One problem in IELTS is that there are only 60 minutes to produce 2 pieces of writing. As a result many candidates do not have time to edit their writing, or if they do edit, they do it inefficiently. This article gives practical suggestions on how to check your writing efficiently, so that you can do it in the 60 minutes and improve your score. It looks in brief at when to check, how to check and what to check for.
When to check
The first step is to decide when to check. There are 3 options here. The conventional advice is to leave 3-5 minutes at the end, but there are other choices. The best advice is to try them all and see what works for you.
1. Check at the end
The conventional advice is to leave 3-5 minutes at the end to review your writing. The reason to do it this way is that you can see read the whole essay and check it for coherence as well as grammatical problems. One problem with this approach is that sometimes you run out of time and do not check. Another problem is that it is more difficult to find mistakes when you check a longer piece of writing.
If you are a higher level candidate and you have few problems with grammar, this is possibly the approach for you.
2. Check as you write
An alternative option is to check as you write: either at the end of each sentence or paragraph. This idea may surprise you, but there is a very significant benefit to this approach: you are much more likely to find grammatical errors if you look at a sentence of 15 words than an essay of 250 words.
If you know that you have consistent problems with grammar, you should certainly consider this approach. It really is much easier to find mistakes this way.
3. Check as you write and at the end
This is probably the ideal choice as it allows you to find grammatical errors as you write and problems with coherence after you have written. The one difficulty is that it probably takes more time.
How to check
Here I have two very positive suggestion to make:
- Check with a pen in hand so that you make sure you look at every word. It’s very easy to see what you think you have written and not what you actually wrote. Reading with a pen is a good way of slowing yourself down and makeing sure you read every word.
- Read in complete sentences and not word by word. Very often mistakes happen because all the parts of the sentence are correct, but those parts of a sentence do not fit together.
What to check for
This is the big one. There are a number of different items you can check for and what follows is a longish list. The key advice is to make a checklist of your own personal mistakes and check for those mistakes. If you look for everything, you may find nothing; if you look for something, you have every chance of finding it,
The main point to note here is that not all mistakes are equal. You will be penalised more heavily for basic mistakes than more complex ones, therefore you should check your basic grammar most carefully. In the same way, you are penalised more heavily for “systematic” errors: these are errors that you make consistently.
- Verb tenses: make sure they are consistent and in task 1 that your tenses match the time frame in the graph
- Articles: this is something for everyone to check for. Articles are the most common words in English and often go wrong. To get band 7 or over most of your sentences need to be correct: this means your articles need to be correct.
- Subject-verb agreement: this means “he does” not “he do”. Even to quite a high level this is a relatively common mistake. The problem being that it is also a basic mistake that examiners will penalise more heavily
- Parts of speech: this is another relatively low level mistake that is also quite common – particularly with Asian language speakers. Check that you use nouns, verbs and adjectives when you need. This is particularly an issue in task 1 when using trend language (a sharp rise, but to rise sharply).
- Range of sentence structures: this one may surprise you, but it is important if you want band 6 or above to vary your sentence structures. It is not enough always to use simple but correct language.
I suspect that this is something that few candidates bother to check. A mistake. Vocabulary is as important as grammar and in a way it is easier to correct.
- Repetition: under exam conditions looking for repetition is perhaps the area where a candidate can most improve their writing. It is relatively easy for a candidate to see that they have repeated words and to correct this mistake.
- Repetition (2): check that you have not repeated whole phrases and sentences from the question
- Spelling: check that you get at least the basic words right
Again, this is another area that sometimes does not get checked. You do need to think about this as it accounts for a large part of your mark.
- Topic sentences: each paragraph starts with a topic sentence that clearly relates to the question
- Paragraph development: each paragraph is developed with explanations and examples of the topic sentence. In task 1 this includes having enough detailed information and facts.
- Connecting words:make sure that the connecting words you use are accurate. A frequent mistake is to overuse connecting words.
Answering the question
If you don’t answer the question, the examiner is likely to penalise you very heavily. Really speaking, it is too late to check this at the end, this is something more for the planning stage.
- Introduction: check that your introduction addresses all parts of the question
- Conclusion: check that your conclusion gives an answer to the question
What not to do – count the words
Whatever you do, don’t count the words. That is a complete waste of exam time. If you are worried, count how many words you write in one line and then count how many lines your writing is. (Words like “a” and “an” still count as words).
What not to do – draft and redraft
There is an essential difference between IELTS and academic writing. Academic writing involves drafting and redrafting: IELTS is an exam that takes place in 60 minutes, you do not have time to draft and redraft – you need skills that are specific to an exam situation.
- Make a checklist of your personal mistakes: you need a teacher/expert user for this
- Practise how and when you are going to edit your writing: try different ideas, see what works best
- Have an exam strategy for timing: the reason candidates don’t check is they run out of time.