Timed Writing (Expectations)

Timed writing is when you are asked to write about a topic, but you only have a limitied time. Timed writing can be used by your teachers to check your understanding or by big exams like the TOEFL to see your language proficiency. At the university level, you could expect to find a timed writing on a test or quiz in any major.

Timed writing is when you are asked to write about a topic, but you only have a limitied time. This is most common in a test. Timed writing can be used by your teachers to check your understanding or by big exams like the TOEFL to see your language proficiency. Timed writing also usually means that you do not have help while you write. This means you cannot ask a person, use spell check, or look at a translator or dictionary.

Different tests will have different amounts of time to write. For example, the ELC test for placement (called the LATs) has a 10 minute writing and a 30 minute writing. When you have more time, you are expected to write more (length) and with more development (clear ideas).

At the university level, you could expect to find a timed writing on a test or quiz in any major. It doesn't matter if you plan to study business, engineering, music, or linguistics. Timed essays are often used to get you to think about a topic, give an opinion, or create something with what you have learned in the class. Essays ask you to show more than just recognizing a correct answer like with multiple choice questions.

In everyday life, there is always a limit to the time you have to write. You do not want to take 30 minutes to write a text message. You also do not have unlimited time to work on writing assignments for your class, so you need to practice using a time limit to help you focus.

Timed Writing Expectations

The first strategy for timed writing is to understand the expectations. This means that when you have a timed writing prompt, you should first think about the context. Context here means why you're writing, what you're writing about, and who you are writing for.

Questions to think about for timed writing

  • How much time do you have?
  • Who will be reading your answer and why are they reading it?
  • What length of a response does the teacher expect?
  • What about my writing is most important to the teacher?
  • Are there other sections of the test (like multiple choice questions) that you need to complete in the time that is given?
  • Does the test allow spell check?
  • Is this test more focused on language accuracy or comprehension of the topic accuracy?

Usually you will know before the test that there will be a timed writing in a test, so you can think about these questions before you begin. This will help you control your time. 

Examples of timed writing prompts & expectations

  • Compare and contrast the similarities and differences between shopping online and in person. Choose at least three points in your comparison.
    • Time: 30 minutes
    • Audience: ELC writing teacher; focused on your thesis and topic sentences
    • Length: 4 paragraphs
    • Focus: Organization
    • Other sections: No
    • Help: No spell check, no dictionary/translator, no partner help, no help from teacher
    • Purpose: Accuracy in organization, not accuracy in grammar
  • Read this opinion post from the BYU newspaper. Respond to it by agreeing or disagreeing and supporting your position.
    • Time: 10 minutes to read; 20 minutes to write
    • Audience: ELC writing teacher & reading teacher; focused on your supporting details and comprehension of reading
    • Length: 2 paragraphs
    • Focus: Understanding the reading; organization
    • Other sections: Reading passage
    • Help: Partner discussion of article before writing, no additional support
    • Purpose: understanding of article points and clear opinion
  • Explain the process of finding an apartment in Provo. What are the steps involved?
    • Time: 40 minutes (you only want to spend this amount of time)
    • Audience: a Facebook group for future international students
    • Length: 300 words max
    • Focus: Clear ideas, accurate grammar
    • Other sections: No
    • Help: You can use spell check, translator, partner help etc, but it must still be your writing
    • Purpose: clear organization and accuracy that international students from many different countries can understand

Planning your Time

Think about how to use the time to help you. Think about how you can use the time to keep yourself focused. For example, if the essay is only a small part of the total test grade, control the amount of time you give yourself to write the answer. Then, use the rest of your time for the other questions. You might do this by answering the writing question first under a shorter time limit before you answer any of the multiple choice questions. Use the time you have left so you can work smarter.

As a specific example, you may only have 30 minutes to work on an essay. In order to work quickly, you could follow a time schedule like this:

MinutesTime (Counting down)Task

Write your thesis and topic sentences (outline)

727:00-20:00Write your first body paragraph
720:00-13:00Write your second body paragraph
513:00-8:00 Write your introduction paragraph
58:00-3:00Write your conclusion paragraph
33:00-0:00 Revise and edit your essay

Why does this example start with the body paragraphs instead of the introduction and conclusion? This is one suggestion of how to focus your time to develop your ideas and create a good organization for the main part of the essay. The introduction and conclusion are usually easier to write after you have the middle completed. If you run out of time, you at least have one sentence for an introduction and a conclusion.

There are other ways to choose how to start:

  • Start with the idea that is easiest to write, leaving the sections that are hardest to write for later. (Note: This may create a challenge if you are still stuck and have no time to revise)
  • Start from the beginning and work to the end. (Note: This seems like the good way to start writing, but it can often lead to confusing writing)

You will always need to use your time differently depending on the amount of time you have. It may also be necessary to adjust time for each part of the essay depending on what is most important to the teacher. For example, it may be more important in one essay to have accurate grammar, so you will need to give yourself more time to revise and edit.


Exercise 1: LATs Rubric

Take some time to look over the writing rubric used for the Language Acquisition Test used at the ELC

  1. What will the test raters be looking for when they grade your essay?
  2. How is this rubric similar or different from the rubrics your FC Writing teacher is using this semester?

Exercise 2: Timed Writing Practice

Before you begin writing, ask your teacher questions about the expectations for this timed writing practice. Listen carefully and decide how you will focus your time to meet those expectations.

  • Describe your family. Be sure to give clear descriptions of each person.

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write about the above topic. Your response should be between 200-300 words.

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/foundations_c_writing/timed_writing_1.