Timed Writing (Expectations)

Timed writing can take many forms, but there is always a limit on the amount of time you have to complete your writing. Timed writings most commonly occur in an exam situation, where the tester is evaluating how well you understand a topic and/or can explain your thoughts without external assistance. The amount of time and the expected length of your writing will vary based on the instructions.

You can expect to find a timed writing portion on a test or quiz in virtually any subject. It doesn't matter whether you plan to study business, engineering, music, or linguistics, Timed essays are used frequently to demonstrate how you analyze, argue, or create something with what you have learned.

Although this section is about timed writing in general, all of the timed writing tips in this textbook will help you with the 30-minute essay on the TOEFL.

Step One: Recognize the constraints

When you encounter a timed writing prompt, you should consider the time restraints and the requirements of the prompt. Ask yourself the questions below before you begin your timed writing. 

Usually, you will know in advance that there will be a timed writing component to an assessment so you can think about these questions beforehand. This will help you prioritize your time. 

Step Two: Organizing your ideas AND your time

It is common for students to feel a sense of panic when they see a clock counting down the seconds during an exam. Because of this psychological pressure, it is easy to overlook a few important things. 

First of all, an outline will always benefit you. You may think that the best idea is to immediately start writing because the time is limited, but that could lead to a very disorganized presentation of an answer. Read the prompt carefully and make a brief outline of ideas so that you know all parts of the prompt will be addressed and that all of your most important details will be included. 

Second, consider how to use time as your ally. Rather than allowing it to control you, think of how you can use the time to keep yourself on track. For example, if the essay is only a small part of the total grade, control the amount of time you give yourself to write the answer. You might do this by answering the essay in a certain amount of time, leaving yourself enough time to complete the rest of the test. Divide the time you have to work with so you can work smarter.

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

Time (Counting down)Task

Write your thesis and topic sentences (outline)

27:00-20:00Write your first body paragraph
20:00-13:00Write your second body paragraph
13:00-8:00 Write your introduction paragraph
8:00-3:00Write your conclusion paragraph
3:00-0:00 Revise and edit your essay

You will obviously need to structure your time differently depending on the amount of time you have to work with. It may also be necessary to adjust the time you spend on certain aspects of your essay depending on what is most important to the teacher. For example, there may be a larger emphasis on accuracy, so you will need to give yourself more time to revise and edit.

Example timed writing prompts

  • Should historic statues be taken down? Explain your position using examples and reasonings from the readings and discussions about the Confederate monuments in the United States. (American Heritage)
  • Choose an organization with a significant social media presence. Observe and analyze how the organization uses various social media platforms. What best practices does the organization demonstrate for using social media for business purposes? (Intro to Public Relations)
  • Explain why employees need to be paid more on holidays using vocabulary and concepts from class to explain the economic factors. (Intro to Economics)
  • What is wellness? How do you personally measure a healthy lifestyle and general well-being? (Exercise Sciences)

Prompts are based on real writing requirements as described in BYU and Ensign College syllabi.


Exercise 1: Timed Writing 

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write about one of the following topics. Your response should be between 250-300 words.

  • Describe an important event in your life. Why did that event have a significant impact on you? 
  • What skill do you think is most important for you to develop? How will that skill impact your future success?
  • Financial stress is a common difficulty that international students face while living abroad due to exchange rates and limitations on working. What can a student do to improve their situation when faced with financial stress? What (if anything) should schools do to support these students? 
  • What is one characteristic you think is key to being a good role model? Why do you think that characteristic is so vital? What are the consequences of not developing this characteristic?

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

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