Stop – think – write: a checklist for IELTS essays

Further down this lesson you’ll find a checklist of some things to think about as you are writing an IELTS essay. Before you get to it though, I’d like to explain how and why it may help you. The basic ideas are:

effective writing comes from effective thinking

you need to think as you write not just before it – just “planning” is not enough

it’s better to think before you write and not after it – you really don’t have time to draft and re-draft in IELTS

the best time to think is before every sentence and every paragraph – they are the key units of your essay

the best thinking is directed thinking – for that it helps to have some form of checklist

Let me first explain a little below why I suggest you spend more time thinking. It may seem that it will slow you down and most people want to write faster! It may to begin with. But you should find that with practice you end up writing more efficiently – meaning you don’t just complete essays in time, you write better essays too.

Clear thinking makes better writing

One – slightly simplistic – way to understand this is to see that 50% of IELTS scores come from Task Response and Coherence and Cohesion. Those marks are less about language and more about thought and organisation. Put another way, wonderful grammar and vocab only get you 50% of the way. To get the other 50% you need thinking skills.

Just planning is not enough

There is a limit to what you can plan in the exam room before you start writing. Even if you are able to produce all the structure, language and ideas in your planning time, you still need to decide how it all fits together.

I have met very, very few students who are able to do all that in their planning time. One result of this is that a lot of people stop planning as they think they are wasting time. That’s bad. Much better is to accept that your plan is not the complete answer and you can refine that plan as you write.

Please note that ‘m not suggesting you don’t plan. Indeed, for this thinking to work it is crucial you have an essay structure/ideas/language – that all comes from having a plan.

Don’t draft and re-draft – think before you write

If you have trouble finishing essays in the 40 minutes, it’s quite likely because you make too many mistakes and end up crossing things out. One way to avoid this is just to spend more time thinking before you write. This is not “planning time”, but the time you spend thinking about the best way to say something.

If you are used to writing academic essays, you need to do in this thinking time what you’d normally do in your re-drafting time.

Think before sentences and paragraphs

When I watch students writing, I see this go wrong lots and lots. Frequently I see students pausing half way through a sentence – not knowing how to finish it. This is very often when writing goes wrong – sometimes just because the two parts of the sentence don’t match each other!

One way to think of a sentence is that it is a complete thought. Only start writing when that thought is complete in your head and your writing may improve overnight. Paragraphs? Well, they’re complete ideas (thoughts put together). It’ll also really help if you get those complete ideas together before you start writing.

Direct your thinking

It’s all very well to suggest “thinking” helps, but what should you think about? This will depend on you, your experience, your level and the essay. Below I make some suggestions.

My thinking checklist for IELTS essays

What you will find below are a series of questions to ask yourself – feel free to amend it to your purposes.

There may seem to be a lot of questions –

You may (i.e. probably will) think that my grammar/vocabulary notes in particular are too simple. I just find that the best way to get language is to think of ideas first!

It may help to remember that essays are made up of related paragraphs and a paragraph is a collection of related sentences. So when you start a paragraph you need to think of both the essay and the sentences. Likewise, you need grammar and vocabulary and coherence/cohesion skills to write a sentence.

Paragraphs

ideas/language

Do I have enough language/ideas to write a complete paragraph?

What is the main idea of this paragraph? Can I put it in one sentence?

essay structure

Does that main idea fit into my essay structure?

How does this paragraph relate to the other topic paragraphs?

coherence/organisation

How is the paragraph going to be structured?

Do I have reasons and/or examples for the main idea?

How many sentences should this paragraph have?

Sentences

coherence/cohesion

What do I want to say in this sentence? Can I finish the sentence in my head?

Is this a main idea? An example? An explanation? Something else?

How does this sentence relate to the previous sentence? Do I need a linking word? How else can I show how it links?

grammar

Am I sure about the grammar? If not, can I put it some other way?

Is the grammar too simple/too repetitious?

vocabulary

Is the language precise?

Do I want to borrow words from the previous sentence(s)?

Do I need synonyms?

Is this language the right register (essay language)?

Further down this lesson you’ll find a checklist of some things to think about as you are writing an IELTS essay. Before you get to it though, I’d like to explain how and why it may help you. The basic ideas are:

effective writing comes from effective thinking

you need to think as you write not just before it – just “planning” is not enough

it’s better to think before you write and not after it – you really don’t have time to draft and re-draft inIELTS

the best time to think is before every sentence and every paragraph – they are the key units of your essay

the best thinking is directed thinking – for that it helps to have some form of checklist

Let me first explain a little below why I suggest you spend more time thinking. It may seem that it will slow you down and most people want to write faster! It may. But you should find that with practice you end up writing more efficiently – meaning you don’t just complete essays in time, you write better essays too.

Clear thinking makes better writing

One – slightly simplistic – way to understand this is to see that 50% of IELTS scores come from Task Response and Coherence and Cohesion. Those marks are less about language and more about thought and organisation. Put another way, wonderful grammar and vocab only get you 50% of the way. To get the other 50% you need thinking skills.

Just planning is not enough

There is a limit to what you can plan in the exam room before you start writing. Even if you are able to produce all the structure, language and ideas in your planning time, you still need to decide how it all fits together.

I have met very, very few students who are able to do all that in their planning time. One result of this is that a lot of people stop planning as they think they are wasting time. That’s bad. Much better is to accept that your plan is not the complete answer and you can refine that plan as you write.

Please note that ‘m not suggesting you don’t plan. Indeed, for this thinking to work it is crucial you have an essay structure/ideas/language – that all comes from having a plan.

Don’t draft and re-draft – think before you write

If you have trouble finishing essays in the 40 minutes, it’s quite likely because you make too many mistakes and end up crossing things out. One way to avoid this is just to spend more time thinking before you write. This is not “planning time”, but the time you spend thinking about the best way to say something.

If you are used to writing academic essays, you need to do in this thinking time what you’d normally do in your re-drafting time.

Think before sentences and paragraphs

When I watch students writing, I see this go wrong lots and lots. Frequently I see students pausing half way through a sentence – not knowing how to finish it. This is very often when writing goes wrong – sometimes just because the two parts of the sentence don’t match each other!

One way to think of a sentence is that it is a complete thought. Only start writing when that thought is complete in your head and your writing may improve overnight. Paragraphs? Well, they’re complete ideas (thoughts put together). It’ll also really help if you get those complete ideas together before you start writing.

Direct your thinking

It’s all very well to suggest “thinking” helps, but what should you think about? This will depend on you, your experience, your level and the essay. Below I make some suggestions.

My thinking checklist for IELTS essays

What you will find below are a series of questions to ask yourself – feel free to amend it to your purposes.

There may seem to be a lot of questions –

You may (i.e. probably will) think that my grammar/vocabulary notes in particular are too simple. I just find that the best way to get language is to think of ideas first!

It may help to remember that essays are made up of related paragraphs and a paragraph is a collection of related sentences. So when you start a paragraph you need to think of both the essay and the sentences. Likewise, you need grammar and vocabulary and coherence/cohesion skills to write a sentence.

Paragraphs

ideas/language

Do I have enough language/ideas to write a complete paragraph?

What is the main idea of this paragraph? Can I put it in one sentence?

essay structure

Does that main idea fit into my essay structure?

How does this paragraph relate to the other topic paragraphs?

coherence/organisation

How is the paragraph going to be structured?

Do I have reasons and/or examples for the main idea?

How many sentences should this paragraph have?

Sentences

coherence/cohesion

What do I want to say in this sentence? Can I finish the sentence in my head?

Is this a main idea? An example? An explanation? Something else?

How does this sentence relate to the previous sentence? Do I need a linking word? How else can I show how it links?

grammar

Am I sure about the grammar? If not, can I put it some other way?

Is the grammar too simple/too repetitious?

vocabulary

Is the language precise?

Do I want to borrow words from the previous sentence(s)?

Do I need synonyms?

Is this language the right register (essay language)?

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22 Responses to Stop – think – write: a checklist for IELTS essays

  1. Pete September 6, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Thanks Dominic great to see you back. You make a very good point about getting students to write in sentences and paragraphs and this sis something I do with my students too.

  2. Xie September 7, 2015 at 6:31 am #

    Hi

    Can’t you give us a download of this? It could help in writing.

    • Dominic Cole September 7, 2015 at 6:33 am #

      Will do – I’m on the road at the mo. I’m aiming to put together a few new essay/writing downloads.

  3. Funmi Olaseinde September 7, 2015 at 9:10 am #

    It’s a great and very practical lesson. Thanks for this and the previous lessons. We’ll await the downloadable version

  4. Luz September 7, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    Excellent, very useful advice. Looking forward to seeing more ???

  5. Saw Sandy Swe September 7, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for clear explanation. I am going to take the IELTS. It is very useful.

  6. Maria September 7, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    Thanks Dominic. I have learned a lot from you ,which I transfere to my students. Ypur sample essays are the best source for thematic vocabulary development for my students. I kindly request that you put more samples for band 7 and above on your website.
    Regards

  7. Rebecca Ulimasao Mitai September 7, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    Awesome It is really helpful to me to develop my English IELTS

  8. shahaparan September 7, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    How can I write a strong letter which is very important for me because I didn’t understand about Independent and dependent clause . Please give me some advice which is essential to write a strong letter for writing part 2 . however , when I write a letter , I am confused what will i use in the sentence such as , passive voice and active voice . I am going to talk about passive sentence structure; ( will be or would be and am confused and are taken). but I have some questions to you about sentence structure . when I predicted , it will be indicated to future tense as I write a sentence but I am confused (would be and will be ) . What i will write a letter, but also some problems . although I know some thing complex sentence structure . but I can not write a letter .Please give me advice .

  9. Lucy September 7, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

    Thank very much for this advice, it was what I needed. I’ll put in practice.

  10. Lisa September 7, 2015 at 11:19 pm #

    Thank you Dominic for your lessons I am struggling with writing as my mark stopped at 6,5,whereas I need 7 to pass please can you tell me if you do check essays again thank you for the help .

  11. Prem September 8, 2015 at 3:57 am #

    Hi Dom,

    Thank you very much for the knowledgeable ideas. You are really doing a great peace of work by sharing your thoughts & ideas. Hope to see

    more wonderful ideas & thoughts in future.

  12. kurian September 8, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    thanks a lot indeed.They were really informative.

  13. kurian September 8, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks a lot indeed.The lessons were really informative and lucid.

  14. stijo September 8, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    Thanks. …really informative

  15. nobal September 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    dominic u r the best man !! nw that u r back i can see the hope nw

  16. Anonymous September 12, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Hi Dominic. I have my IELTS in a week’s time and am aiming for a score of 8 in all four areas. However, I am having difficulty in writing and speaking areas. When it comes to my writing, I find that I have trouble writing my essay down instead of typing. While working on a computers, my essays are well organised and coherent, but I cannot achieve the same results while having to write the essays down. if there is any sort of advice you have to give me in this regard, it would be much appreciated.

    • Dominic Cole September 12, 2015 at 9:00 am #

      Yes this can be a problem – IELTS hasn’t yet reached the 21st century. I know that it is quite common for people who have been brought up to word process find writing by hand harder.

      One obvious piece of advice is just to practise!! I’d add that what i suspect you need to practise is making complete sentences before you write. Very often people who word process/type tend to write first and think later – i.e. they get used to amending by copy/paste etc. There lesson I suggest you look at is this one!

  17. abeer elsayed October 16, 2015 at 5:19 am #

    i really love DC site because i thick it is the best web to learn ilets

  18. abeer elsayed November 2, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

    thanks you, It is wonderful lesson,

  19. Anonymous November 4, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Only start writing when that thought is complete in your head and your writing may improve overnight.

    Even after i have planned how i would go through with my essay, new brighter ideas often pop out when im midway through my paragraphs. I decide to write them down too and end up not being able to finish my paragraph or thought. As in unable to produce good support details plus the worry of how i would link this idea to my next paragraph.

    Plan. And stick to it.

    You have helped me so much

  20. Arm March 6, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    Thank you very much for helpful advice, Dominic Cole. Best regards from Armenia.

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