Top Tips for IELTS

Planning IELTS essays – the thinking stage

A key stage in writing the IELTS exam essay is the planning stage. Very often whether you write an effective essay depends on how well you think before you start writing. The trouble is that often it does not get done or done inefficiently.

This lesson is divided into 2 main sections.In the first the emphasis is on making sure that your plans are practical – that they fit your essay. The second section simply outlines different things you might want to plan . The overall concept is that the more clearly you think before the writing phase, the clearer and the better your essay will be. The key word there for me is think.

Planning though does tend to be a very personal process and different things will work for different people. This is part of the reason for giving you options. There is little right or wrong and the question is: does it work? Try the ideas – if they work, use them – if they don’t,  try something else!

Exam practicalities – be prepared before the exam – practice and learn some skills

  • Make a plan for how long you plan – before you walk into the exam room, you should know more or less how long you expect to plan for
  • Know how you will plan – the exam is not a time for experimentation – there are different ways of making plans – find out which way(s) works for you before the exam
  • Know what you will plan – there are different things you may plan – know what you personally need to plan before the exam

Planning for a purpose – make sure your plan is practical

It’s important that you make your plan practical. A good plan doesn’t need to look good, it needs to help you write an essay under pressure. Here are 3 ideas to give your plan a purpose so that it helps you write better. Sometimes plans go wrong or aren’t made simply because they aren’t practical.

Am I clear in my own head about what I want to say?  Can I summarise it?

Aim: If you’re not clear in your own head, then your writing almost certainly won’t be. Clarity is key to a good IELTS essay -without it you’ll lose both on Task response and Coherence.

Skill: Try doing the Twitter thing and summarising your point of view to the question in 140 characters before you start writing. It need’t be 140 characters of course, but if you can’t write a short summary statement before you start writing, then quite possibly your ideas aren’t quite clear enough.

Practical use: Depending on how you write the essay, you can then use this summary in either your intro or conclusion.

Can I see the structure of the essay in my head? Can I draw my essay?

Aim: The idea here is that your essay should form one complete whole. Sometimes in the process of writing it is easy to get lost in the detail of what you’re trying to say. The solution is to make sure that you can see in your head (or on a piece of paper) what the final essay will look like.

Skill: What I personally do here is draw a picture of my essay.It’s much quicker than writing things out and visual often works. How much detail you include will depend on you. I typically don’t include much as I am concentrating on the structure of the essay, not the detail.

Practical use: This is practical as drawing a plan is quicker than writing one and time is of the essence.

I choose to put not much detail on my “drawn” plan – just the main ideas and notes of reasons and examples. I use it as a map and I find too much detail can confuse. You may like to put more detail there. Experiment.

Do I  know what details to include? Can I tell my main points from my examples and reasons?

Aim: The idea here is to make sure that you are able to support your arguments with supporting reasons/examples. One reason some essays go wrong is that the main ideas are not supported. It’s no good having a great idea in an IELTS essay unless you can explain it.

Skill: It often helps to categorise your “ideas”. You want to sort out what are main points and what are supporting reasons and examples.If you can do this, you have made a big step towards writing coherent paragraphs – paragraphs that are made up of main points, supported by reasons and ideas.

Practical use: This is extremely practical. When you get to write your main paragraphs, you should be much better able to combine your ideas so that are coherent with the main idea supported by reasons and examples.

What to plan -some different options

Another way of thinking about plans and making them practical is to think precisely about what you want to plan. The idea here is that you don’t just “plan”, you go into the exam room knowing what you are going to plan. That way you have a better chance of using your time wisely. I’d suggest that these 5 options are all things you should consider thinking about and planning before you start writing.

1.Your position to the question

What:This means that you should be clear about whether you agree/disagree etc.

Why: The examiner looks for a clearly established and coherent position throughout the essay: if you don’t have this in your head before you start, your essay will lose on Task Response and Coherence

Tip: It’s a simple thing.Read the task words in the question. If it says “To what extent do you agree or disagree”, make a sentence saying “I agree with this idea to some extent”

2. The structure of the essay

What: You need to decide how many paragraphs you will write and what the function of each paragraph is, ie supporting or disagreeing.

Model essay plans note: many candidate like to follow model plans. That can work. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to think about them in the exam though. The model must fit the question.

3. The vocabulary you want to use

What:this may seem a little strange but it can work. If you are familiar with brainstorming techniques, it is sometimes easier to come up with words than ideas. You often find then that those words give you

A top tip – don’t think of ideas, think of main points, reasons and examples

The reason for this is that you don’t need ideas, you need main points, reasons and examples to write complete paragraphs and you need to be clear about which is which.

4.The main points:

What: these are often very simple and may be no more than I agree or I disagree. One of your aims should be to be clear and it helps to keep your main points as clear as possible.

5.Supporting reasons

What and why: these may be more complex.You need them because both Task Response and Coherence require you to support your ideas.

Tip: It is sometimes as simple as asking yourself the question “Why do I think this?”

6. Examples

Why: Examples are useful as they help you expand your main points into complete paragraphs.

Tip: Your examples do not need to be “clever”. The rubric asks you to use examples from your own knowledge and experience. To get examples,it can help to ask yourself the question about examples you know of personally.In exams it is often easier to think of “memories”.

One final tip – learn to select – that means not including all your ideas

Many essays go wrong because they try and include too much – everything that is in the plan. If you want to write a coherent essay in exam time, you need to make sure that all your ideas fit together. Choose the ones that suit argument,leave out the ones that don’t – no matter how good they are.

Further reading

Purdue OWL is one of the top writing resources on the internet. It has many, many good things.Check out its brainstorming page and follow the links from there.

Try the next lesson in this series

The introduction – the link between the question and the essay


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5 Responses to Planning IELTS essays – the thinking stage

  1. Idowu November 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Dear Sir,

    I cant differentiate between supporting reasons and citing examples. In your note about writing better paragraph, you gave the PEE model, that is, point, explain(which i think is supporting reasons) and example. But i have a problem knowing the difference and how to bring each in. Can you clarify and help me please?

  2. Sakil Ahmed November 24, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    Dear Sir,
    I would like to thank you for such a nice website and all the resources that you have provided here! Everyday, I study some topics from your website and I have recommended it to some of my friends also.! I dont have enough words to express the gratitude for your awesome work!
    I need your assistance in “writing Task-2” part. I am not good in Writing essays. and I cant understand from where I should start. I was confused about “Task-1” also, but after following your website, it become easier for me. Can you please suggest the overall process/strategy for Task-2?
    I am planning to give IELTS on the first week of the next year. So, I should i prepare withing this time for writing part?
    Thanks in advance!!!!
    Best Regards.!

  3. Joseph March 23, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    Hi Sir,

    Your lesson on Planning essay was very useful.
    Please could you help me out- How many examples can be used in essay and letter. In some sample writings we find two examples. I am taking the general IELTS test.


    • Dominic Cole September 15, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      There really isn’t an answer to this. You should use examples to explain your ideas. This doesn’t mean that every idea needs an example.

  4. Tracy January 26, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    Hi, your tips are very usefull. In fact, I practiced a Task 1 question before I started reading the infomation on your site. I can immediately see where I went wrong and what I can do better by simply changing my approach.
    I do have a question about the Task 1 assigment, we are usually required to provide information that has been presented in a table or diagram form. Is it correct if I share my observations or an inference based on what I see? For example in a chart comparing television audiences to radio audiences, may I make an obeservation regarding WHY viewership may be elevated at a certain point?

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