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Writing with an Attitude
How to Impress Your Teachers and TOEFL-Readers

It remains a major obstacle to many English learners who would study at an American university: the dreaded TOEFL essay. Thirty minutes to phrase a composition in reply to a randomly generated topic. Is industrial development good for a community? What makes a good neighbor? Why do people go to college? Such are the questions that largely determine the fates of aspirants who confidently handle the other sections of the test, where right answers and wrong answers are more objectively determined.

The key to success is the very human element which makes the essay the least quantifiably objective section of the test. A human being will read your essay, so your best strategy is to appeal directly to his or her mind. In order to achieve such an appeal, it is crucial that the student invest personal beliefs, values and energy in this composition. One good rhetorical template which implicitly and explicitly conveys a personal investment is the opinion essay, in which the writer presents his or her own argument in counter-relief to another view for the sake of clarity.

This standard opinion essay must be trimmed to its essentials for the purposes of completing the 30-minute TOEFL essay. Here is a plan for a 3 to 4 minute pre-writing process, which gives the test-taker a clear direction to follow in composing the essay itself.

Pre-Writing Process

Step One: Get your topic.

Step Two: Determine your opinion regarding the topic.

Step Three: Imagine another opinion, different from yours.

Step Four: Think of two good reasons supporting your view.

Step Five: Think of one good reason for the opposing view.

Step Six: Write your opinion statement, or anti-thesis/thesis.

Now the student is ready to write the essay itself. Here is a brief description of each paragraph's function.

Paragraph One: The first sentence in the first paragraph is the "hook," whose purpose is to catch the reader's attention and make him or her WANT to read your essay. The next several sentences of the first paragraph serve to explain the background, history, etc... of the topic, but WITHOUT giving away the writer's own point of view. This is kind of like a card game, in which letting the other players know how excited you are about the hand you've been dealt can greatly diminish the value of that hand. The last sentence of the first paragraph is the antithesis-thesis, or opinion, statement. This is inserted verbatim from Step 6 of the pre-writing process, and serves as a map for the rest of the essay.

Paragraph Two: The first sentence in paragraph two presents the main reason given by those who believe the opposing opinion. The rest of the paragraph explains and then breaks down, or disproves, this reasoning through the use of examples, evidence, experience and logical argument. The goal is to weaken the opposing argument enough that the reader is inclined to set it aside and open his or her mind to the writer's own argument.

Paragraph Three: The first sentence in paragraph three gives the first of two reasons in favor of the writer's opinion, also restating that opinion to help the reader follow the argument as carefully as possible. The rest of the paragraph is a proof of this first reason, using supporting examples, evidence and personal experience to form a logical argument that persuades the reader to accept the reasoning.

Paragraph Four: This paragraph presents and proves the second reason in favor of the writer's thesis. Also, because the TOEFL is a timed exercise, an enthusiastic concluding sentence is tagged onto the end of this final paragraph, converting the paragraph into a conclusion.

The following is a practice essay written by an ESL student from Slovakia, on a TOEFL question: What are the qualities of good neighbors?

Did you see the movie "Neighbors"? This movie is about two neighbors, families, which dislike one another. In these days it is pretty hard to find a good neighbors. Even though some people believe that good neighbors are quiet people who don't bother anybody, I think a treasured good neighbor is someone I can talk to easily every day.

Some people like quiet neighbors, because they have no time to build relationships with them. They don't like to be bother, or have own circle of friends. Another reason could be they don't speak very well English, they would feel a little embarrass to talk to someone new. Some people can be very pushy, keeping asking about personal things and another people don't feel like talk about it. But this is the way we really want to live, with strangers, anybody to talk to? Aren't human beings created to share something together, learn from each other, communicate? What if your house is on the fire and your neighbor don't know your name, how to contact you or don't even care, because you are just stranger to them. This is really a sad living.

I believe that qualities of good neighbors are help and friendlyness, because this is the way I grew up. For example, in Slovakia when ever I went on a trip, my neighbors took good care of my dog, with no problem at all. We helped each other anytime we needed to. We knew we could depend on each other.

If you helping somebody, then you become good friends. When ever I felt lonely, bored or depresed, I stoping by my neighbors for cup of coffee. We planed and spend many nice afternoons camping, fishing or just going anywhere we were pleased. We had very good times together.

Without a good neighbors, it's not so much fun. It is better to have a good friends around you who smail at you, than just "Strangers."

Teacher's comments: I like the improvements you have made in this composition. You have given negative as well as positive examples to illustrate the importance of good neighbors and to show what a good neighbor really is. It is obvious that you have devoted considerable time and effort to working on this essay. You should be proud--though not yet satisfied--with this result. You are well on your way towards a solid score on the TOEFL. Keep up the good work!

Some good links for writing teachers and students:

Plagiarism in American Colleges
How to Cite Electronic References
Word Wizard
Handouts for Teaching Writing to ESL Students (from Purdue University)
Writing Workshops on Power Point (from Purdue University)

Story by Robb Scott