Top Tips for IELTS

The process of planning an IELTS essay

In this lesson I talk you through the process of planning an IELTS essay – or one possibility! The key idea is that you should have a method of planning that works for you. It’s not really enough just to say “I’m going to spend the first 5/10 minutes planning” – you want to know HOW you are going to do it.

At the end of the lesson, there is a downloadable example for you to consider.


How to plan

There is no easy answer to this question. Planning tends to be very individual and what works for one candidate may not work for another. However, there are one or two guidelines to follow:

  • be methodical: before you get to the exam, know exactly how you are going to plan your essay and stick to that plan in the exam.
  • give yourself enough time: you only have 40 minutes to write in the exam, but don’t start writing too quickly. Time spent planning is rarely wasted and candidates who fail to finish are generally those who start to write too soon.
  • remember it’s a language exam: IELTS is a test of language, so make sure your plan helps you produce good language – this is something lots of candidates forget
  • keep it simple: your plan is there to help you write. If it is too complex, it may not work in a 40 minute exam scenario.
  • read the question: make sure your plan relates directly to the question.

How long to plan

Again, there can be no exact answer here, but I would suggest 10 minutes is approximately correct. That may seem a long time, but the longer you stop and plan for the better and the more quickly you will write. People who fail to finish in time are very often those who start writing too soon. For more on this see my 10 minute solution post.

What to plan – vocabulary and examples

Most text books suggest planning ideas. This is hard to do in practice when you are under pressure in the exam.
My suggestion here is to focus first on vocabulary and examples. Vocabulary will give you ideas and examples will allow you to develop those ideas in coherent paragraphs.

The elements of the planning process illustrated

(if you’re curious about the URL and header below – this site started out as a class wiki many years ago – my advice is still much the same though)

























An example of the planning process

This download shows an example of the planning process in action – with an emphasis on planning not just the ideas, but also the vocabulary.


Read the question – identify key words

Many city centres these days have traffic flow problems, causing congestion and pollution. One solution is to build fast ring roads on the outskirts of a city, taking traffic away from the centre. While this is helpful in some ways, it also causes new problems.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

These are the “content” words which relate to the topic of the question. Normally they will be nouns, verbs and adjectives, but they can also include quantifiers like “many”

city centres traffic flow congestion pollution solution build
ring roads outskirts traffic helpful causes problems

Rephrasing the question

One function of the introduction is to identify the question you are writing about. It is important not to repeat the same wording so you need to rephrase the question. There are a variety of techniques available here:

• synonyms
• words in the same family • related words

Look for synonyms

The most obvious way to avoid repeating the wording of the question is to find synonyms. Note, however, that synonyms may mean the same thing and that they may be a phrase and not just one word

many: several, a number of
city centres: urban areas (not an exact synonym) congestion: traffic jams
build: construct
outskirts: outlying areas, the suburbs (not an exact synonym) traffic: cars
causes: leads to, results in
problems: difficulties, issues

Words in the same family

Sometimes there are no very good synonyms. Here you can vary the language by changing the form of the word from verb to noun for example.

city centres: the central parts of the city traffic flow: the traffic flows (v)
pollution: pollute
solution: solve

Related words

Sometimes it helps to brainstorm words that are related to words in the question to help you rephrase its meaning

pollution→exhaust fumes→air pollution→noise pollution

Specialist words

It is important to note that there are frequently some words in the question that are so specialised that there may be no other natural way to express the idea. In this case it is generally best not to try and change those words.

ring roads

A possible introduction to the essay

One very common issue in the modern world is the increasing amount of traffic in urban areas and city centres in particular. This has led to demands for ring roads to be constructed to reduce both traffic jams and air pollution. This essay examines whether this would solve the problem or create more difficulties.

Note the combination of:

• synonyms
• words from the same family • related words
• unchanged specialist words

Note also the structure of this introduction:
• general statement
• explanation of the issue expanding on the general statement • identification of the writerʼs purpose


Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

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Essay writing guide

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Letter writing guide

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20 Responses to The process of planning an IELTS essay

  1. Mima June 21, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    In your post regarding vocabulary planning I am little confused by what you mean when you say ‘synonyms for key words in the question’ and ‘words in the same family as the key question words’. What exactly is the difference here and can you give an example?


    • Dominic Cole November 14, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this – a good question. A synonym is a different word with almost the same meaning eg “study” and “learn’. A word in the same family can best be explained by the example “analyse” and “analysis” – one is a verb, the other a noun.

  2. Fife September 14, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    This is brilliant. In fact I think you whole web page is great. Why don’t write anymore?

  3. lily ann May 13, 2011 at 3:39 am #

    I’m learning a lot.thank you very much for your brilliant ideas.

  4. jis November 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    i want to know how can write intoductions according to the type of questions……….is there any difference?

    • Dominic Cole November 27, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      I plan to write more about intros shortly. There are different approaches to writing intros. The keys are to address the question and outline your own position in relation to it. Personally, I try to keep my intros quite short and functional. I think there can be a danger in including too much detail in the intro so that it becomes a content paragraph.

      • jiss January 4, 2012 at 5:42 am #

        thank you so much for your reply.please up date more about introductions

  5. setareh December 16, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    I have recently joint.I really enjoy when i read so i am completely satisfied with your tip.But i have a problem when i want to explain my ideas because i do not have enough knowledge about the worlds and technology.Anyway I WAS happy with this part.


    • Abhishek Mishra June 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Dominic,

      Must mention that I feel very lucky to have found this blog of yours, what an amazing organization of superbly extracted information and tips. Thank you very much for sharing these rather rare set of work-arounds for the most common and even un-common difficulties before and during the exam. I always thought that there must be other ways than the conventional ones published everywhere else which look logical and reasonable but the pressure during the exam time does not allow many of us to incorporate them.

      I followed the approach presented in every section and was able to get the desired score ( and 8.5 in writing section which is solely due to understanding the crux of your blogs ).

      Although I was fine in getting inputs ( Reading and Listening ) and usually scored 37-38 in the practice work I did, but I was not confident about the output ( Speaking and Writing ) and was getting confused by the multi-directional and infact, scattered advises on those section. This one is very straightforward and easy to follow.

      Once again, many thanks for helping so many people achieve their goals.

      Abhishek Mishra ( India )

  6. zen, April 5, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    1am a new comer in this site but i feel so confident after reading your tips. thank you.

  7. Lubi August 23, 2012 at 4:23 am #

    at first i would like to thank u for the effort that ur putting in ur site,,it is spectacular !

    secondly, my ielts test is a week from now and i still find it hard to write an introduction and in developing my ideas although my english is quite good but my problem seems to stick with me !

    thx in advance.

  8. meme August 31, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    i’m confuessed 🙁

    i still dnt know how to plan for my essay

    Any way , thanXs sir

  9. sus October 8, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    thank you for this really outstanding tips and ideas that you have provided, it is truly amazing. however, i just want to know how to write the main part i mean after introduction. i realized that the first paragraph is not followed by second and third, it looks quite awkward. it their any way to make it proper and diplomatic.

  10. Dr Shakeel June 28, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    I just wanted to say that your blog is excellent and I am sure that it must have helped countless other people like me.So much information is here that we dont need to search anywhere else.
    Thanks for all your effort.God bless you.Regards

  11. Emiri October 22, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    I just want to say thank you for all your assistance, am taking my ielts test soon, and i look forward to a band8 score in all fields. You’ll be hearing from me soon.

  12. Anonymous September 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    Dear all
    I m a new comer . Please guide me how can i get the 7 Band ?

  13. gracie March 23, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    Hi Dominic, can you update another link to your example at the end of this lesson,please? It seems like this link has died. Thank you so much!


  1. How to learn IELTS vocabulary – 10 top tips | Dominic Coles IELTS Blog - November 17, 2010

    […] test or a practice essay. Make a list of the words you want to use on that topic (see my post on planning an essay). You may not use all the vocabulary as you write or speak but you will certainly write and speak […]

  2. Anonymous - December 21, 2011

    […] […]

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