The key word in the title of this lesson is process. The idea is that if you want to write a successful exam essay, it helps to think of the essay not just as a product but something that is produced as a result of the process of writing. If you miss out on one of the stages of this process, then the essay itself may not work.To get this right, it helps to understand the different stages in the process of writing and what you want to achieve at each stage of the process.
And so what you will find here is
- a little bit more about why I think it helps to concentrate on the process of writing an essay
- a suggested process with explanation about what you should think about in each stage
- advice on common mistakes that can happen if a stage in the process is missed out
- a practice exercise
I should add that there is no “magic formula” here. This is just one process that I believe works for IELTS essays. You may be familiar with other processes. That’s fine. The smart candidate will adapt what they read here to themselves.
Why writing should be a process – avoiding two very common problems
1. incoherence – essays that do not fit together
If you think of your writing as a process, then you are much more likely to go through all the stages of an essay (step 1, step 2. step 3 etc) and to recognise the importance of each part of an essay. This way you are more likely to make your writing coherent. If, however, you think of an essay as a whole product , it is much easier to miss out a vital step and the essay as a result becomes incoherent.
2. the wrong essay – an essay you already know – or the wrong question
The danger with pre-planned essays is that they don’t answer the question. You sit down and start writing an essay which is already in your head and not one that answers the question in front of you.
Alternatively, you may get a question type that you are unfamiliar with. In this situation, it helps to have a routine or process you can rely on. You can still answer the question, even if it seems to be a question type you don’t know. Learn the skill of writing an essay, learn the process of exam essay writing and life becomes easier.
The pre-writing process
In many many cases, this is where things go wrong and this is the part of the process that gets forgotten in the heat of the exam. There is always time for this part of the process – it’s not something that should be automatic and “forgotten”.
Stage 1 – read and understand the question
Many “good’ essays go wrong simply because they don’t answer the question that is being asked. All IELTS essay questions have a precise question that needs to be answered. If you fail to give time to reading and understanding the question, you are most unlikely to answer it well. A possible problem here is that some candidates may come from an academic background where it is enough to write about the general topic within the question. That doesn’t work in IELTS. To avoid this common mistake simply make giving enough time to read and understand the question part of your writing routine.
- You get an essay topic, you have written before. You write the same answer. The question is different.
- You write about a general topic, not the question itself.
- You simply misunderstand what the question is asking you to do.
Stage 2 – think – don’t just plan, really think
I could call this stage in the process “Plan”. Here I prefer the word “Think”. The danger with plans are that they may be ready-made and they may not fit the question in front of you. I prefer the word “Think” because it is more likely to get you looking at the question in front of you and deciding how you can answer it using your language, knowledge and experience at that moment. Part of the point is that you should treat each different essay as a new essay. You can borrow structures/ideas/language from essays you have written in the past, but you need to make certain they apply to the question in front of you. That means thinking: thinking not just about what to include but what not to include. Your ideas must link together to form a whole – that requires more thought.
- The ideas and examples are fine, they don’t relate to the question as it is asked
- You start writing and then half way through you realise that your essay doesn’t make sense – it’s too late to start over
The writing process
I think it can help to divide the writing process into 3 to reflect the 3 parts of your essay. Each part of your essay does a different job to do, so why not treat each part of the essay as a different stage in the process?
Stage 3 – write an introduction – look both backwards and forwards
The intro matters for various reasons. Not the least of these is that it is the first thing the examiner reads. Get it wrong and you have made an immediate bad impression. That’s not good. Another point to focus on in this part of the process is that the intro is the link between the question and your answer. In this stage of the process, I suggest you need to ensure that you are looking back at the question (to make sure that you are writing about the right thing) and forwards towards your answer (that anyone reading knows what you are talking about).
Common problem to be avoided
- You don’t identify the question correctly
- It’s not clear what your position to the question is
Stage 4 – develop your ideas in the main body – be clear about what you think and explain it
To me, this stage of the process is slightly different and it requires you to think in a different way. The idea is that you don’t just need to give an answer to the question: the answer needs to be coherent. This largely means two things. Firstly, you need to make sure that your ideas are clear – one main idea per paragraph. You also need to be able to explain those ideas and show why/how they relate to the question.
- There’s too much detail and it isn’t clear what the main idea is
- The ideas aren’t supported with reasons and examples
- The ideas are good but they don’t relate to the question
Stage 5 – summarise the ideas in your conclusion – make sure your essay is a whole
No essay would be complete without a conclusion of course. The writing skill is slightly different here too. I would suggest that it is different because it is a reading then writing skill – you can’t very well write a conclusion until/unless you have read your essay. This is because your conclusion makes your essay complete by going back to the introduction and reflecting the question there and also looking back to the main body and picking out your main points there. It’sa different writing skill because you are trying to say as much as possible in only a few words – that is what a summary is!
- sometimes the conclusion doesn’t get written – that means you haven’t written an essay
- sometimes the conclusion doesn’t match the content of the essay – or, even worse, it doesn’t answer the question
Stage 6 – go over what you wrote
The reality of exam essays is that you only have one chance to get it right. You don’t have time to write it once and then improve it – as you would with a piece of real academic writing. That said, it is important to check what you write. My personal suggestion is that this stage of the process gets repeated during the entire writing stage – do not leave it to the end. That’s almost certainly too late.
A practice exercise – you can learn more from rewriting an old essay than writing a new essay
This is boring perhaps but it is a real learning exercise. Find an essay you have already written. Write it again. The idea is not so much to correct mistakes in your old essay, it’s to be aware of the process of writing. It works to take an old essay because you already have ideas and words for it. You don’t have to worry so much about content (the what) more about the process (the how).
- Concentrate on each phase of the process – ask yourself the question “what I am trying to do now?”
- Don’t worry about timing too much – it may even make sense to have a cup of tea between each stage