A Complete Guide to the IELTS Writing Exam [Academic]

The IELTS writing exam is perhaps the part that candidates fear the most. While the other parts may seem predictable, the kind of material you have to write in the IELTS writing is extremely varied. Preparation seems daunting and it is impossible to adequately prepare without someone constantly giving feedback on your work. Add to this a difficult time limit and you have a very challenging test.

An Overview

The IELTS writing exam will be different for students doing the academic or general test. In the general test you need to write letters, but in the academic exam you have to write essays. We will just focus on the academic exam today.

There are two tasks in the IELTS writing exam. The first is a “report” on a piece of visual data like a chart or a map, and the second is a more conventional essay. You are given one hour to complete both tasks. The first requires that you write 150 words, and the second one at least 250. It is recommended that you spend 20 minutes on task 1 and 40 minutes on task 2.

You will be marked in four areas and given a band score:

  • task achievement/response
  • coherence and cohesion
  • grammar
  • lexis (that means vocabulary)

Let’s look at both parts of the exam in detail.

Task 1

This part of the writing test is called a “report” and candidates are required to write at least 150 words describing one of the following:

  • bar chart
  • line graph
  • table
  • pie chart
  • flow chart
  • diagram
  • map

Although this is considered by many to be the easier of the two writing tasks, it can pose some problems. For one thing, you can only write about what you see. You should not add any extra information or give your opinion. For example, one of the frequently seen line graph types demonstrates unemployment rates. You should not say something like: “I think the unemployment rate dropped because…”

IELTS Academic Writing task 1

This part of the exam is the more predictable because there are only so many different types of data you could encounter. Line graphs and bar charts are by far the most common. Maps and flow charts are considered the most difficult because they require different vocabulary and grammar from the others. However, with the correct preparation, nothing in task 1 is particularly challenging. Some tutors recommend students spend less than the recommended 20 minutes on this task.

Preparing for Task 1

As line graphs and bar charts are the most common, you should spend the most time practicing these. Learn how to use the appropriate vocabulary and grammar, and how to analyze the data. We have some helpful articles on that:


You still need to prepare for the other, less common question types. We have articles on those, too. 🙂

In short, be prepared!

Pay attention to the question. You will most likely be asked to highlight key features and compare different parts of the data. In general, you will look for significant trends and disparities and write about those. Don’t explain everything that you see. However, you should say enough that a person who couldn’t see the chart would be able to imagine it.

Get used to looking at the IELTS task 1 visuals (that means the graph, chart, etc) and interpreting what you see. On first impression, they always look really difficult to understand. However, in time you can learn to “read” them quickly and gain a good understanding. You can also look at some sample answers online in order to get ideas about how to structure a response. Once you practice this, you will find your writing improves dramatically.

Task 2

The second task is often considered much more difficult than the first, although this is just a matter of personal opinion. You certainly do have to write more and it is worth more marks than task 1. In task 2, you need to write at least 250 words in about 40 minutes. Some tutors suggest writing this part first because it is more valuable than task 1. However, don’t lean too heavily on this one part of the test. Spending a whole hour on this would cost you dearly!

Task 2 is challenging because it is difficult to predict. There are five different question types:

  • to what extent do you agree…?
  • advantages/disadvantages
  • causes and solutions
  • discuss both sides
  • two part questions

However, the range of IELTS topics you may have to write about is very extensive. Sometimes the questions are really quite specific and often I’ve known talented students who just haven’t been able to think what to say! Furthermore, sometimes the questions can be a little tricky to figure out, and candidates will sometimes spend a long time saying something totally off-topic because they didn’t understand.

Preparing for Task 2

It takes more work to get ready for task 2 than it does for task 1. This is partly because it is a longer and more complex essay. You will need a better grasp of grammar in order to succeed, and your structure will be more intricate than in task 1.

Let’s talk about structure for a moment:

In the IELTS writing task 2, structure is vitally important. You need to have at least a good grasp of basic paragraphing in order to succeed. If you can take some time to learn how to analyze questions and structure an answer, then you’re halfway to getting a high band score. The rest is just perfecting your grammar and vocabulary. Here are some useful article to help you:

and here’s a video I made:

As you can see, we have a lot of material about structuring! That’s important because it’s an easy way to boost your band score. Getting better at grammar takes years and years, but you can perfect your structuring in a few hours or days and really give yourself a chance of a better score.

Other Advice

Practice makes perfect, but practice without feedback is virtually useless when it comes to IELTS writing. How would you know what you got wrong?! Make sure to look at sample essays and imitate the styles that you see, and then practice writing under exam conditions. Look at real essay questions on real IELTS topics and write answers without consulting your phone or the internet. You can at least check later that you got the spelling correct by using an automated spellcheck process. If you can, find a teacher or native-speaking friend to check your essay for you. You can e-mail me at david@ted-ielts.com to find out about essay correction services.