A review is usually written for an English-language magazine, newspaper or website. The main purpose is to describe and express a personal opinion about something which the writer has experienced (e.g. a film, a holiday, a product, a website etc.) and to give the reader a clear impression of what the item discussed is like. Description and explanation are key functions for this task, and a review will normally include a recommendation to the reader.from: Cambridge English First Handbook for Teachers
Reviews are included in Part 2 of your writing exam, which means that, unlike essays, you can choose if you want to write a review or instead work on one of the other options (article, report, letter/email, or story in FCE for Schools).
Writing reviews is fun!
OK OK, it might not be as much fun as, for example, going out with your friends or spending a year travelling around the world, but compared to other writing tasks in the FCE exam, such as essays, it definitely feels a little bit more casual and easy-going. So, whenever I practise review writing in my classes my students are surprisingly fine with it and I hope that you will feel confident as well once you’ve finished reading this post.
First of all, for many students it is not fully clear what to expect from a review task. Luckily, there are a lot of similarities between different reviews and you can use this to your advantage. Prepare by studying these characteristics so you can simply replicate them each and every time you sit down to write a review.
We are going to have a look at the typical requirements, structure and other little things you should include, leave out and/or be careful with, so let’s start by having a look at an example task that could be part of your exam.
What a typical review task looks like
When we look at different review tasks we can see very quickly that there are similarities between them which you can take advantage of whenever you sit down to write. A typical example might look like the one below:
I always tell my students to check two things when looking at a writing task: what to include and who is going to read their text. Read the task carefully and underline the key parts. Below I have done all of that for you.
So, who is going to read the review? Because you are writing for an English-language magazine their readers are going to be your audience. Why is this important? In the FCE writing exam you are marked on your use of appropriate language for each task, which includes the right register (formal, neutral, informal). Choosing the wrong one can cost you marks so we don’t want that to happen.
In our example we should choose a neutral to informal style as we are writing for a magazine. Many different kinds of people will read your review so we don’t want it to be too informal, but still keep it light and interesting.
There are also three main points that we have to include in the review: what surprising thing the main character of the book did, why it was surprising and whether or not you would recommend the book.
The good thing for your review writing, in general, is that there are always three things that you have to include. These are usually a description (What did the main character do?), a discussion (Why was it surprising?) and a recommendation (Would you recommend the book to other people?). You can normally look for these three things in every review and you will see how similar all the different tasks are.
How to organise your review
Once you have analysed the task, it is time to organise your review. You might already have guessed it, but there is a plan that you can follow every time because the tasks are all very similar.
Looking back at our example task, there are three main ideas that we have to deal with in our text:
- What surprising thing did the main character do? (description)
- Why was it surprising? (discussion)
- Would you recommend the book to other people? (recommendation)
Of course, we can give each of these points a paragraph so our review already has three. (Note that we could combine the first and second point into one paragraph as they both talk about the actions of the main character.) Adding a title an interesting introduction makes it four and we are ready to go. The outline of our review (and every review, really) now looks like this:
- Title and introduction
- description (What did the main character do?)
- discussion (Why was it surprising?)
- recommendation (Would you recommend the book to other people?)
And just like that we have a universal plan for most review tasks in the FCE writing exam.
Plan before you start writing
Just before we start looking at the four different parts of every good FCE review I would like to remind you of one very important tool that a lot of students forget about once they are sitting in the official exam. I’m talking about the importance of making a plan before you even start writing.
Take three or four minutes to make a little map with the different paragraphs and just two or three key words under each heading so you know exactly what you want to include in your text. This way, you won’t forget anything you want to write about and feel more relaxed once you actually start putting your pen to paper.
The different parts of a review
In this part of the post we are going to look at the different sections of a review using our example task so you know exactly what to expect and what to be careful with. Obviously, you will have to adjust your language and vocabulary to each specific task, but I will give you some general advice and expressions you can always use.
The main purpose of the introduction is to create interest so the reader wants to find out what you have to say about the book, film, restaurant or whatever you have to write about. You can use a few tricks to achieve that:
Firstly, start with a personalised question. This connects the reader to your review and makes them want to continue reading, and secondly, don’t give away the surprise but only give a little hint at it. This way, you can create even more excitement.
With these things in mind, I wrote this example introduction for you:
11/22/63 – a review
What would you do if you could travel back in time? Most people would probably meet their great-great-grandparents or watch how the amazing pyramids in Giza were built, but Jake Epping, the main character of the novel “11/22/63” by Stephen King finds himself in a completely unexpected situation and he has to make a very difficult decision that will change history as we know it.
As you can see, I followed my advice and started with a personalised question. It makes the reader wonder what they would do if they were in the main character’s situation. I also tease the surprising decision the main character Jake has to make, but I don’t say what exactly it is.
If you like my introduction, which you should 😉 , try to follow this plan each time you start a review. It guarantees excited readers, happy examiners and high marks for you.
The next point we’re going to talk about is the description portion of your review. Here, you need to give some information based on your task. In our example you have to say what surprising thing the main character did.
The best part about the description is that you don’t have to do anything special – just answer the question and move on. Of course, there are some things that (don’t) make sense to include so let’s go into a little bit more detail.
- Stick to the question and don’t talk about unrelated things.
- Give some support to your answer (related details)
- Use adjectives and adverbs to make it more interesting to read.
Jake, a teacher in a little town in Maine, finds a mysterious time portal in the back of a ragged diner which takes him back to the year 1958. He soon realises that every time he goes through the portal he gets to the exact same point in the past. Eventually, he makes the unexpected decision to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from brutally killing President John F. Kennedy on 22.11.1963.
In my paragraph I don’t talk about unrelated things, but only the details that are necessary to understand how Jake gets to the point at which he makes his surprising decision. I also included some descriptive adjectives and adverbs to make my paragraph a little bit more interesting (mysterious, ragged, exact, eventually, unexpected, brutally).
Follow my advice and don’t make it too complicated for yourself. Describe what you have to describe and go to the next point.
The next step is the discussion portion of your review. There is usually some part in which you have to give your opinion in every review writing task (That’s what discussion really means.) so it is really important to keep the following things in mind:
- Again, don’t write about things that are not in the task.
- Use specific language to give your opinion
- In my opinion/view, …
- For me, …
- I think/believe/feel that …
- I would say that …
- It seems to me that …
In the example task you need to discuss why the main character’s action is surprising so here is what I would write about my book “11/22/63”:
It seems to me that Jake could choose many other and more personal things to do, but he decides to try and change history to a degree that he cannot predict. I my opinion, that came definitely unexpected and if I were in his position I probably wouldn’t even consider a task this far-reaching.
Once again, I followed my own advice to only answer the question and to use specific language (it seems to me that, in my opinion). You see that it’s not that complicated if you know what to do.
The last part of your review is usually a recommendation to your readers. As in the previous to chapters you have to use specific language to please the examiner and to make it clear to the reader that you are recommending something.
- Don’t mix up the recommendation with the other parts of your review.
- Use specific language to give recommendations:
- I recommend/suggest [title/name] to + person
- I recommend/suggest + -ing
- I recommend/suggest that …
- You should + base verb
- You might want to + base verb
- Write a final sentence to conclude the review.
My recommendation looks like this:
I definitely recommend “11/22/63” to everyone who has already read some of Stephen King’s novels as well as to those who like stories with twists and turns around every corner plus you get some modern history on top of that. For me, it was absolutely worth reading and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
As you can see, I used specific language to give recommendations (I definitely recommend) and concluded the review with a final sentence (…it was absolutely worth it…).
If you put all four parts (introduction, description, discussion, recommendation) together and follow the advice given in this post, your review will be a hit.
How your review is marked
Marking FCE writing tasks is like a science and for a lot of students it feels as if there is this big mystery and nobody really knows how it works. Actually, there are very clear rules that the examiners have to follow and the criteria are publicly available.
While it is possible to find all the information on your own I thought it would be a good idea to put everything together in an article for you. Check out how your writing tasks are marked by clicking here.
Now it’s time to practice
I believe that reviews are one of the more enjoyable writing tasks and, hopefully, this article will help you improve. Start practising and let me know in the comments which piece of advice you found most useful.
Lots of love,
Teacher Phill 🙂