Writing Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

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Writing Skills

There are many points of good writing necessary to obtain a good score on the TOEFL Writing test. These are some of the main skills you’ll want to know about and practice.


Spelling is an important part of writing and can affect the appropriateness of your response. Misspelling a word can dramatically affect the meaning of your sentence. For example, consider the difference in meaning of these two sentences:

Everyday people walk around town in the afternoon.
Every day, people walk around town in the afternoon.

Using the word everyday or the words every day can cause this sentence to mean two different things.

To prevent this, look up commonly misused and misspelled words online. Practice writing on a word processing program that has spell check. Then write those words down and practice spelling them correctly.

Sentence Skills

Scorers are trained to evaluate the variety of sentences that you use. So make sure that your responses include complete, simple, compound, and complex sentences. Get to know these types of sentences and practice using them while you prepare for the test.

Fragments are frowned upon, and you could receive penalties for using them. A fragment is a sentence part that does not express a complete thought because it is missing a subject or verb or is dependent on another part for meaning. Simply using many words does not guarantee a complete sentence; for example, this is not a sentence:

The big, angry, fluffy gray parrot

It does not tell what the parrot does. If you add one word, flies, to the end, it becomes a sentence.

Don’t use run-on sentences or sentences that begin with conjunctions (and, or, but, so). Be careful not to write sentences that have dangling participles. A dangling participle or misplaced modifier can change the meaning of a sentence entirely. For example:

After falling from the tree, my sister picked up the pear.
My sister picked up the pear after it fell from the tree.

The first sentence reads as if the sister fell from the tree, while in the second example, you know that the pear fell from the tree.

Another common writing mistake to avoid is using a non-parallel sentence structure when giving lists. When you enumerate something, make sure that the items in the list use the same form. Let’s look at an example:

She likes taking long walks, exercising at the gym, and marathons.
She likes taking long walks, exercising at the gym, and competing in marathons.

The first example shows a non-parallel sentence structure, while the second example shows a correct parallel structure, wherein all the items in the list are in the “-ing” form: taking, exercising, competing.

Do not be overwhelmed by all the rules you have to remember. Avoid these common mistakes, and you are on your way to getting a higher score on the writing tasks!


Missing punctuation or incorrectly placed punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence completely. Let’s look at an example of missing commas:

My favorite meal is turkey cranberry sauce and green beans.
My favorite meal is turkey, cranberry sauce, and green beans.

In the first sentence, the writer likes two things—turkey cranberry sauce and green beans. What is “turkey cranberry sauce” anyway? In the second sentence, it is made clear by commas that the writer likes three things.

Forgetting a full-stop/period at the end of a sentence can make it a run-on sentence, which can contribute to a lower score. Here is an example:

I love to ride horses I would ride them every day if I had the time.

Instead, separate them with a full stop/period:

I love to ride horses. I would ride them every day if I had the time.

On the other hand, consider this as the original sentence:

Since I love to ride horses I would ride them every day if I had the time.

Here, you would use a comma, instead of a period, to divide the clauses:

Since I love to ride horses, I would ride them every day if I had the time.

The word since makes the first clause dependent and not a complete sentence on its own.

Don’t forget question marks. You should know when and when not to use a question mark. Of course, we use a question mark when asking a question. But there are also instances in which you do not use a question mark. Indirect questions, for example, do not close with a question mark, but with a period. Like direct questions, they demand a response, but they are expressed as declarations without the formal characteristics of a question. For example:

The people were wondering if there was any progress on the issue.
I was wondering if a physical was necessary to join the basketball team.

They are both indirect questions and do not require a question mark because they are actually statements.

Paragraphs and Organization

The way you organize your essay is an important writing skill. When responding to the tasks during the TOEFL® test, take notes and map out your answer. Make sure that you have all three key elements of paragraph writing—an introduction/beginning, a middle, and a closing/end. The organization of your essay should be complete, accurate to the task, logical, and in order. Your paragraphs should include a main idea or topic sentence, supporting sentences, and examples and details that further support your opinion or argument.

Your paragraph organization should also be laid out correctly. There are a few standard times that you should start a new paragraph:

  • when you start a new topic/idea/thought
  • when you skip to a new time
  • when you skip to a new place
  • when a new person begins to speak
  • when you want to produce a dramatic effect

Another good tip for writing an opinion essay is to clearly state your opinion, but also include the opposing argument. However, when you state the opposing argument, you should write in such a way that it actually supports your opinion.

Verb Use

As stated before, verb use is critical. You should make sure that you are using the correct tenses in sentences and that they are similar. Don’t mix tenses inside a sentence.

When using perfect tenses, make sure that you are using the correct participles. Also, keep checking while writing that the verbs agree with the subject. Sometimes, the verbs are separated by an accompanying phrase without changing the agreement, and this can cause some confusion, but as long as the intervening phrase does not change the agreement, then the verb will remain the same. There are some words that can cause confusion while writing. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

  • Use singular verb forms after the following: Each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, and someone.

Everybody tries to write a well-written answer.

  • None has both singular and plural forms. The singular verb form is used when none means no one or not one. The plural is used when none implies more than one thing or person.

None of us thinks what she said is correct.
None of the students are driving to the testing center.

  • A compound subject—formed by two or more nouns and the word and—usually requires a plural verb.

The teacher and the student were working on the project.

  • A singular subject remains singular if connected with the words with, as well as, in addition to, except, together with, and no less than.

Her attitude, as well as his speech, is inappropriate.

Word Usage

TOEFL scorers are trained to look for how the test taker uses words. Are the word choices appropriate, rich, colorful, accurate, and precise? To make sure that you cover all these areas in your responses, practice writing sentences, and then expanding them by including adjectives and adverbs to make your statements clearer. For example, look at these two sentences and choose which sentence would receive a higher score:

The horse eats grass in the meadow.

The young black stallion slowly eats the tall, soft grass in the large meadow nestled between the two regal mountains of the Northwest.

To get a higher score, you should also know words that are commonly confused and make sure that you know how to use them correctly, such as affect/effect. Affect is a verb, while effect is a noun. You can find many examples online.


Transitions are essential in connecting sentences and paragraphs. Good use of transitions will ensure a smoothly executed essay and lock in a higher score. Think of transitions as road signs. They help the reader understand the direction of your thought.

Know which transition words are appropriate for use in various situations. Make a list of transition words that signal the coming of additional information, contrasting information, sequence of events or procedures, causes and conditions, examples and support, effects, and concluding arguments.


The Writing section of the TOEFL test is done electronically, so you will need to have good keyboarding skills. TOEFL testing centers use the traditional QWERTY keyboard, so familiarity with it is essential for success in the Writing section. A keyboarding speed of 35 words per minute is necessary to finish the tasks in time. If you are not quite there, practice keyboarding drills online before test day.

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