Writing is an important part of the Foreign Service exam because it’s an important part of being a diplomat. I would argue that, if you’re serious about being a diplomat, or any related profession, you should invest in polishing your writing skills as soon as possible.
We can all write. It’s a learned skill and everybody has some of it already. Reaching the standard expected by the Board of Examiners (BEX), and later by your supervisor, is also doable as long as you take it seriously. I grew up in the Netherlands and never had formal training in writing in English—yet with practice and the consultation of a few books I got by just fine. So you probably can too.
How to improve writing for the FSOT
To pass the FSOT, you have to write something similar to the five-point essay you learned about in school. The good news is you don’t need to be an expert on this topic—I didn’t even know what it was until a few weeks before taking the test. In case you don’t know what it is either, just head over to Google. Then use the information you find as a basis for future writing practice.
If you want to improve your writing, first ask yourself how your fundamentals are. What are your weaknesses? One way to figure it out is by writing a few paragraphs and giving it to someone else to correct. If you’re too embarrassed to do that, you could also review it yourself the next day and correct your errors (there are always errors).
When you do this a few times, you’ll figure out exactly where to devote extra attention when you write. You may also notice stylistic issues, like repetitiveness, sentences that are too long, or abrupt endings.
Once you know what you need to improve, you can make a plan. If your knowledge of grammar is already good, perhaps all you need is a quick review. Personally, I found the “Elements of Good Writing” chapter in Cliff TestPrep Foreign Service Officer Exam very useful. It took only a few hours to read and helped me avoid making basic mistakes.
If you need more support, or if you’re just more serious about writing, you might want to (re-)read one of the better books on the topic, such as “Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Don’t get scared by the very idea of reading a whole book on basic writing skills—this book is fun and easy to read, and truly insightful.
Practice is key. To become a better writer, you need to write as much as possible. It doesn’t really matter what you write about, but considering the most frequently used formats during the test and in the Foreign Service, I’d suggest writing a few (5-8) succinct paragraphs on a variety of topics.
You can start by writing about topics you’re intimately familiar with like your family history, your academic thesis, or the storyline of Titanic. But I’d recommend writing about professional and political topics. I found it very useful to visit the website ProCon.org to find ideas for my next writing exercise, while at the same time learning more about current policy issues.
There’s a website called Path to the Foreign Service (albeit written by someone who isn’t a FSO) that has a “simulator” to help you practice writing the FSOT essay. It offers a few sample topics and provides a space to write in. Other advantages are that it doesn’t have spell check, which makes you focus more on writing correctly and mimics what the test looks like.
Read & copy
Whenever you read an article or a book, pay attention to what you like about the way it’s written. For example, there aren’t fixed rules for certain punctuation marks, such as commas (Oxford comma) or how to use “em dashes.” Reading something that’s particularly well written, such as the book Writing Well I mentioned above, provides a good opportunity to pick the style you like best (and then stick to it!).
Please don’t worry about your “writing style.” As William Zinsser says somewhere in the book, and I’m paraphrasing here, the best writing style you can possibly have is writing in clear and correct English. This means you should focus primarily on learning the basic rules of English grammar and usage and find ways to deal with gray areas and other writing challenges consistently.
Structure is also important. You’ve probably learned in school that all writings should start with an interesting fact, a brief introduction of the topic, followed by context and arguments, and end with a summary and clear conclusion. If you struggle with this format, look at how other writers are implementing it and copy their approaches.
There’s nothing wrong with copying other people’s words and sentences, by the way. In fact, using other people’s nice words and phrases is just going to make you a better writer. I’m pretty sure that’s how all writers started out—studying others and trying to mimic whatever they considered good writing.
Write like you mean it
Writing is a wonderful skill that can be used in hundreds of different ways. Whatever you end up doing in life, writing well is going to help you. So don’t feel like writing about your life, your career, or issues that interest you is a waste of time—it’s great practice. If you’re serious about writing, I encourage you to start a diary or blog.
But even if you don’t, you should still consider yourself a “serious” writer. Don’t write as if what you have to say is not really interesting, or you don’t know anything. If you want to be taken seriously, it’s important to believe you’re a good writer and what you’re saying is meaningful because it represents your unique insight and experience.
Experienced writers typically choose a certain “angle” when they write. They won’t touch a topic unless they have a creative new way to approach it—they have to sell their work, after all. As a beginning writer, however, you should worry less about finding a creative angle and focus instead on presenting your points clearly and concisely, and using a clear structure to make it easy for readers to digest.
Edit and tighten it up
My final advice is: edit your work rigorously. Don’t fall in love with your own words or depend on your “instinct.” First drafts are typically full of mistakes and clutter that make it really hard for others to follow along. No matter how much flair you (think you) have, an unusual word choice may not as cute as you think and jokes often fall flat. So make sure you save enough time to edit your work thoroughly (brutally, if you will).
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