If there was a World Cup of the most disliked part of an English language exam, the IELTS Writing would probably win very often. Nowadays, when studying a foreign language people often put little emphasis on the skill of writing and more on speaking or listening. So when it’s time for the IELTS, writing about virtually unfamiliar topics in a limited amount of time only makes things worse. When I walk into a classroom and only mention a writing task I can already see the annoyance on the students’ faces and I know exactly what the first question is:
What do I write about?
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be experts in all fields to be able to write 150 words for task 1 and 250 words for task 2. For the essay in particular, you are allowed to use your own experiences and knowledge so you can bring information from your own country or from an article that you read in a newspaper or a documentary you watched on TV.
Before the test day make sure you practise writing answers for as many questions as you can. The old-fashioned saying “practice makes perfect” really applies to the IELTS. Also you should try to watch TV, listen to the radio or read newspapers in print or online. This will help you get some more ideas and you might also learn some new words to add to your vocabulary.
On the day of the test it is extremely important that you read the questions (rubrics) carefully. Read them two or three times if you need to and underline key words if it helps. It is essential that you fully understand the questions, especially for task 2, the essay. The next step is to write down all the ideas that go through your head then choose two or three that you can fully develop into paragraphs.
As soon as the issue with ideas is dealt with, the students move on the inevitable next question:
How do I write?
Many people who have not written anything important since school have probably forgotten that any piece of writing must have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. In marking terms this is called task response or task achievement. So simply starting by answering your question will not bring you many points. The markers are also looking for a piece of writing in which the paragraphs are logically connected so you have to make sure you use the correct linking words. Keep in mind that every new idea has to be written in a separate paragraph.
Another marking criterion is lexical resource, which simply means vocabulary. The marker wants to see a good range of vocabulary, from simple, everyday words, to more complex, topic-specific ones. But using fancy 3- or 4-syllable words in the wrong context will not get you a higher score. So, if you’re writing the answer to the General Training task 1, the letter, and you’re writing to a friend then your words should be less formal. However, if you’re writing to a potential employer formal vocabulary is needed.
Other things that require attention are grammar and sentence structure. Using simple tenses (such as the present and past tense) and short sentences with only one verb is not always to your advantage. Before the test, take some time to revise the grammar of English and when practicing try to write longer, more complex sentences involving more tenses.
Completing the two tasks within an hour is not impossible, it just takes practice, in some cases a lot, and a firm grasp of vocabulary, grammar and connecting words.
You can find more information about the IELTS marking criteria, the types of questions in the Writing section and how to organise your responses in my eBook “The IELTS for Beginners Second Edition”