The IELTS writing tests try to follow simple structures. These structures act as a common framework (one every student can use) so the examiners don’t have too many variations to inspect.
Nonetheless, there are cases in which students get confused as to the task they are being asked.
Problem 1: ‘Western Logic’
Students feel it is difficult to understand the ‘western logic’ that goes into this style of essay.
This problem tends to come when students have no previous experience writing structured arguments, and therefore simply look at the question and the huge variety of ways it could be answered.
The important idea at the heart of this ‘western logic’ is that every argument should have some evidence/examples (an argument without evidence is just an opinion). Two or three arguments backed up with evidence are better than a hundred random opinions.
Once this is understood, the second part of the IELTS writing is generally based on simple logical progression (after all, it is an English exam, not an IQ test).
1. Read and understand the question
2. Think of a few arguments that can answer that question.
3. Choose the best arguments. Each argument will get its own paragraph.
4. Within each argument (each paragraph) give some evidence and examples that support the idea (an argument without evidence is just an opinion).
5. Write a conclusion where, having looked at these arguments, you choose your final opinion to the question.
For more ideas on structure, see the structure section.
Problem 2: My ideas aren’t very interesting
Students spend a great deal of effort trying to find superb answers to the question. They worry their final answers are too dull.
Of course it is better to be interesting, and examiners marking papers will probably wake up when they read a curious answer, but there are a couple of important things to be remembered:
1) ultimately, the ideas aren’t the important part; this is a test of using English around a structure. It is not a university PhD essay. The big marks get given for structure, linking phrases, vocabulary, variation in tenses, and other displays of English skill.
2) the examiner will never meet you, so there is no other reward for being groundbreaking in an English exam. Get the English right rather than trying to wow a stranger.
Problem 3: I don’t have an opinion on this topic
Students haven’t thought about this topic before, or simply don’t care about it. They therefore have no or few opinions about which to write.
It is best to get psychologically ready to give opinions before the exam – go into the test knowing what you think about the world. It is also probably a bad idea to write ‘I don’t know much about this’ (even if you write 250 words the examiner could still simply think you are an idiot).
There is a skill in thinking of arguments, especially in areas in which you have limited knowledge. The easiest way for most people to think is to work from micro to macro (small to big): think of the immediate answers, then expand.
– Some arguments will be obvious. Work with these first.
– Do not only think about your own life. Think about how the subject affects poor people, rich people, old people and children. Is it the same for locals and foreigners?
– Think of the wider issues. Does this affect how countries work? Will changes in this area affect the economy, the national psyche, or the environment?
– Also think of time. Is this a changing subject? Will it always be like this?
Remember that the examiner is not marking on whether he agrees with the arguments, only that the arguments are structured and easy to understand. After that it is about the English levels.