Transactional Writing Formats For Essays

I want help to make my writing more formal and technical.

You can change the style of your writing through the way you plan, draft and edit your texts. To make your writing more formal:

  • Structure your writing into paragraphs with clear topic sentences.
  • Avoid contractions (e.g. didn’t, it’ll). Instead, use the full forms (e.g. did not, it will).
  • Choose formal vocabulary instead of informal vocabulary. For example, "somewhat" is more formal than "a bit", "offspring" is more formal than "babies", "insufficient" is more formal than "not enough", etc.
  • Choose language which is less intense, less emotional. For example, instead of strong words like "wonderful", "useless" or "terrible", use more moderate words such as "helpful", "poor", "inadequate" or "problematic". Instead of using absolute positives and negatives like "proof" or "wrong", academic writing often has more cautious or graded evaluations, such as "strong evidence" or "less convincing". (Note: Different disciplines/subject areas allow different levels of intensity. Check the style of books and articles for that discipline/subject.)

To make your writing more technical:

  • Build up your vocabulary with the technical terms which are used in your discipline of study (e.g. linguistics, accounting, psychology), as well as in the specific field/topic of study within that discipline (e.g. phonology within linguistics, taxation within accounting).
  • Be careful about the meaning of technical terms. Often the same word has a different meaning in another discipline. (For example, the word "discourse" is a technical term in linguistics, as well as in disciplines such as sociology and philosophy. However, "discourse" has different meanings in each discipline, and it even has different meanings within linguistics, in different specialist areas.)
  • Make sure you understand and use the key categories and relationships in your discipline: i.e. the way information and ideas are organised into groups, types and parts. (For example, in Occupational Therapy, clients' activities can be grouped into four areas: self-maintenance, rest, leisure and productivity. In the discipline of Law, law is separated into two types: common law and statute law.) The more expert you are in your discipline, the more of these you know and the more you are able to use these relationships to structure your writing, the more technical your writing will be.

For more on this topic, see the links on the right...

Michael Duckworth, a teacher and author of several courses for preparing students for Cambridge ESOL examinations, gives a two-part guide to writing the perfect transactional letter in the FCE Exam. Part 2 explores steps 4-6..

The first question in Paper 2 of the First Certificate in English (FCE) Exam is one that all candidates have to answer. This is the transactional letter or email – the word transactional simply means that it is a response to a letter or email and some notes.

I’ve found it helpful to give students a checklist to go through when they write their answer in the exam, and to give them key vocabulary for the types of reply they may need to write. Here are the first three steps of my six step process that will help your students write their best answer. There will be a summary at the end of the next post.


Before you do anything, read the question carefully and find out the following:

  • who you are writing to
  • why you are writing (e.g. to ask for information, to complain, etc.)
  • what you are writing about

When you have worked out what the purpose of your letter or email is, you should be able to work out what kind of style you will need to use.


Remember that the transactional letter needs to be between 120-150 words, so can be quite short. Take advantage of this and use the extra time for planning – a well-planned answer will be much easier to write and will get a much better mark.

There are three things to consider when you are thinking about a plan:

a) The question – This will give you the basic details about who you are writing to and why.  It will also help you decide whether your reply should be formal or informal, as choosing the correct style is an important part of the test.

The question may also contain clues about the functions you will need to use – in other words whether you are writing to apologise, congratulate, thank, ask for information and so on.  In your preparation for the exam, make sure you are familiar with the language needed to do these things.

b) The original letter or email – This will give you a very clear idea of the subject, and the original letter or email can be helpful in giving you some of the vocabulary you might need.  However, remember that the more you can use your own words and phrases the better.

c) The handwritten notes – These are perhaps the most important part of the input.  The notes sometimes give you details that you can use in your answer, but more often than not they suggest something that you have to write about.  For instance, if the note just says ‘weather?’ you will  be expected to ask what the weather is like at that time of the year, what sort of clothes you should bring, etc.


The next stage is to decide what will be in each paragraph. Usually the answer will have four or more paragraphs:

a) A very short opening paragraph – usually just a sentence – thanking the other person for their letter or email and adding any other appropriate comments.  Make sure that you know a range of set phrases (formal and informal) for this.

b) The first main paragraph – The topic for this is usually given in the original question, so make your plan based on the letter and notes.

c) The second main paragraph – The topic for this again is usually given in the original question, so make your plan based on the original letter and notes.  (There may be additional paragraphs after this, depending on the exact topic of the letter).

d) The ending – Again, this will usually be short – just a sentence or so – but make sure you know a range of formal and informal ways of ending.

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Categories: Exams & Testing | Tags: Advice, Cambridge ESOL, Exam practice, Exams, FCE Exams, First Certificate in English, Michael Duckworth, Tips, Transactional letters, Writing | Permalink.


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