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How to Write Quickly in Exam Conditions

It’s that time of year when exams are around the corner. At this point, most of you have done your last mock exams, and you’ve realised how much you need to write to get top marks. But how are you supposed to write quickly enough to get everything you need into your essays? Are there any steps that you can take to speed up without sacrificing quality?

I’ve tutored so many students who struggle with this. With the way they think, they could get a grade 9 or an A*! They have all the ideas and make some excellent points in their essays. However, they just don’t have the time to write down everything they need. It holds them back so much that they end up getting stuck at a grade 6 or a B! That’s a big imbalance between their potential and their output!

If this sounds like you, don’t worry. There is plenty you can do to speed up your writing in your exams. Some of these are quick fixes (like buying a new pen). For others, you’re going to have to prep as soon as you can. All of them will help you to some extent. So, the more of them you do, the easier it will be for you to write quickly!

You don’t want to lose the marks you deserve because you didn’t have the time to earn them. So, read on to find out what you can do.

Make Sure You’ve Revised the Content Enough

In my huge blog post about why you can’t remember what you revised, I spent a lot of time talking about your working memory.

The working memory is extremely limited. It can’t focus on too many things at one time without getting overloaded. So, the goal of good learning is to transfer knowledge from your working memory to your long-term memory. After all, long-term memory is so big that we don’t know its limits yet! As far as I’m concerned, it’s infinite until proven otherwise.

This is all well and good. Long-term memory is powerful and useful to us all! However, it doesn’t solve everything. You still need to take info out of your long-term memory and put it back in your working memory when you want to use it.

We call this process “retrieval”, and it isn’t usually an instant thing. The time it takes you to retrieve a piece of information from your long-term memory can take from milliseconds to minutes. It just depends on how well you practised using the info when you were revising! Eventually, if you retrieve the info enough times, it will just come straight out of your long-term memory and onto the page. You don’t even need to put it into your working memory!

That’s why revising well can help you write your essays quickly. It reduces the time you spend sitting there trying to remember the piece of info you need. So, you spend way more time actually writing!

So, do yourself a favour. Practice using the info you need until you can retrieve it in your sleep. That’s the first step you need to take if you want to write quickly.

Improve Your Writing Stamina

In some ways, writing is a lot like exercise. Both require a type of stamina. You need to practice and improve this stamina if you want to do it well. If you slack off for a while, you’ll lose some of your gains, and you’ll have to work your way back up again.

Just like with exercise, the COVID lockdowns screwed up lots of people’s writing stamina. I know both were messed up for me. I didn’t go out much, and I didn’t write by hand a whole lot. So, I ended up with hand cramps when I tried to write and muscle cramps when I tried to climb the stairs. I’m still working on improving both!

You should see the look of shock my students give me when I say I expect them to write at least three pages of creative writing for GCSE Language Paper One. They’ve never had to write loads and loads for an exam before. So, to them, it sounds completely unreasonable. It’s like asking a couch potato to do a 1km run.

The problem is that there is only one way to improve your stamina – for writing or exercise. You’ve got to push yourself to the limit. You need to practice and practice until you’re tired and your muscles ache. If you never push yourself, you’ll never make gains.

So, set yourself a goal to write one page in one sitting. Then, work up to two. Then three. The more you try, the easier and quicker it will be. This won’t happen overnight. However, you’ll see gains within a couple of weeks if you work hard!


Time Yourself During Writing Practice

So, you’re going to spend some time working on your writing stamina. That’s amazing! But how can you track your work? How can you be sure you’re making gains and not just spending more time on writing?

Well, you time yourself, of course! This is something that an athlete of a sport would do. For exams, you want to become the writing equivalent.

I do this a lot with my one-to-one tutoring students. With a stopwatch in hand, I ask them to write me a plan or an introduction. I don’t give them a whole lot of time, which earns me the dirtiest looks at first. I mean, I look like an evil P.E. teacher! However, once they can write an intro for English lit in 3 minutes, they definitely thank me!

Timing yourself when writing has so many benefits:

  • Once you’ve recorded your first time, you have a baseline score to work from.
  • It’s an easy way to see if you’ve made any improvements.
  • It makes revision fun and competitive (even if you’re competing against yourself).
  • If you base it on your exam timings, it helps you to get into the right mindset for the big day.
  • If you time yourself on each paragraph separately, you can make sure you’re not going off on a tangent that won’t get you the marks.
  • Timing yourself planning an essay is a great way to practice doing the retrieval thing I was talking about earlier.
  • If you don’t do so well with one timed practice, you can figure out what went wrong and how to change it.

I don’t recommend using your phone or computer as a timer, though. It can be way too much of a distraction! Go old-school. Get yourself a good timer or stopwatch. It makes a huge difference.

Invest in a Good Pen

A good pen is a game-changer.

It’s amazing that something as small as a new pen can make such a big difference! I’m not kidding, though. If you get a pen that works for you, it will help you to write quickly!

Cheap and bad pens drag across the paper. They have a whole lot of resistance to them, so it feels like your pen is fighting against you! That’s going to slow you down because it will make your hand cramp more. Plus, a pen that glides across the page is a pen helps speedy writing.

Even if the pen doesn’t fight you, a cheap one might not consistently leave ink on the page. You’ll be writing, and then the ink will stop. You’ll just be scratching invisible words onto the paper – even when you can see that it’s so obviously full of ink. Then, you have to shake it until it works or change your pen. That takes away precious time.

You need to find a pen that works for you. Test out as many as you can, and figure out which one is easiest to write with. Check that you can use them on the day (I don’t recommend the Frixion erasable ones, as it’s not clear if they’re allowed. Don’t risk it). Then, make sure you have at least five of them on your desk for the exam in case one stops working.

For me, the one that works best is a small twist on the most popular ballpoint pen out there. I use a BIC Bold with a 1.6mm tip. It glides so well!

You’re going to have to do a bit of trial and error for the one that works for you. Although, check out my fave pen. It’s converted quite a few people!

Learn Useful Collocations

A collocation is a group of words that are often used together. Some examples from essays might include:

  • On the other hand…
  • This is seen in the quote…
  • Some may argue…
  • This is reinforced by…
  • This is a microcosm of…

If you want to write quicker in your exams, it is a good idea to learn some general collocations, as well as some that are specific to the subjects, topics and texts you’re studying. It will help you to spend less time thinking and more time putting words on the page.

This works because of the whole working memory issue I mentioned earlier. When you learn collocations, you’re grouping together single words into one neat package that your brain can remember. That way, you won’t have to think of each word independently. Instead, you’ll be ready to quickly write out words that can help you to form your ideas!

So, if you’re doing Macbeth in your exam, you might want to learn collocations like “Macbeth’s hamartia is ambition” so that you never need to think of complex words when you’re stressed and in exam conditions!

Interestingly, it’s also a very useful tool for getting a good score in MFL exams! Each language has some very common collocations that come up. If you learn them as a group of words instead of individually, you can speed up the time it takes you to translate and understand the language. Plus, it makes you sound more sophisticated in your speech and writing, too!


Don’t Waste Time Thinking About the Perfect Word

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in an exam, searching for the word I’m looking for. It’s at the tip of my tongue, and it annoys me that I can’t remember what it is. I spend way too much of my time trying to think of the word I’m looking for. That’s time I could have spent on writing another important point!

We all forget a word from time to time. It’s annoying and frustrating – especially when you know the word would be perfect for the point you’re trying to make! However, it’s no use dwelling on it. It’s not going to help you to write that essay quickly. In fact, it’s going to slow you down!

There are two main reasons why you might forget a word like this. The first one is that you just haven’t practised recalling that info enough. So, it’s a little patchy in your mind. The second reason is just that it slipped your mind on the day! Only one of those things is in your control. Even then, it’s not going to help you to dwell on the mistakes you made during revision.

Instead, write down another word or phrase that is close enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be close enough so that the examiner understands what you mean! Then, make a note of it and move on. You can always come back to it with fresh eyes when you’re proofreading your work. The quicker you move on, the more time you have to check over what you wrote.

This is one of those quick fixes I was talking about. It doesn’t take much effort or prep to just drop it when you forget a word. It stops you from ruining your mood, too!

Practice Recalling Important Vocab and Connectives

Near the beginning of this post, I spoke about the importance of good revision. After all, you can’t write quickly if you’re spending way too much time trying to remember the info you need! However, it’s not just the facts and knowledge that can hold you back like this. It’s also vocab and connectives.

You know that problem I just mentioned? The one where you forget the words you want to use? Well, as I mentioned, the reason you’re doing this could partially be because you didn’t spend enough time recalling important words. So, the way to fix that is to do as much recall as you can before the big day!

Now that the exams are getting close, do yourself a favour. Write down the important words you could actually use in your essay. For Macbeth, that might look something like this:

  • Hamartia
  • Divine Right of Kings
  • Regicide
  • Foreshadowing
  • Juxtaposition
  • Catharsis

The good thing about these low-frequency vocab words is that they can help you to communicate a lot of information in a short amount of time. For example, you can write the word “catharsis” quickly. Saying “a release of strong, negative, repressed emotions” is going to take you a lot longer to say. The same is true with “regicide” vs “murdering the king”. Big words speed up your essay writing!

The same goes for connectives. The more of them you know, the easier it will be for you to organise and connect your ideas. You can do it without stopping to think, “I’ve already said ‘additionally’, so I need to think of a different word”, too!

Plan Before You Write

You’d think that taking time out to plan would slow you down, right? Actually, it does the exact opposite!

This tip isn’t necessarily about being able to write quickly. It’s much more about ensuring that everything you say has value. A good plan will keep you on track before you start your work. It will help you to organise your thoughts at the beginning, so you’re not spending way too much time recalling what you wanted to write later on. If you keep looking back at your plan, it will help you focused on your work, too.

After all, there is no official minimum or maximum word count for an English GCSE or A-level essay. I’ve seen people get full marks with two pages. I’ve seen people get only half the marks with six pages of work. You don’t need to write eight pages of work if you’ve met all the AOs in two.

Of course, make sure you write enough. I recommend at least two big main body paragraphs. Three is ideal. That gives you enough time and space to explore the ideas you need. However, quality is much more important than quantity when it comes to essay work. So, even if you’re not the quickest writer, make sure you write well.

When you plan, make sure you include these important things:

  • Your argument, point or thesis statement.
  • The evidence you are going to use.
  • Any tech terms you could use for the evidence.
  • Links to context.

Plans force you to do all this recall at the beginning of your essay when your brain is fresh. That way, you don’t overload your working memory once you start writing! So, it will actually speed up your writing, too! There are just no downsides to planning.


Read Essays By Other People

Reading other people’s essays can help you to speed up massively. That’s true for a few different reasons:

  • It gives you the chance to see lots of different essay styles.
  • You can see how other people turn information into essays.
  • It helps you to pick up on collocations, vocabulary and connectives you can use.
  • It helps if you’re unsure of how to structure essays.
  • You can utilise the things you like.
  • If there’s something that you don’t like or you don’t think would work for you, explaining why you think that helps you to understand how you want to write essays.

Personally, this was the real game-changer for me when it came to doing well in English. I could see how people formulated their arguments and how one thought led to another. It helped me to understand the point of essays and how to excuse them properly.

It’s all well and good to read the information from your textbooks and notes. It helps you to learn and recall the info you need. However, neither of those things will show you how to use that information in the exam. Other people’s essays will.

When I read essays at school, I’d try to get hold of ones that are a grade or two higher than my own work. Then, I’d ask myself what they were doing that I didn’t do in my writing. I’d highlight those things and try them out for myself. Or, I might have read a uni essay to get ideas for new perspectives and vocab.

How does this help you to write quickly? Well, it forces you to think like an essay writer more often. That reduces the time it takes you to get into essay mode, record your thoughts in essay form and recall important info.

Use the Words in the Essay Question

If you aren’t using the words in your essay question, you’re giving yourself more work than you need.

The essay question is there to be answered. So, use the words you have in front of you. Let’s imagine the question says, “How does the writer present masculinity”. Starting your paragraph with “The writer presents masculinity as…” is a great way to go!

The big reason why you should do this is to make sure you stay on track and answer the question at all times. You can be sure that the examiner knows you’re on the right track. Plus, it saves you from forgetting what you’re supposed to talk about! I know I definitely do that sometimes if I don’t keep my eyes on the question.

It helps you to write quickly because it saves you from having to think about how to start your paragraph! Thinking about sentence starters for paragraphs is one of the most time-consuming parts of the essay-writing process. People sit there and write and delete words over and over again! It’s stressful and eats into the time you could spend writing.

So, don’t put yourself through that. Just use the words in the question.

Keep Quotes Short

I can’t tell you how many times I see GCSE students write out quotes with 8-15 words in them.

It drives me nuts! It’s such a waste of your time. Copying out quotes isn’t going to do much when it comes to getting high marks in your exams. You’re wasting time that you could have spent writing things that could actually get you the top marks.

Personally, I try to keep quotes between one and three words – unless absolutely necessary. That’s because you’re not getting the marks for copying. You’re getting them for how you chose the quote and how you analyse it once you write it down. You can do those things just as well – if not even better – with a short quote. Plus, you can embed the quote between your own words for some added flair and sophistication.

Let’s say you’re writing about ambition in Macbeth. How long do you think it would take you to write out the whole of this quote:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other

Macbeth by Shakespeare

Now imagine you chose the words “vaulting ambition” and “prick the sides of my intent” separately. It would take you less time to write. Plus, you’d be able to analyse them separately, which would get you more marks.

If you’re not someone who writes very quickly, you want to make sure every word counts. Your examiner isn’t out here trying to mark Robert Louis Stevenson or Shakespeare. They want to mark your words. So, make sure that you’re using more of your own words than anyone else’s.

Plus, it’s easier to remember for revision, too.


Practice Writing a Little but Saying a Lot

I used to write super slowly when I was in school. That was mainly because of my undiagnosed dyspraxia (which I’ll go into in the next tip), but no one knew it at the time – obviously. It hindered me massively. I just couldn’t write as quickly as my peers!

So, I developed my own special method to say everything I needed quickly. In the long run, it actually forced me to be a better writer!

Big, complex words can help you to say a whole lot in way less time. As complex as the word “schadenfreude” might seem, it’s a hell of a lot quicker to use in an exam than explaining it: “the feeling of smugness or joy you get from other people’s misfortune”. That makes this tip great for word counts as well as writing quickly.

I have never met a student who couldn’t shorten eight lines of writing into five with a bit of practice.

That might sound a bit counterproductive at first, right? Like, you want to write more, not less. However, it’s like I said: there isn’t an official minimum word count for exams. So, if you can meet all the AOs in two pages, you’ll get full marks. When you couple that with the other tips I’ve given in this post, you’ll be soaring!

So how do you do this? How do you get used to saying a lot with a few words? Well, you go back over your old essays. Challenge yourself to rewrite them with 10 fewer words. Then do that again. And again.

Every 10 words you reduce your essay by is an extra 10 words you can use on an extra point. It also gets you those nice vocab marks while you’re at it!

Check If You’re Eligible for Access Arrangments

If you find yourself writing way slower than the rest of your class, there might be a reason for that. Sometimes, you don’t write quickly because of something out of your control!

There are a shocking number of undiagnosed learning needs in schools. It’s because schools don’t have the funding to test everyone who might need it. So, they prioritise the students who struggle the most. If you’re doing just fine, your school can’t spend the time and resources checking if you could do even better with help.

I’m one of the people who was let down by the system as a student. I had undiagnosed dyspraxia, which meant I could have had extra time and even typed in my exam! But because I was already predicted an A or A* in every GCSE and A-level subject, they didn’t waste the funds on me to check if I was being held back by anything.

Don’t let this be you. Advocate for yourself. Check if you could get access arrangements or reasonable adjustments for yourself. You could get extra time. Or they might even give you a laptop to type with!

Typing in an exam isn’t a quick fix, though. In fact, I know quite a few students whose typing speed is so slow that it’s better and quicker for them to write! If you think it would be better for you to type than to write, you need to put in the time to make sure you can do it quickly. That’s going to take some typing tests and practice before your exams.

Good luck!

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