Reader as a Tyrant: Co-operative Principles in Standardized Exam Writing

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

Almost every Writing Center blog post begins with a story. Here is mine. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner, two years ago, I took TOEFL exam again. Yes, again, for a second time. At that moment, I have completed my MA degree in English Literary Studies in Hong Kong, read books written by the greatest critics in the world, wrote paper essays rewarded with and “A” from professors. I thought all of these would qualify me to shine excellently in a TOEFL exam, but unfortunately, I failed again in the writing section—only 24 out of 30. When I took TOEFL for the first time, my writing was also 24. Nothing changed. Even after the academic training in English department, nothing improved.

What ensued were a consecutive of questions and suspicions: “Can I manage writing in English? Am I a qualified English user? Please tell me what goes wrong with my writing? Is it grammar? Syntax? I have already applied complicated sentences and tried to be as critical and insightful as Foucault and Derrida. Tell me how I can improve myself! I did it tremendously well in IELTS. Why does TOEFL not work for me? What on Earth does the exam want? Why can’t the examiners see my talents? I have read the rubrics on ETS website, but ‘well-organized’, ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, ‘variety of languages’ are like vague empty outlines. They do not make any practical sense to me. How I hope I can talk to the markers in the face and throw the words on them: ‘Tell ME what YOU want!’”

The impacts on confidence were devastating. The side-effects even followed me in my daily life that I became extremely meticulously careful when I wrote, be it the meeting minutes, the emails to colleagues, or anything that would be read by readers. As an English major graduate, I could not write satisfactory English. That is the biggest irony to me and even to my life. I started to question my English learning experience, the efforts I had invested, and even my intelligence.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retake TOEFL. If it failed, I believed I might not take the exam again throughout my life. To take the preparation seriously, I paid tuition fees and attended an online tutorial course.

Was it effective? Yes. I got 28 out of 30 in the writing section, even though I realized immediately after having stepped out of the exam center that my writing had been a bit off the topic.

Did I improve my English ability? No!

In fact, I am a much more capable English user than the exam tutors. It seemed that everything the tutor delivered in class was a reaffirmation of what I had known: For the Introduction, use a hook to attract readers’ attention, expand the background information, bring out the topic and demonstrate the thesis statement. In a body paragraph, employ a clear topic sentence, write one or two elaborative sentences to explain the topic sentence, leave the major space to talk about examples and if necessary, write a small conclusion. As for a conclusion, don’t include any information, paraphrase the arguments mentioned in body paragraphs as succinct as possible.

They all sound like clichés. However, it was until I received my score report did I realize that I did not follow such mechanical rules in my exam writing. I used to think I need to be the owner of the writing; it should reflect my talents and styles; even though it would be an exam writing piece, it should be personal and original. Now, at least in the standardized exam writing settings, I have relocated my concepts about writing in an exam setting, and effects from the changes in my attitudes are revealed in my score report. In fact, exam is no more than a game with explicit rules. Sometimes, you need to feel detached to write better, to think more about the function of each sentence, mechanically practice the rules, write down the connectives, and when the time is up, say farewell to the work forever.  Exam is a task. Just complete it. You don’t need to show your personal talents in an exam setting, since the examiners don’t care. It is not worthwhile.

What makes standardized exam writing different? My answer is—the reader, the sharp professional yet indifferent eyes behind the screen skimming the written works, looking for something they expect they will read, making decisions whether they feel good or bad based upon the training they have innated into their mind mechanisms, marking the writing pieces, and over. How much time will they spend on reading yours? One minute, two minutes. Perhaps more, but they definitely will not read your writing closely, to appreciate the merits hidden in the textures of your lines. Nowadays, ETS even applies e-rater Scoring Engine (an AI technology) to mark writings. Machine rating says what exams expect to read in the writing section—standardized writings, expected formats, explicit signs, no surprise. The exam systems need cooperative pets to respond effectively to every signal to show their capabilities so that they can get rewards.

Exam markers are powerful readers, but they are not and should not be the authority to judge your writing in general. Exams provide a context with a set of rules to play. Honestly, all writings with expected readers do have rules, and your academic writing settings make no exception. Think about how many pieces of assignments your instructors need to mark, what they expect to encounter, and how much time they will spend on your writing. When you have your answers to these questions, you can decide whether you are going to be more orthodox or more innovative. Also, don’t forget, the academic writing setting is comparatively flexible. You know who your reader is. Talk to your instructors and ask them for clearer guidelines.

 I agree standardized exam writing has an oppressive force to discourage innovation, but this force needs its settings to perform. Outside of the exam contexts, you still have plenty of room for freedom to show your talents and styles: Write in your blogs, leave reviews on IMDb, update your social media, draft a caption for your Instagram Story. You will encounter readers who do appreciate your compositions. Show your talents to them.

To conclude, almost every writing center blog post begins with a story. Therefore, I wrote mine.

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