Top Tips for IELTS

The process of writing an IELTS essay

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.

Common mistakes

  • 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.

Common mistakes

  • 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.

Common problems

  • 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!

Common mistakes

  • 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

Try the next lesson in this series

Reading and understanding IELTS essay questions


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9 Responses to The process of writing an IELTS essay

  1. Dr Humaira Nasir July 24, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Dear Cole
    Thank you so much for your detailed description about writing an academic essay task 2.Really speaking all your blogs are helping me slot in understanding the task response. I just want to ask that if I want my writing to be checked by someone who is expert, then what should I do.
    may you be blessed for all your great deeds
    Thanks and regards
    Humaira nasir

  2. bemused July 24, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    I genuinely like this website – but this article in my opinion is the weakest on this blog …. too wordy, too prescriptive.
    Where this site works over most other IELTS sites is through top-notch demos, sample answers.
    Detailed analysis of the writing process may be fine for an ‘Academic Writing’ website but is a dangerous path to follow and lost on most IELTS candidates.?
    Only an opinion.

    As I say the rest of the site is excellent.

    • Dominic Cole July 24, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Interesting comment.You have failed to understand what this is about – clearly I need to go back and rewrite. There is nothing prescriptive here. I simply describe what the functions of the different parts of the essay are and suggest a process for producing a good essay in exam circs. I do in fact emphasise that the smart candidate will adapt what I say. Did you miss that bit?

      What I say has little or nothing to do with academic writing (but I suspect you knew that already), it is an adaptation of what is to be found in many IELTS and general English coursebooks. The focus is on the exam and being practical.

      Where you perhaps disagree is the suggestion that it is unwise to reproduce pre-planned essays but to spend time thinking about the question in front of you. Is that the problem? I’d just like to emphasise there that that kind of essay is in my experience highly likely to flunk on Task Response and quite possibly Coherence too – two of the criteria that sometimes get overlooked. If that is the prob, we need to agree to disagree.

      My experience is that candidates who learn how to read the question, think about it, address it and state their position in the intro, develop opinions/ideas in the content and then summarise in the conclusion are those that maximise their potential. What these candidates have done is to understand the principles of good essay writing – which is what this lesson is supposed to be about. Summary:

      Don’t learn essays: learn about essays. It’s not nearly as hard as you think and certainly isn’t “academic writing”.

      FYI – this is simply the first outline lesson of a series and it is as you say “wordy” and I will go back and revise in light of your comments. The ones that follow will contain exercises/examples etc to practise skills. The ideas though will remain the same.

  3. bemused July 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    “Where you perhaps disagree is the suggestion that it is unwise to reproduce pre-planned essays but to spend time thinking about the question in front of you. Is that the problem?”

    That´s not what I said.On the contrary.

    “What I say has little or nothing to do with academic writing (but I suspect you knew that already)”
    I was referring to the length of the piece

    You have failed to understand what this is about

    “My experience is that candidates who learn how to read the question, think about it, address it and state their position in the intro, develop opinions/ideas in the content and then summarise in the conclusion are those that maximise their potential.”
    Perfect summary … brief and to the point.

    I am sorry now that I posted. I repeat once more I think this blog is excellent and many of the model essays with their colour coding to focus on linking words, coherence, vocab …. are first-rate.
    I am just not convinced that a lengthy analysis of process writing is the way to go,

    No offence meant.

    Congratulations on your impresive website.

    • Dominic Cole July 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

      No offence taken. I smile in your general direction. It was to me an extremely interesting comment.

      In truth this isn’t really process writing as commonly referred to – not least because that involves drafting/redrafting. Its presenting the idea that there are different stages in writing an exam essay and that it can help to break the process down into steps because you wan to focus on something different at each stage. It is in fact a highly pragmatic approach to an exam essay – “I’ve got to write the conclusion – what should I think about here? – I don’t have time to waste I have to get it right first time” I need to redraft to make this clearer so thank you for the comment. Constructive criticism works.

      You also make a very pertinent point (to me at least) about the length of the piece – which I should perhaps try and explain. It is long and does almost certainly need pruning. The length though is intentional and has a purpose. The only way I can really explain this is by outlining what I intend to produce on this site.

      What I intend to produce is a form of multi-layered course that can be accessed at different levels according to need. The top level will essentially be IELTS by soundbite or bullet point. There are a lucky few for whom this level of advice is all they need. The English is there, they just to know a few ins and outs of the exam. For most though more is needed. That level will lead down into a slightly more detailed layer where ideas are explained with exercises and examples. Some of the ideas though may need more explanantion – so that layer will lead down into a deeper level of advice looking at very specific skills. Finally, I may in the end get round to providing they type of 5 minute activity Simon does on his blog to give gobbets of insight and practice – that’s useful too and I try and recommend Simon as much as poss.

      It is mostly this deeper level that I am producing a first draft of now. It is fairly heavy at times, but I try to compensate with 7 word sentences, 3 line paragraphs and BIG headings. Ultimately though it will almost disappear from sight unless people intentionally go looking for it.

  4. Tiên July 25, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Dear Mr. Dominic,

    I still folow your lessons everyday. They are very useful for me. Thanks a lot!

    • Dominic Cole July 25, 2012 at 9:58 am #

      Excellent. Do let me know if there is advice etc on any particular problem you need and I’ll see what I can do.

      • Karan July 25, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

        Hi Dominic,

        you have made an excellent blog for IELTS.I guess if a candidate go through all the contents of your blog he/she can achieve band score of 6 with ease.

        I really like the tips and practise material you have given on Writing skills.

        I myself have appeared for IELTS exam 2 times already,but failed to achieve the desired score in writing.
        Again, I have my exam on 4th of august.This time I will try to implement your tips in my writing and see if can get significant improvement.

        Once again,Thanks for bringing up this teriffice website.

  5. Carmel July 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Hello Dominic, thank you very much for this lesson. It is very helpful to me. For me, understanding the question is really hard. But I know I will get there. Keep posting new lessons. Please. Thank u very much 🙂