Top Tips for IELTS

How to plan an IELTS essay – the 10 minute solution

In this lesson I’m going to suggest that you consider spending up to 10 minutes when you plan an IELTS essay. If that seems a lot think about these points:
there are 6/7 different things to consider before you start writing – that takes time
your planning time is also thinking time and you want to think clearly not quickly
the more you think and the more clearly you think , the better you’ll write
it doesn’t take very long to write 250 words if you know what you want to say
Most people want to start writing much sooner than 10 minutes and perhaps after only 2/3 minutes. This can lead to problems. So I’ll discuss in order:
  1. Common problems in writing too quickly
  2. The benefit of planning longer
  3. How much time you really need to write
  4. An outline of what things you need to plan

Common mistake – starting to write too quickly to make sure you finish on time

Starting to write too quickly can cause lots of problems. Here’s a quick summary of them.

Problem 1 – you get stuck half way through and don’t know how to finish it

This is very common. If you don’t spend time planning the whole essay and in some detail, you may not complete it or write an essay that is incoherent.

Problem 2 – you write about the wrong question

This also happens lots. If you don’t focus exactly on the question – and that takes a little time – it is quite possible to write  about a similar question – perhaps one you have written about before. That is very bad for your task response.

Problem 3 – you include irrelevant ideas and examples

This is perhaps the most common mistake. The ideas – including reasons and examples – need to relate to the question as closely as possible. Write too quickly and you’ll very probably include irrelevant reasons and examples. This can affect both your coherence and task response score.

Problem 4 – you don’t use your best language 

It’s not just ideas you need to think about before you write, it really helps to think of language too. If you start immediately. you’re very unlikely to get your best language. That’s bad for your vocabulary score.

Problem 5 – you choose a bad essay structure

It’s tempting to spend no time thinking about your essay structure. You choose a “model structure” before the test and decide to follow that for your essays to save time. The problem with that is that you may get a question you don’t expect and you may need to use a slightly different structure as you don’t have the right ideas and language for your normal model.

The benefits of thinking and planning longer – you write more quickly and better

The heading says it all really. If you know

what you want to write about

the words you want to use

the structure of your essay

then you will write more quickly and almost certainly more clearly. Very little time will be wasted. Your timing will look like this:

10 minute thinking

25 minutes writing

5 mintes to check

25 minutes is plenty to write 275 words

Your goal is probably to write around 275 words – just to make sure you get to 250. The maths is quite simple:

approximately 12 words a minute

approximately a sentence a minute

That should be enough for anyone. If you know what you want to say and how to say it, then a sentence a minute is lots. You might consider how in TOEFL the goal is to write 300 words in 30 minutes.

A planning checklist

This is a list – with quick explanations – of what you can do in your planning time. You should see that there is a lot here. How quickly can you do all of this? Do you want to do it quickly or well? I suggest you want to do it well. Efficiency over speed.

The question and what it means

This is key. You must (and I very rarely say must in IELTS) do this before you start. Don’t just read the question. Spend time understanding it. Don’t and your task response score will dive.

Your point of view

This too is key. Before you start writing you must decide what your overall view/opinion is. You really want it to be clear throughout your essay.

Selecting your main ideas

These are key too. Your main ideas are how you structure your essay – one per main topic paragraph normally. You need to spend a little time on this to make sure you they are relevant to the question and you have reasons and examples to support them. More time.

I’ll add that you need to select the best ones for you and the essay and not just include them all. That’s thinking time.

Reasons and examples

This is very similar. Each idea needs to be supported with reasons and examples. That’s your coherence score. You want to make sure you can support your ideas before you start writing.


Few people do this I suspect. I do strongly suggest it though. Vocabulary is 25% of your score is part of the reason and so it makes sense to think about it. It also helps to do it in the planning stage because words can give you ideas – something a lot of people find hard.

Essay and paragraph structure

Again this is something many people don’t spend much time on – they prefer to use a “model structure they have already learnt. This can be dangerous. Your model structure may not fit that question and what you know about it. You need to be sure that you have a structure that works for you and that question – it might be that this time you need a 5 paragraph essay.

Can’t you plan as you write?

Yes I think you should. But that is as well as planning before you write. In brief the idea is that before each paragraph and perhaps each sentence you go back and look at the question and what you have just written to make sure you are on track. Not all plans work.

I explain this is some/great detail in this lesson: the process of writing an IELTS essay and the following series of lessons.

The process of writing an IELTS essay


More connected lessons

One problem many people have with the planning process is finding ideas. In this older lesson I show one way to get and organise ideas and help your vocabulary:

How to get and organise ideas for IELTS essays

This lesson shows you how an essay can go wrong if the reasons and the examples are not planned well:

How to use reasons and examples in IELTS essays


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Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

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29 Responses to How to plan an IELTS essay – the 10 minute solution

  1. Miss Lilac July 13, 2009 at 9:34 pm #

    This is a great plan. I think you are right in spending more time in planning. As soon as you have thought of what to write, you'll scribble faster. I will apply this in my exam. Thanks!

  2. arman January 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    i still get a bit confused with this actually..may i ask some questions Sir?

    how about task 1? is it also 10 minutes to prepare? (which totally can lead to 20 minutes to set up a plan; 10 min for task 1 & 10 min for task 2)

    or, 10 minutes both for task 1 and task 2 instead?


  3. Dominic Cole January 20, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    First of all, I only make suggestions here. You need to find out what works for you. It is not a case of right or wrong, but what works and doesn’t work. Go to other teachers and see what they say and choose the advice that is best for you. I really mean this. I don’t know you so I can’t tell you what is best for you.

    Regarding part 1 I would say this. 150 words can be written in 10/12 minutes if you know what you want to write. I’d suggest a good 5 minutes thinking/planning time before you start and a good 2/3 minutes revision time.

    But just to repeat myself you need to work out what works for YOU. I’d also add that I wouldn’t worry too much about time at all until about a month before the exam. If you learn the skills well, you can then do it quickly and well. If you never learn the skills, you may do it quickly, you’ll never do it well.

    • simranjit singh sidhu May 3, 2012 at 4:56 am #

      hi thanks for all these advises . your advice is really working well for me . this strategy of of preparing for the exam is really great. just want to ask a question that sometimes we do not know anything about the topic we get in essay or letter . what should we do at that time

      • Dominic Cole July 12, 2012 at 10:24 am #

        The key is to remember that this is a language test, not an intelligence test. You need to focus on whether you have enough words to answer the question. Obviously, though, it is much better if you are familiar with the topic!!

  4. Diane March 25, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    I hope you could find time to answer my question sir. In writing reports about graphs, are the numbers like 20% counted as words? What if I write it down as 20 percent, will that do any good? Thank you very much for your help.

    Can you also post an example of a good way to write a report about graphs?

    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

      The best advice is to use the word and not the symbol and in that case it is of course a word. On your second question, I will be posting about graphs shortly.

  5. Victoria July 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

    Thank you!!! your plan is very useful…I will try to use it !!!

  6. sonz September 5, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    god is alive..! he does miracles

  7. kosta October 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Is a a certain knowledge about specific topic is necessarily needed?

    I’m asking because i’ve noticed that I don’t know much about questions,so lets say even take all the steps of planning, how can you plan and come with ideas or even examples when you don’t know anything about the question in general?

    Also to plan all the essay ahead including vocabulary, what do you mean by that?

    How can i see what words i will use in 250 words essay?

    Sorry for all the questions, I’m having an exam in about a month from now and unfortunatly Writing is the only thing I can’t do…

    • Dominic Cole December 9, 2011 at 9:30 am #

      Not really. IELTS is a very international exam and taken by all sorts of people so the knowledge required is “intelligent general knowledge” – the sort of thing an educated person should be able to talk about. That said, in the reading you may get less familiar topics. The task there is whether you can understand the general meaning, not the specialised language. My point about vocab is that you should try and think of the words before you write. That way you will write better.

      • Angela B March 17, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

        Hello Dominic,

        I’m only new here, I found you by chance looking for some free samples. Anyhow i found your website and I can’t explain in words how pleased I’m. I will seat my exam next month, and to be honest I don’t feel like I’m ready yet, but guess what ‘ I WILL ‘ and i will let you know my band score. As you know the majority of students aim an overall score 7, my self I need 7 in each module to be able to register as a nurse In AU. however I want you to know that I’ve learned more in few days from you than I’ve learned from my IELTS classes (face to face teaching methods). What I’m trying to point out is that you 100% right, what works for me won’t work for someone else and so on.

        In few words, ” Man you doing a great job !!! Thanks a lot. I will follow your advise with my Writing Task 2 that’s for sure.

  8. Off to AUZ January 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm #


    Thank you for your kind assistance in both inspiring me to plan my vocabulary and also helping me to contain my creativity during 250 word essays.
    Thanks to your advice I’ve achieved an 8.5 in my IELTS general writing paper.

    I wish I had listened more carefully, as I’m 0.5 below grade at 7.5 !
    A silly mishap on the first question cost me dearly.
    Off to sit it for a second time.

  9. Colin February 25, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    Great website, Dominic. I’m an ESL teacher trying to get into EAP and I’ve read just about every inch of your site over the last couple of days!

  10. SAM September 13, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Hi Dominic,

    First of all thanks for your effects and for your post replies. I really appreciate the way you explain the things. I going for an exam day after tommarrow and i hope so i will definitely get 7 band in each module.

    Actually, i heard about your website about a month ago through my friend and when i start reading your tips and your blog, which is actually design step-by-step and which works much better than a tutor and i am quite sure that if everyone do follow this blog will definite get the success in IELTS exam and also add some in their future career as well.

    Thanks once again for your useful material and sharing your knowledge with us.

    Sam, Australia

  11. LAURIE October 25, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    you are a great teacher, thank you for your advices, they are a MUST!

  12. Jaiganesh January 19, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    Planning to me is writing brief ideas – vocabulary -structure the beginning wish and deriving conclusion ,possibly to have this draft in my uestion paper. will we be allowed to write something on our question papers ?

  13. vijay March 27, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    hello sir….i’m going to take my test on april, In task 2 shall i write the topic with the examples in our general life..or personal experiences….for agreeing or disagreeing on particular topic??

  14. akhter December 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Thank you for providing a such valuable tips and tricks for getting higher band in IELTs either in
    academic or general.

    I’d especially thank to one of my instructor who told me that I must visit this website before appear in the ielts exams. I must say to you that it has cleared lots of my questions about getting higher band in IELTS. I was very much confused before knowning about this website. But for now, I am very much in confident that I can be easily got good band if I would keep continue visiting on daily basis until i appear in my exam.

    I’m not good in English. It has been my big weakness in my professional Career.
    Therefore, I registered myself for IELTs to check my language level. If someone found something
    wrong in my message so, Please let it correct and let me know about that certain mistake.

    As you know, I am not good in English but want to improve it.

  15. Aniqa January 1, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Hello Dominic,
    I have big problem in speaking..i think i can never ever speak…May i do not have confidence to speak please tell me how can i used to speak…One other question is that how can i improve my vocabulary??

  16. evie January 23, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    Hello and congratulations for your good job! I would like to ask you about preparing vocabulary. Are there any “popular” words that I need to know depending on the subject?

  17. Anonymous January 28, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    This website is amazing, I have my exam tomorrow and I prepared from it by reading the posts whenever I had free time in office. I find it really helpful for writing as well as all other modules…. Thanks a lot you are doing a great job!!

  18. salma April 23, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    first of all I would like to thank you very much about your advices & tips Sir. i am planning to seat for the ielts test in next month & I am not sure about my English language and i have been studying hard for a long time alone or without doing any course or taking ielets preparation, but do n’t feel I am very confident. i do n’t think i have any problem with task2 because i think if i understand the topic i will do it well but my question is about task 1 really i have trouble with writing about chart/figures please help me and my second question is that how can i count words to make sure that i write 150 0r 250 words.

  19. shaker June 11, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

    Wonderfull info and thanx man

  20. sajid jamshed November 17, 2015 at 7:07 am #

    Dear Dominic Cole ,

    How we should write numbers in writing task 1 and 2 .?

    Should we write number as numerical ( 20 ) or alphabetical (twenty ) ? . I am little bit confuse…is writing numbers in wrong way give a penalty ?

  21. Dreamer28 October 13, 2016 at 8:54 am #

    hello Dominic.
    Thank you for this article. However, I find it really hard to allocate the last 5 minutes to proofread my task 2 academic essay, maybe because I don’t have time to do so. You see, I usually read and edit paragraph per paragraph, but I could not read the whole essay because of time constraints. I managed to take the exam thrice and I consistently got 6.5 in the said area. my other scores were above 7. I will take the exam again this month and I desperately I need your advice regarding my problem. Thank you very much.


  1. IELTS writing – 10 tips | shanyzhang - November 16, 2010

    […] 1. Read the question – answer the question Rule  number 1 is to answer the question: read the question carefully and underline all the information you need to include. This works differently in the essay and the report. In the essay, often you will find background information and the question itself. Make sure you answer the question (eg “Do you agree?”) and do not write generally about the topic. If you copy another essay you have written on the same topic, you will lose a lot of marks. In task 1, all the information you need to include is in the chart/graph: make sure you identify the key points before you start writing. 2. Don’t start writing too soon – think and plan! It is important to finish both pieces of writing, but the way to do this is not necessarily starting to write immediately. If you do that, you may get half way through the writing and realise you cannot finish it. Only start writing when you know how you are going to finish. In the essay this can mean up to 10 minutes and in the task 1 report it can mean up to 5 minutes. The more you think, the better and more quickly you will write. 2/3 minutes is almost certainly not enough. For more detail on this, try looking at Planning an IELTS essay – the 10 minute solution. […]

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