This article is aimed at learners at high school who have to choose a transactional writing topic in their Paper 3 exam.

Choosing a topic from a transactional writing topic from exams can be quite difficult. What criteria should you use when making that choice? Are they all good choices or are some better than others?

I’ve had many years of experience in marking both internal and external Grade 12 exams. I have marked 1000s of transactional texts and sometimes, after many hours of plodding through very ordinary scripts, I come across one that is interesting and appropriate and my heart sings with joy.

Here’s a guide to help you make the RIGHT choice based on my marking experience.

The first thing to ask is, what types of transactional writing topics will be in the paper? Of course you won’t know exactly what the exact topics will be but you can have a clear idea of what types of writing are likely to be included.

In the Grade 12 exams you will definitely have to write ONE of the following:

  • a letter: formal, informal or to the press.
  • a CV and covering letter or an obituary.
  • An article, review, report or an agenda and minutes.
  • A speech, dialogue or interview.

Not all of these will be in the exam paper but one from each category will be included.

Once you have the choice of topics in front of you, you need to make the right choice.

Here’s THREE aspects of longer transactional writing that you need to think about:

  1. Know your format

ONE of the most important decisions you make depends on which FORMATS you know well. The format refers to the way a particular document is laid out. Letters need addresses, articles require headlines etc. A sizeable chunk of marks in transactional texts are awarded for using the correct format for the type of writing you choose. Do NOT chose to write on a topic unless you are very clear about the way it should be set out. The marker has really no choice but to give you a poor mark for your work if you don’t how to write the text.

These transactional texts have more complicated formats:

  • Formal letters
  • Letters to the Press
  • CVs and covering letters
  • Agenda and minutes
  • Dialogue/interview (although it is easier than the one’s mentioned above)

If you’re not sure about the format then rather chose one of the other types of writing such as a friendly letter that requires only your own address, or an article that only needs a headline.

Remember that almost all pieces of longer transactional texts require paragraphs (except those with formats that exclude them).

  1. Choose the right language/register

Each type of transactional text requires you to write in a particular way. If you are writing an agenda and minutes, then you will need to write in a formal way using a business-like tone. If you are writing a business letter, then the same is true of that. If you are writing a personal letter or writing a speech for a friend, then your register will be informal and your tone will be chatty and friendly.

The transactional texts that use more formal and business-like language:

  • Formal letters
  • Letters to the press
  • CVs and covering letters
  • Agenda and minutes

3 Stay on topic

Read the topic through very carefully and make sure that you understand all the elements of the topic. If you leave an element of your topic out, you will be penalised in your marks. One of the first things markers do, before they mark any scripts at all, is to go through the question paper really carefully. They know what needs to be included, so you need to make sure that you do cover every aspect of the topic.

4 Be original – if you can…!

What does tend to happen in exams is that many people chose the same easier topic and then chose to address the topic in the most obvious way. This means that the examiner gets tired of reading virtually the same thing over and over again. What I soon realised when I started marking both creative and transactional texts was that many people think of exactly the same thing when looking at a topic. Marking the same thing (more-or-less) for hours on end becomes tedious and boring.

If you want to be original, then you need to discard the first, probably most obvious, response to the topic. As I’ve said, most people will have the same immediate idea that comes to mind. If think about an alternative way of presenting the topic, then you are far more likely to be original and this will go a long way in creating interest in the person marking your writing. Think of the examiner’s excitement when your approach to the topic is unique!

However it is important to note that staying on topic is vital. Being original would be great, but it is not essential.

Here’s an example of a topic:


You have been chosen to give the Grade 12 farewell speech in the final assembly. Write the speech that you would give to both the pupils and staff of your school.

The underlined words are the key aspects of this topic. You must make sure that your speech suits the atmosphere of a final school assembly and is directed at both the pupils (of all grades) and the teachers of the school. If you only direct your speech at your fellow Grade 12s you will have missed important aspects of the topic and, again, you will lose marks.

Once you have carefully considered the three main aspects of choosing your topic (language, format and topic), you can now go ahead and start planning the content. Remember that planning each paragraph carefully is also a really important element of writing a longer transactional text (except for CVs, Agenda and Minutes, dialogues and interviews that have completely different formats).

Last tips:

  • The exam paper recommends spending 40 minutes on this section of the paper.
  • Keep to the word count: 120 to 150 words.

Use your time wisely, and you’ll be able to achieve a great result!

Written by Katharine Eve