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Tips to Do Well in English (II) – Increasing Word Count for Essays

There are generally three main components in English examinations in Singapore: Oral, Composition and Comprehension. These three parts form the bulk of the entire English examination, whether taken at PSLE, O Level or A Level. These sections require students to understand the contexts involved in the questions before answering them accordingly.


We have covered how to do well in oral and working on foundations in our previous blog entries. In this entry, we shall take a look at the components that most students dread – the composition, particularly, narrative essays.


Narrative essays are generally story telling. All narrative essays require students to DESCRIBE. Whether the descriptions are about the characters, emotions, environment or atmosphere, you will need to describe. The more vividly you can describe, the better the examiners can understand your essay. As such, they can be enticed further to read your essay with greater interest. Here are a few suggestions to further improve your essay:


#1 – Try Not to Use Words for Emotions Directly
Words that describe emotions are convenient – too convenient. Students often find that they are unable to ‘squeeze in’ more words simply because they have used such convenient descriptive words. Remember in real life, we infer people’s emotions from their body language and actions. For example, “Simon turn pale, reeling back away from Joe, clutching his chest. His mouth was wide open, but no words came out” is definitely much longer – and certainly BETTER – than “Simon was shocked”. You may also use similes such as ‘as happy as a lark’, ‘deathly quiet like a mausoleum’ or ‘as blind as a bat’, as they do add spice to the essay, especially for Primary School compositions. For essays in O Levels, students can adopt more sophisticated ones from novels and Shakespearean works. So, ditch all those simple one-word-emotion and start to describe the actions by the characters. Not only does this give you more words, it also spices up your story!


#2 – Stay Away from Neutral Words for Action
Words like ‘walk’, ‘jump’, ‘run’, ‘talk’ are very neutral. In fact, they are so neutral that they DO NOT add value to your essay. They actually make the essay worse as they are diluting the essay, making it monotonous. You can use more colourful action words to make a particular scene more impactful. For example, “Jane pranced out of the house and headed for her school, looking forward to what Mrs Tan would teach during her English class” is way better than “Jane walked out of her house, …”. This showed more about the state of mind of the character and piqued more interest to readers. So, unless you are writing a report that requires you to be objective, stay away from these neutral words.


#3 – Try Not to Use the Same Words Repeatedly
Let us consider this short paragraph:

As Bobby looked out of the window, the majestic view from the train was overwhelming. In the distant, mountains and hills rose majestically from the ground. Lush grasslands rolled before them and herds of bison moved majestically around. In the sky, he could see a few bald eagles soaring high up. These majestic birds were like lords of the sky, looking at their subjects down on the ground.

In this short paragraph, the word ‘majestic’ was mentioned FOUR times either as an adjective or an adverb. Once or twice is fine, but mentioning it four times is too repetitive. It gives reader the impression that the writer has limited vocabulary and thus has to resort to using the same word over and over again. Maybe we can change to this and it would be more pleasing:

As Bobby looked out of the window, the view from the train was breath-taking. In the distant, mountains and hills rose majestically from the ground. Lush grasslands rolled before them and herds of bison moved around, grazing lazily but their powerful muscles showed that they were not to be trifled with. In the sky, he could see a few bald eagles soaring high up. These birds of grandeur were like lords of the sky, peering down at their subjects on the ground.
The second version removes the repeating word and improves the description in the paragraph. Furthermore, the word count is higher!

So, with these tips in mind, you can increase your word count in English essays. For the next part, we will discuss how to do planning for your essay.

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