In Part 1 of this article, Michael Duckworth shared his first three steps towards writing the perfect transactional letter in the FCE Exam. In this second installment, he shares steps 4-6 and a useful summary.
4. USING YOUR OWN WORDS
When it comes to the exact words and phrases that you use, you should avoid copying too many words and phrases from the original letter. If you can use your own words and phrases, then you will demonstrate your ability to use a range of structures and show your breadth of vocabulary.
5. CHOOSING THE RIGHT STYLE
Another way of doing well in this part of the paper is to make sure that you use the appropriate style.
If it is an email to a friend about a party, you will want to keep the language informal; if it is a letter to a company, you will need to keep the language formal or neutral.
Sometimes it is difficult to remember the differences between formal and informal English, so here is a short checklist of how to write informal English, for example in an email to a friend. A lot of these differences are very small, but if you use all of them together, they make a big difference.
In informal English:
a) Use short forms like isn’t, won’t, it’s, I’ve instead of is not, will not, it is, I have, etc. This is because we tend to use these forms when we are speaking, and using them in written English makes it sound more informal.
b) Sometimes miss out words in a sentence – In letter writing, it is often quite common to miss out the word ‘I’. For example, at the end of a letter you might write ‘Hope to hear from you soon’ instead of ‘I hope to hear from you soon’. Other common expressions are ‘Wish you were here’ and ‘Having a great time here’. Including these gives the impression of a letter or email being written quickly and informally.
c) Use informal intensifiers – In spoken English, we often use words like really and incredibly meaning really nice, really good. We often also use some of the more extreme intensifier + adjective combinations such as completely fantastic, absolutely awful, etc.
d) Use simple vocabulary – In English there is often a choice between a simpler word or phrasal verb and a longer more complex word. In informal English it is better to choose the simpler form, so you would say get off the boat rather than disembark from the boat.
In formal English, do the opposite of all these things.
6. CHECK AND CORRECT
When you have finished, always go back and look at your work again. Don’t just read it three or four times – look for something specific each time. For example, if you know you sometimes make mistakes with word order, check each sentence for word order. If you have problems with prepositions, go back and check each one carefully.
Remember that grammatical accuracy is very, very important.
- Read the question carefully.
- Decide on the purpose of the letter and the target reader.
- Choose the right style.
- Make a plan before you start writing.
- Check that you are covering all the points in the question.
- Learn and revise important set phrases for letter writing (don’t try and make them up).
- Learn and revise important functional expressions (ways of suggesting, apologising etc.).
- In the rest of the letter, use your own words and phrases wherever possible; don’t copy big chunks from the question.
- Make the style appropriate for the letter, i.e. formal or informal.
Always read back through your work, checking for something specific (e.g. spelling, grammar, phrases, etc.) each time.