Selecting Ideas and Structuring an Essay [IELTS Writing Task 2]

When it comes to improving your IELTS writing score, it can be really tough to build your vocabulary and polish your grammar skills. It’s much easier to work on task achievement and coherence and cohesion. For these, you can simply learn some structures and practice analysing questions. Don’t get me wrong… it’s not really easy, but it is something you can learn with a bit of practice, and it’s certainly easier than vocabulary or grammar. So in today’s IELTS lesson I’ll talk about selecting ideas and structuring an essay for the IELTS writing task 2.

Selecting Ideas

Not all ideas are equal. There are good ideas and bad ideas, and you need to be able to distinguish between them. Let’s say you are presented with the following IELTS writing task 2 question:

Keeping animals in captivity is cruel. There is no reason for zoos to exist in the 21st century.

How far do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

In order to answer the question properly (ie fulfill the task achievement criteria), you need to talk about the ethics of keeping animals in zoos and then give your opinion. You should discuss the pros and cons of zoos. Let’s look at some ideas:

Arguments for Zoos:

research purposes

breeding programmes

easy life for animals

protection of endangered species

education

money for the zoo owner

Arguments Against Zoos:

it’s cruel

not fair to use animals for entertainment

animals don’t actually breed well there

they are boring

Choosing the Right Argument to Include in your Essay

Ok, so the above lists are just short ones I compiled for an example. But these are the sorts of answers IELTS candidates always give for this question. These are also the sorts of ideas you should note down before writing your essay. But how do you choose which ones to include?

It is important when doing the IELTS exam to give developed answers, and that means you can’t simply list ideas. Even if you really hate zoos, you shouldn’t give ten reasons why zoos are awful. Instead, pick just one or two and explore it in depth. (I’ll describe that later in this article.) Then you should look at the opposite view and prove it wrong. Again, don’t say too much – just pick one or two and develop the idea.

So what should you pick?

If the above ideas for and against zoos, not all the ideas are good. Can you see any bad ones? In the first category, saying that zoos provide “an easy life for animals” or “money for the owner” are really bad answers. You would struggle to develop these points into serious arguments. Sure, the examiner is not judging your opinions, but with answers like these it is clear you lack thinking skills or the ability to reason properly. Furthermore, how would you seriously develop the idea of animals having an easy life? It is too simplistic. The same is true of the arguments against zoos category for “they are boring.” This is just an opinion. It shouldn’t be considered as a serious argument, no matter how strongly you feel.

Structuring your Essay

Once you have picked your arguments, you should plan out an essay. This means noting down the important points you want to include so that you don’t stray off-topic when you are writing. This is a big problem, even for native speakers of English! Your plan should look something like this:

IELTS Structure PlanOf course, when you practice writing for IELTS, you actually have these structures more or less memorized. There are only five question types and you can almost always use a simple four paragraph structure to model your answer. Here’s a PPT I made last year that outlines the different types of structures that are suggested:

Building a Logical Argument

In the IELTS exam, high marks are given for including a natural flow to your language. But what does this actually mean and how can you do it? Flow means one idea naturally progresses to the next. Look at a high quality piece of writing by a professional author. The writing doesn’t just jump from one idea to another randomly. Instead, it follows a precise order. In IELTS, you should aim to achieve this as well.

In writing a paragraph, you should look to start with a topic sentence and then have supporting sentences that give further details. This is why I suggested above just choosing one or two arguments. If you have too many points to make, it becomes difficult to structure and essay. Keep it simple and follow this basic pattern. Generally, you want to go like this:

a broad statement

more specific detail

example

state agreement or disagreement

In this way, you say something very general and then support your statement with more developed details, while sticking to one topic and following a logical flow. Simple! 

Here is an example, taken from the above topic of zoos:

Some people argue that zoos are important because of their role in breeding certain species. These people claim that by breeding animals in captivity, zoos are able to help stabilize or even increase the population of certain endangered species. They point to the Giant Panda as an example of this sort of programme, as in China the number of pandas has recently stopped declining. However, for most species breeding programmes don’t actually work, and even when they do it is impossible to return animals to the wild who have been born into captivity.

Notice how I started with a very broad statement, but one which defined the paragraph. I made my key point, and then went further by refining it in sentence two. I gave more details there, and then in sentence three I gave a good example. Finally, in the fourth sentence I refuted this argument by giving two counterpoints.

How to Practice Structuring an Essay for IELTS Writing Task 2?

First, you should think about practicing analysing questions. That’s really important to do before practicing your structure. Look for the keywords and micro-keywords, and then focus on action words so you know what to do. Then, you can think about structuring.

Here’s a task I devised for my students. I took a band 9 essay based upon the question about (about zoos) and then cut up the sentences so my students would have to put them back into the correct order. This made them think about logical flow and structure. They found it surprisingly difficult! (Answers are below. No peeking!)


Now check the sample essay to see if you were correct:

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel.

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