I run an IELTS writing correction service and every day I mark about 10 essays by students from all over the world. Not many of them write an essay with too few words, but about a third of them write far too many. As such, in today’s article I will explain how many words you should write for an IELTS essay.

What are the IELTS rules about word count?

In the IELTS writing exam, you need to write at least 150 words for task 1 and 250 words for task 2. If you write less than that, you will be penalized. The required word count will be stated on your exam paper, and therefore if you do not fulfill that requirement, then you will lose points for Task Achievement, which is one of the four criteria on which the IELTS examiners mark your performance.

Task Achievement 5
Coherence and Cohesion 6
Lexical Resource 7
Grammatical Range and Accuracy 6
Total 6

Generally, it is said that if you write too few words, you will lose one full band score. As you can see in the above example, the student would have scored band 6 for Task Achievement, but his failure to write enough words cost him and he was marked down to band 5.

However, what about writing too many words? Is there a rule about that?

No.

There is nothing in the IELTS marking rubric about writing too many words. Theoretically, you could write 1,000 words and you would not be penalized. As long as you have written more than 150 words for task 1 or 250 words for task 2, you should be ok.

Is there anything wrong with writing too many words?

Actually, it is not good to write too many words, and there are several reasons for that. In this section of the article, I will explain why you shouldn’t write too many words.

1.      It is better to economize your time

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Use your time carefully.

First of all, there are better ways to spend your time than just writing. I know that sounds counterintuitive – this is a writing exam, after all! However, there is more to writing than just putting words on paper. You need to make sure that you have time for planning, writing, and correcting, or else your essay will most likely have some major problems.

Here is a good way of dividing your time for IELTS writing task 2:

2 minutes Analyze the question
2 minutes Generate ideas for your answer
3 minutes Plan your structure
30 minutes Write the essay
3 minutes Check your answer
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A useful checklist for IELTS writing!

Obviously, this process will vary from person to person. Some people need longer to check their answer at the end of the test, while others can scan it quickly and find their mistakes easily. Some people prefer to spend longer analyzing a question but can plan their structure very quickly because they have done so much practice. However, I think that the above idea is pretty useful for the majority of students.

Anyway, the point is that if you write a 400 word essay (and I have seen many students try do to that!) then you will not have time to check your answer at the end. This is a problem because checking your answer will allow you to eliminate a number of mistakes from your essay. Let’s not forget a cardinal rule:

MORE MISTAKES = LOWER SCORE

As such, you should remember to divide your time carefully. A few minutes of proofreading at the end could cause your score for Grammatical Range and Accuracy or Lexical Resource to jump from a 6 to a 7, which might push your overall writing score up.

2.      You won’t finish your essay

Closely related to point #1, writing too many words may cause you to not finish your essay. This would be disastrous! If you write too many words for your body paragraphs, you might not have time to write a conclusion. An essay with no conclusion would thus score very poorly in Coherence and Cohesion. If you failed to complete your body paragraphs, you would score very poorly in Task Achievement, too.

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Don’t plan too many ideas.

Generally speaking, this sort of mistake is caused by poor planning. You might have generated too many ideas while planning your essay, and then in the body paragraphs it takes you too long to finish explaining these ideas. By the time you get to the end of body paragraph two, your time is up. It is a nightmare scenario for an IELTS candidate.

Again, I recommend you follow my time suggestions above, and also my recommended word limit, which I will post below in the conclusion. By doing these things, you will always finish your essay on time.

3.      Practice for the real exam

When I am marking my students’ practice essays, they often write 300-400 words, and I tell them not to do this. The reason is that they should be practicing for the real IELTS exam, not just to get my feedback on their spelling or grammar. Yes, it is useful to practice writing longer essays or articles to improve your overall writing skills, but for IELTS you must take time into consideration.

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Always pay attention to the time during your IELTS practice.

What I mean is that in your real IELTS exam, you only have 40 minutes to write an essay. This essay must be at least 250 words (for task 2). In your practice sessions, you must aim to replicate these factors as closely as possible or else you will face problems in the final exam.

I suggest the following.

In every practice session you do for IELTS writing:

– Stick to the real IELTS time

– Aim to write at least 150/250 words

– Do not use the internet to help you

You will find that after a dozen practice exams, you become quite accustomed to the process. Your mind will automatically start to follow a process of

PLANNING –> WRITING –> EDITING

Eventually, you will be able to easily write an essay in 20 or 40 minutes (depending on the task), and then you can focus on improving your grammar and vocabulary, etc.

If you regularly write 350 word essays and take 50 minutes to do it, then when you sit the real IELTS exam, you will be busy writing, then the end of the exam will be called and you will not have finished. Your vocabulary and grammar might have improved well during your practice sessions, but your Task Achievement and Coherence and Cohesion scores will be very low, and you will get a poor overall result.

Should I count my words?

One final question: Is it worthwhile counting the words you have written?

In practice, yes.

In the real exam, no.

Let me explain: When you are practicing, I recommend sticking to real exam conditions. However, at the end of your practice you should definitely count the number of words you have written. This will let you know what a certain word count looks like. Everyone has different handwriting, and on paper you might see that X lines = 100 words. You can then guess how many words you have written in total. It is also worth checking how many words you have written per line and multiplying that by the number of lines. For example, 11 words per line x 25 lines = 275 words.

BONUS TIP: you can download the actual IELTS exam paper here and that will make your practice exams much more realistic. 🙂

Over time, you will get a feel for how many words you have written. Maybe one piece of paper filled 80% is 260-270 words, for example. You will then know when you do the real exam whether you have written enough words or not.

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Practice counting your lines.

The same obviously applies if you are typing on a computer and intending to do the computer-based IELTS test. This will be quite different as you will actually see your word count on the screen! That can be very helpful, but perhaps a little intimidating.

Will the examiner count your words?

No, not exactly. They will guess your word count by using the above measures – number of words per line multiplied by number of lines. Of course, after marking hundreds or thousands of essays, an examiner will be able to simply look and know whether you have written enough or not. In the case of a computer exam, they will see the word count listed. If you wrote 249 words for a task 2 essay, you would almost certainly not be penalized, but you should aim to write more than that.

How many words should I aim to write?

I recommend that my students write about 160-180 words for task 1 and 260-280 words for task 2. The reason is simple. If the minimum word count is 150 or 250, then you should aim for slightly more than that; however, there could be problems (as explained above) with writing too much. Therefore, these figures are a safe target. If you aim for these, you give yourself the best possible chance of success.

Conclusion

To summarize, in the IELTS writing exam, you should:

  • Write at least 150 words for task 1 and 250 words for task 2
  • DO NOT write too many words
  • Spend 20 minutes on task 1 and 40 minutes on task 2
  • Allot time for
    • Planning
    • Writing
    • Writing

In your practice sessions you should aim to replicate real IELTS conditions as closely as possible. If you do this, you will handle the final exam much better. You will face less stress due to the time limit and other requirements.

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