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Writing Tips for Top Marks in DSE English (Paper 2)

At i-Learner, we are fortunate to teach a wide range of students. This helps us develop skills and tips that can help failing students get into university and set top students on the path to starred marks.

I am passionate about writing (I oversee i-Learner’s publications, and I write novels in my spare time), so paper 2 is my favourite one to work on. It’s also one that strong students can fail to reach their potential in as many schools don’t have time to mark and give feedback on a wide range of writing samples.

Over my years at i-Learner, I’ve worked with a number of these top students to help them achieve the best grade possible. Read on to discover some key skills needed to reach the top marks in HKDSE English Paper 2:


Make it Real

Multiple sections of the mark scheme for this paper make it clear that your writing must feel authentic. Examiners stress that your content should be engaging and show audience awareness and that the register, tone, style and organisation should be appropriate to the text type. However, most students create something that sounds like it’s being written in an exam (which it is, but it shouldn’t sound that way).

Good-mark example (personal letter): I hope you’re doing well. From your letter, it sounds like things at your job are difficult at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll improve soon.

Great-mark example (personal letter): Knowing you, I’m sure you’re kicking yourself about the situation at work. But, just like they always did when we were at school, things will turn around soon.


Follow the Conventions of the Task

As mentioned in the previous point, your writing needs to feel authentic. However, even students who think they understand this can still fall into the trap of structuring everything like an essay. The paragraph structures in essays are great – topic sentences, supporting details and transition phrases are fantastic. But they don’t belong in all types of writing.

Other types of writing can be similar to an essay in places because they’re performing the same function. For example, a debate speech is trying to argue a point, so it will use evidence in each paragraph, and a report needs to categorise things into clear sections, so it will have topic sentences. However, if all of your writing looks like an essay, you’re not thinking about it carefully enough.

Look at examples of different writing types and make sure you know how they’re different to essays. Organisation makes up a significant proportion of your paper 2 grade, so it’s important to get right. The story-writing task is the clearest example of one in which you need to know what is expected in terms of organisation. To get a top grade in this task, you need to include some of the following structural conventions: descriptive paragraphs, flashbacks, side-plots, rising and falling action, dialogue, starting in media res, paragraph lengths that match the pacing, and foreshadowing. Writing your ideas in a clear, chronological order will earn poor marks in this task.

Poorly organised example (story): Every year when he was growing up, Chris’s birthday was ignored. On his sixteenth birthday, it was no different. Walking home at the end of a damp autumn day, he kicked an empty can along the street and cursed himself for getting his hopes up. He shoved his front door open with his shoulder and saw a tuna sandwich on the table. Next to it was a note from his mum saying she’d be back late. He trudged to his bedroom.

Well organised example (story): Chris hadn’t expected much for his birthday, but he’d thought at least one person would have remembered. Walking home at the end of a damp autumn day, after failing yet another maths test and sitting through the world’s longest detention, he kicked an empty can along the street and cursed himself for getting his hopes up. Nobody had ever made a big deal out of his birthday, so why should his sixteenth have been any different? But what Chris didn’t know was that turning sixteen would change everything. As he shoved his front door open with his shoulder, it seemed like any other day. And just like always, there was a soggy tuna sandwich on the table next to a note from his mum saying she’d be back late.

‘Of course,’ he muttered, before trudging into his bedroom.


Ignore your First Ideas

Examiners read answers to the same questions over and over again. You will impress them significantly if you can present original ideas or support your points with unusual details. Your ideas must be relevant to the question, but this shouldn’t make you scared to include interesting concepts just because they’re not the most obvious. This paper also awards marks for supporting your points well, so as long as you can explain your ideas and make it clear that they are relevant, you should feel confident enough to include them.

Good-mark example (proposal): This service trip will teach students to appreciate their own lives and will help the needy members of our community.

Great-mark example (proposal): This service trip will not only make students aware of their obligations as members of a community, but it will also teach the transferable skills of teamwork, preparation and organisation, which will improve their work at school and make them more employable in future.


Focus on Variety

Two significant elements of the mark scheme (content and language) highlight the importance of variety in your writing. You need a wide range of ideas, vocabulary and grammar to do well in this paper. Strong students rarely think about this – they assume that these things will come out naturally as they write. However, we all have certain habits in our writing, and we tend to repeat phrases and grammatical structures that feel comfortable to us.

In order to ensure your writing has enough variety, it’s important to plan before you start. This can be time consuming at first, but the more you practise, the faster you get.

Unvaried language (article): Taking care of our environment is the most important aspect of preparing for the future. Many say that taking care of our environment is difficult and not the most important problem faced nowadays. However, the environment is important for our future, and the human race may not survive for many more years unless taking care of it becomes a priority.

Varied language (article): Taking care of our environment is the most essential aspect of preparing for the future. Many complain that this task is difficult and not the most significant problem faced nowadays. However, the natural world is vital to our continued existence, and the human race may not survive unless its care becomes our priority.


Know what a Good Answer Is

My final tip is to make sure you know what a top answer looks like. Read past paper answers along with examiners’ comments on the HKEAA website. Here are the papers from 2019, 2018 and 2017, or you can look at this list of core subject papers for even more options. Not only do these help you understand what makes a good answer, but you can also see the work strong students do to pull up their grades. For example, in the 2018 exemplar part 1, Task A was a letter to school parents about an upcoming trip. The student who wrote this exemplar edited their writing to improve it in the following ways:

First draft (formal letter): Before I go into the purpose of the trip, I will first give the necessary details.

Second draft (formal letter): Before I delve into the purpose of the trip, I will first provide the necessary details.

The changes to the words in bold not only demonstrate a greater vocabulary, but they also show a clear awareness of the letter’s audience. These are the sorts of changes that move students up to top grade bands.


For more tips on the DSE writing paper, take a look at Miss Holly’s article on common mistakes to avoid. You can also get in-depth feedback on your writing by joining our DSE English courses at our tutorial centres and online.