This is the next lesson in my series on how to achieve high band scores in IELTS writing. The focus this time is on writing better paragraphs and improving the coherence of your writing. This is a problem that is common at high levels where candidates have plenty of good language but sometimes don’t use it very effectively.
Sometimes it is easier to understand a problem by looking at something that is not quite right. So this time I look at ways of improving a sample of writing from a candidate who has consistently scored 6.5 in writing (4 times in a row I believe!), but who is certainly capable of scoring more highly. He has in fact already completed a masters – such is the absurdity of the IELTS system.
As a bonus, I also include a download of a sample essay on the theme of employment and promotion.
Coherence and cohesion distinguished
To understand the problem it is first necessary to understand a little of the difference between coherence and cohesion. Put simply, cohesion is the linking of your writing by using connecting words, while coherence is making sure your writing makes sense. The important point to note is that it is quite possible for a piece of writing to be cohesive but not very coherent.
The sample paragraph – cohesion
In some ways, this is a very good paragraph. There is a good range of vocabulary, the grammar is fine and it has lots of good cohesion structures which I have highlighted in red. There is much to learn here:
- this/that/these/those are excellent cohesion structures as they link back to something that was already mentioned
- repeating certain words (“performance” “companies”) also helps cohesion as it helps the reader make connections between sentences
The principal reason why some people take this view is that most multi-national companies certainly implement some specific policies to select employees for promotion. This point, of course, could be demonstrated by individuals who worked in those companies. For example, when I was working in an American company in Shanghai, before each fiscal year, I usually discussed with my supervisor in order to draw up a formal agreement, which was called ‘Performance and Development Review’. By doing this, the job performance I did for several months could be judged by my employer , which meant if it was a good outcome, I would be promoted immediately even though I was only a junior employee at that time.
Another version – more coherent
So where’s the problem then? For me, the problem is that when I get to the end of the paragraph, I am not immediately clear what the main point being made was. This can perhaps be best shown by looking at my improved version of the same paragraph.
Despite these reasons, there is a strong argument in favour of also promoting staff because of their performance. This can be seen by how some multi-nationals use annual performance and development reviews when deciding on promotion. Under this system, a supervisor can set targets for an employee and if those targets are met, then the employee can be promoted, even if they are relatively junior. The benefit of this approach to promotion is that it encourages staff to work harder and rewards merit and not just long service.
1. Less can be more
My version is considerably shorter than the original even though it makes all the same points. Sometimes, it can help your writing become more coherent if you concentrate on using fewer words. Likewise, I am not afraid to keep my sentences relatively short. Again, it can be easier to transmit your ideas if your sentences do not become too complicated.
2. Identify the main idea of the paragraph – put it in the first sentence
The first step is to identify what one point you want to make in the paragraph and to state it clearly in the first sentence. In this example, the main point is promoting staff because of their performance. Part of the problem with the original version is that most multi-national companies certainly implement some specific policies to select employees for promotion is not particularly clear. The idea of performance only occurs in the 4th/5th line.
3. Keep the first sentence short – don’t be afraid of keeping it simple
My version uses more simple vocabulary. I avoid words like “specific”. My goal is absolute clarity. All I want to do is show the reader what the idea of the paragraph is.
4. Think about how you use examples and reasons – omit unnecessary details
Part of the problem with the original version is that the example is rather long and there is a danger that the main point is lost. Examples tend to be “a good thing”, but you need to think carefully how you use them. Do they illustrate the point you want to make. In the sample paragraph, there is so much detail (Shanghai) that the point of the example is rather lost.
5. Consider how you end your paragraph
One way that my paragraph is extremely coherent is that in my final sentence I come back to the main idea of the paragraph in a circular approach:
promoting staff because of their performance (first sentence)
this approach to promotion is that it encourages staff to work harder and rewards merit (last sentence)
Write paragraphs, not essays
One very simple suggestion is that you practise writing paragraphs and not just essays. It can be a problem if you only write essays, as it is harder to focus on one particular skill. As you write the paragraph, it helps to focus on:
- simple first sentences that identify the main point of the paragraph and relate to the question
- consider using a circular approach where you restate the main point in the final sentence
- leaving out details that are irrelevant
- remember cohesion too (that part of the sample was excellent)
Test your own writing: what was the essay question?
Another idea is to look at some of your old essays and read the first sentences of the main topic paragraphs. If you have written well, you should be able to predict the question of the essay from the first sentences of those paragraphs.