a plan. There should be extra paper available for this. If you have practiced timed essays, or turned your notes into essay plans, you should be able to construct a good plan in just a few minutes. Take a moment to think carefully about the question. Have you identified the directive words? Are you quite clear what you are being asked for? (If you attended the session on ‘How to write an essay’ you will be familiar with directive words – see the list in Appendix 3).

2. The whole point of an exam is to test your understanding of a subject. There are many ways of demonstrating your understanding. For example, you could:

>show wider reading around your subject

>put your answer in context

>give an overview

>pull together different threads

>critically analyse

>explain how and why

Above all, pay attention to the question and what it is asking you. An exam question should always tell you how it wants you to answer it. Look for directive words such as ‘account for’, ‘discuss’ or ‘to what extent’. You will find a list of common directive words in Appendix 3.

3. As we have discussed in the workshop ‘Introduction to academic writing’, all academic writing must have a claim or an argument. It must attempt to prove or disprove something. In exam conditions, you are quite limited as to the scope and length of your argument. However, ‘thinking out loud’ or writing generally about the subject of the question will not get you many marks. What is being tested is your ability to focus and select relevant information that supports your claim. Do not describe; analyse. You may be thinking: ‘This is impossible! There simply isn’t time to do all this in an exam.’ Try to remember that the quality, not the quantity of your answer is what matters. Far better to spend twenty minutes thinking about your answer and thirty minutes writing a focused, relevant essay than to dive straight in and spend 50 minutes writing unfocused ‘woolly’ remarks. Remember, it’s not what you know but how you apply it.

4. This leads into ‘relevant information’. If you cannot relate a piece of information to your argument, then do not include it. You are unlikely to get extra marks for including something ‘just because you have learned it’. Think carefully about the material you include. Ask yourself:

>does it support my argument?

>can I generate at least a paragraph of discussion or analysis from it?

>how is it going to help my answer?

When you are revising, you may want to be selective about which quotations or pieces of information you commit to memory. Try to select things that can be used in several ways, and will support more than one answer. Work smarter, not harder.

5. Structure and organisation are important in exam answers, even though it is very difficult to be organised when you are under pressure. If at all possible, practice making essay plans. If you can get hold of some past papers, write essay plans for some of the questions. If this is not possible, try to imagine likely questions, or ask your tutor for some, and practice writing essay plans for them. If you can, practice writing some actual timed essays. After you have written one or more on the same subject, you should that find you have developed a general introduction that can be adapted to specific questions without too much effort. If you have done this, you will save yourself valuable time in the exam. However pressured you feel in the exam, always take a few minutes to write an essay plan and always give your answer an introduction and a conclusion. Use ‘signposting’ words to direct the person marking your work through your answer. If your work is easy to read and understand, you are more likely to get a good mark for it.

A few words on structure:

Set out your stall. Perhaps give a brief summary of the background to your answer and the issues involved. Possibly state the line of argument you are going to take and indicate the structure of your answer.

Main body
Develop your argument point by point. Write clearly, simply and back up everything you say with evidence. (See the handout ‘What is academic writing?’ for more information). Structure your answer by using paragraphs (See the handout on ‘Signposting words’ for more information.)

State the opinion you have arrived at through writing the essay. You may find it helpful to summarise (briefly) key issues and findings.

6. Evaluation and your own views are an important part of many exam answers because the examiner wants to know what you think. As we have said in previous workshops, try not to say ‘I think’. Phrases like ‘thus it can be seen that’ or ‘ it is evident that’ can be used to express your opinion. Also, your opinion must always be backed up with evidence. The directive words in the question will often indicate how much of your own opinion is required. Remember the ‘SO WHAT?’ factor. If you refer to a piece of information, say why. Critically evaluate what it is telling you. Make explicit to the reader why you have referred to something and what its significance is.

7. Presentation and style may be important, but examiners will make allowances for the pressures of exam conditions. Try to make your work legible. Try to write in an academic style. As we have discussed in previous sessions, academic style is formal, logical and usually in the third person. Try not to write in a ‘chatty’ or colloquial way.

8. As we have already said, evidence of wide reading can be a good way of demonstrating your understanding of a subject. However, only include evidence of your wider reading where it is relevant.

9. Again, examiners will make allowances for English and spelling under exam conditions, but do try to use correct spelling and grammar. If at all possible, leave five minutes at the end of the exam to read through your work and correct any mistakes. Always try to write clearly and simply. If there are any words that you usually have trouble spelling, look them up and learn them before the exam.

When you get into the exam, here are some points to bear in mind:

Do take a deep breath and remember that in the grand scheme of things, this exam is not important.

Do read through the exam paper before you decide which questions to answer.

Do take a moment to decide how you will tackle the paper (e.g. will you plan all your answers first? Will you start with the hardest or the easiest question?)

Do decide how much time you have per answer and allocate it accordingly (e.g. 5 minutes’ planning time, 30 minutes’ writing time, 5 minutes’ reading-through time per answer).

Do stick to your time plan. If necessary, leave an answer unfinished.

Do think before you dive in.

Do translate the question into your own words, or ‘unpack’ the key words if it helps.

Do make sure you know what you are being asked for.

Do produce a plan for each answer.

Do use diagrams or mind-maps.

Do answer the question.

Do refer to your plan as you write

Do relate everything you write to the question.

Do have an introduction, middle section and conclusion.

Do use the simplest word that says what you mean.

Do use paragraphs to structure your writing.

Do use ‘signposting’ words to direct the examiner around your answer.

Do attempt to answer the correct number of questions (e.g. 2 very good answers will not get you as many marks as 2 average answers and 1 poor answer if you are supposed to attempt 3 questions).

Do pay attention to spelling and punctuation if at all possible.

Don’t panic!

Don’t write anything until you have a plan.

Don’t write things you can’t back up with evidence.

Don’t dump general information without relating it to the question.

Don’t write long complicated sentences.

Don’t use other people’s work or ideas without acknowledging them.

Don’t struggle with writers’ block – just write something!

Don’t try to write too much – quality not quantity matters.

Last word

We hope you have found this session on writing for exams useful. There is a lot of information to take in, but as with everything, the more you practice the techniques we have discussed here today, the easier it will get.

If you would like to discuss exam techniques further, you are welcome to make an appointment with the Writing Centre Co-ordinator. Appointments last for 30 minutes, and you can book them by contacting the Writing Centre via the details given below.

Ursula Hurley
Writing Centre Co-ordinator
0151 291 2048
[email protected]

Appendix One

Feed your brain
If you're about to take exams, now's the time to think about whether you're eating the right foods to help your brain function properly. Yes - it's true - what you eat can make a difference to your performance in an exam. The right foods can help your levels of concentration, ensure you sleep more soundly and lower your anxiety levels. So get eating!

So, what sorts of food will help?
All foods. The brain is powered by energy and this comes from food when it's broken down. The main source of energy for the brain is glucose that comes from carbohydrate-rich foods like cereals, breads and pasta. The brain's energy stores are also very small, so in order to keep it functioning at its best, it needs constant glucose replacement. That's why it's important not to diet during revision and to try and eat healthily.

Snack attack
Avoid sugar, chocolates, sweets, biscuits and other foods that are high in sugar. You might think they'll give you an energy boost, but it's short-lived and can leave you feeling more tired than before.
Limit crisps - although they don't contain sugar, their fat content can make them hard for a nervous stomach to digest.

When you feel as though you need a snack, make sure you leave the room and take a proper break to rest and feed your brain. Try:

• fresh or dried fruits
• unsalted nuts
• a sandwich
• yoghurt
• a bowl of soup
• a fresh-fruit smoothie
• a piece of cheese

Drinks to help
Keep yourself hydrated. Studies have shown that people who drink plenty of water have an easier time concentrating, taking in information and doing mental arithmetic, also suffering from fewer headaches. Keep a glass and jug of tap or bottled water on your desk while studying, and if you can't stand ordinary water, the second-best option is flavour it with a little pure-fruit squash.

• Sugary drinks are better avoided as they can cause your energy levels to drop soon after drinking them.

• Try and drink plenty of water on the morning of an exam, but allow enough time for it to work its way through your system before going in to your exam, so you don't need the loo all the way through!

• Don't get in the habit of relying on caffeine (in tea, coffee and cola) to keep you awake while cramming late into the night, you're more likely to feel tired and panicky the following day.

Stress busters
Make sure you take time out for meals, don't try to work when you're eating dinner or snacking - you'll feel much fresher when you go back to revising.

Don't resort to caffeine tablets - they can increase your anxiety levels and stop you from sleeping.

Remember that exercise and socialising in moderation are good stress relievers.

The night before
Starchy foods like pasta, rice, potatoes and bread are great 'night-before' meals to promote good sleep.

A drink of milk - warm or cold - can help you sleep. Some people think that it's because milk contains the amino acid l-Tryptophan, which can help you feel sleepy. Avoid coffee, tea and cola now, as they may prevent you from sleeping soundly.

D-day breakfast
On the morning of your exam have a high-protein or high-fibre breakfast like eggs, beans or mushrooms on toast, honey on toast, or else a slowly absorbed, wholegrain cereal like porridge, muesli, Weetabix or Branflakes. But if you're feeling too nervous to eat much, a couple of bananas, some raisins or a fruit smoothie will help to keep you going.

Good luck!

Advice reproduced from the BBC website ‘Food’
accessed 14.11.03

Appendix Two
Recognising & Controlling Stress
Exams can be nerve-wracking, and controlling your stress levels around this time can be difficult. However, there are certain steps you can take to help prevent it from taking hold:
• Manage your studying
Don't go mad and lock yourself in with your books 24 hours a day. Two to three hours is the maximum amount of time you can study before you stop really absorbing what you read. So, break up periods of work with periods of relaxation. And reward yourself for your hard work with small treats.
• Eat properly
Feed your head with healthy foods! Avoid very rich or spicy foods, moderate your alcohol intake (or you won't be able to recall what you read), and plan a party for when the exams are done. Vitamin supplements might be worth trying for a few weeks.
• Good sleep is vital
Exam stress sometimes makes sleeping difficult. So, set a definite time to go to bed and stick to it. A period of gentle music, a light snack or a glass of milk and a warm bath will help you relax before bed.
• Keep busy
Keeping busy when you're not studying stops you dwelling on exam worries. Sport and other activities, such as dancing, art and cooking, can make you feel more relaxed, as well as boosting confidence. So, take regular breaks out of your studies to relax in this way.
• Be nice to yourself
Self-affirmation works wonders! You may feel silly but tell yourself that you are great, you can do it, and generally psyche yourself up to feeling that you will come top. Why do you think athletes do it before a match?
• Failure is not the end
Try to remember that although you want to do well, failing is not the end of your chances. Many of the world's most successful men and women survived many failures. If it really matters to you, you can always re-sit.
Advice reproduced from the BBC website ‘One Life’
accessed 14.11.03

Appendix 3

Directive words in essay questions
account for
Explain the reasons for, giving an indication of all relevant circumstances. Not to be confused with 'Give an account of' which asks only for a detailed description.
Study in depth, identifying, describing, and criticising in detail the main characteristics.
Put forward a proposition, then illustrate it, discuss its significance, and defend it against possible counter-charges.
Examine closely, with a view to 'weighing up' a particular situation. Consider in a balanced way the strengths and weaknesses or points for and against a proposition. In conclusion, state your judgement clearly.
Reckon or compute by mathematical means.
Simplify and make clear.
State clearly and in moderate fashion your opinions on the material in question. Support your views with reference to suitable evidence or explanations.
Look for similarities and differences between two or more things.
Express your thoughts and observations about something.
Deliberately single out and emphasise the differences and dissimilarities between two or more things.
Give your judgement about a statement or a body of work; explore its implications, discussing all the evidence which is available. Be specific in your examination.
Set down the precise meaning of something. Be prepared to state the limits of the definition. Take note of multiple meanings if they exist.
Show how, and prove by giving examples.
Give a detailed and comprehensive account of.
Expand on something, taking it further.
Explain the differences between.
Investigate and examine by careful argument. Explore the implications and the advantages or disadvantages. Debate the case and possibly consider any alternatives. This is probably the most common instruction term. It is inviting you to say something interesting in response to the topic in question. You can choose your own approach.
Add further details to something.
Make an ordered list, giving the main features or general principles - and omitting details.
Make an appraisal of the worth of something in the light of its truth or utility. Emphasise the views of authorities as well as your personal estimation.
Enquire into, attempt to discover, investigate, look closely into something.
Go into more detail.
Make plain. Account for. Clarify, interpret, and spell out the material you present, giving reasons for important features or developments.
Approach in a questioning manner, and consider from a variety of viewpoints.
give an account of
Describe in some detail, and explain fully.
In what way, by what means or method, or to what extent.
how far ...
Similar to questions which begin 'To what extent...'. You are expected to make your case or present your argument, whilst showing an awareness that alternate or even contradictory explanations may exist. Careful assessment and weighing of evidence are called for.
Pick out the key features or important issues of something.
Make clear and explicit by the discussion of concrete examples.
Explain the meaning of something, make clear and explicit - using your own judgement, experience, or opinion.
Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions. Answer or refute the main objections likely to be made against them.
Make a list or catalogue of things.
Give the main features or the general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structure or arrangement.
Demonstrate the truth or falsity of something, by presenting evidence.
Show how things are connected, and how they possibly affect, cause, or resemble each other.
Make a survey of, examining the subject critically.
Reveal or disclose (in some form of logical sequence).
Present the main points in brief, clear form.
Give a concise account of the main points of a matter, omitting details and examples.
to what extent
Similar to questions which begin 'How far...'. You are expected to make your case or present your argument, whilst showing an awareness that alternate or even contradictory explanations may exist. Careful assessment and weighing of evidence are called for.
Follow the development or history of a topic from some point of origin. Explain stage by stage.
Express in a different form, or convert from one language to another.
Show to be true, or confirm.

This material is adapted from the website

First class writing 9.2 of 10 on the basis of 935 Review.