Recently, I have been asked by several TED-IELTS email subscribers for advice on how to think of ideas for IELTS writing task 2. Basically, they find it difficult to generate ideas to use in writing their essay. This is a topic I hadn’t previously covered (in depth) on this website, so I decided to write a special post today.
So if you are having trouble with IELTS writing task 2, and you need to come up with better ideas, keep reading.
What’s the problem?
For IELTS writing task 2, it’s tempting just to read the question and start writing. After all, you only have 40 minutes!
Unfortunately, this is not a good approach. You really should take a few minutes to:
- analyze the question
- generate ideas
- plan your answer
This might seem like a waste of time, particularly if you are worried that your actual language skills are poor. However, the ability to form a few good sentences will not help you if you have misunderstood the question or produced an entirely incoherent essay.
Even a native speaker would find himself writing a weak essay if he simply read a question and immediately began writing. You need to take that time to go through step 1, 2, and 3 from above.
(And by the way, I have lots of material to help you with structuring your essay on this website. The video below should also be very helpful if you have time.)
Dealing with difficult questions
Sometimes the problem is that a question is particularly challenging. In this case, you may not be able to think of an answer because you feel it doesn’t relate to you, or you have no knowledge on the topic.
This is often the case with questions on the topic of science. Of course, IELTS requires no specialist knowledge, but some people don’t know much general scientific knowledge.
Another possible issue relates to society. The world contains so many different cultures, and the IELTS exam is written mostly from a British perspective. Some of the ideas in the exam are alien to people from Asian cultures, for example. My students in China often have difficulties relating to some IELTS topics.
Do you need lots of ideas?
The simple answer is: no.
An IELTS writing task 2 essay should be comprised of 4 or 5 paragraphs. You are not writing a university thesis! This is just 250 words.
The key here is being able to develop ideas. So in a 4 paragraph essay, you might just have two ideas – one for each body paragraph. Those will be developed into details and explanations and examples.
So… How do you think of ideas for your essay?
While there is no guaranteed path to success, there are definitely some important things you can do to help think of ideas for your IELTS essay. I will explore them below:
1. Study IELTS topics in advance
It is impossible to predict the questions that will appear in the IELTS exam, but you can certainly prepare for them by looking at common topics. <— This link should really help you understand what topics are often repeated. Here are a few more examples:
Many IELTS textbooks break down their chapters into topic themes, and this can help you to think of ideas by showing you lots of possible answers or related themes.
You can also try to expand your knowledge on these topics prior to the exam by using the internet or reading books. For example, you can read the BBC News each day to learn more about the world from an international perspective. Here you will encounter articles on all sorts of ideas. Some of them might be new to you.
If there is a particularly difficult topic, like science, you can spend extra time studying it. Remember that you don’t need specialized knowledge. In other words, you don’t need to be the next Stephen Hawking to get a band 7!
2. Practice answering questions
Every student knows that it is essential to do practice before their IELTS exam. “Practice makes perfect,” as we often say.
For writing, you need to practice frequently and seek feedback in order to improve your language skills. However, you also can use this as an opportunity to improve your thinking skills.
Here’s a situation:
Imagine you are doing some IELTS writing task 2 practice one evening. You read a question that is very difficult. What do you do?
You might want to go online and research the topic in depth. This may not seem productive, but actually you are helping yourself learn more about the topic. Therefore, if a similar topic appears in your actual IELTS exam, you will be better prepared.
3. Read sample answers
Reading sample answers online can be quite helpful for your writing skills. These can show you good language points and teach you basic essay structures. Moreover, they can also introduce an IELTS student to new ideas.
When you read these sample essays, you are looking at someone else’s ideas. This is important because it can help you to view the question from a different perspective.
Consider point 2, from above: You have a difficult question and don’t know how to answer. You can look the question up online and see what other people thought! This can help you to generate your own ideas by showing you new ways of thinking about the issue.
Just be careful not to rely upon this, or to copy other people’s ideas or words. Only use these materials as inspiration.
4. Brainstorming ideas
Points 1-3 were all intended for pre-exam preparations. The next ideas are designed for use during the exam.
Brainstorming means thinking of lots of ideas and writing them down. The central notion here is:
THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS
You can take maybe 30-60 seconds to write down as many ideas on the topic as possible, and then cull them. Culling means getting rid of the weaker ideas, and only keeping the very best.
If you wanted to write an essay that says you really agree with something, maybe you should come up with 2 reasons why you agree. Each reason can make up one body paragraph. You should then:
- Write down 10 reasons why you agree
- Delete the 8 weakest reasons
- Check that your 2 remaining reasons directly relate to the question
- Make brief notes on the 2 remaining reasons
From there, you can simply rearrange your notes into a basic paragraph structure, and then begin to write.
This is in some ways quite similar to the above method (brainstorming), but it appeals more to those who are highly visual.
Mind-mapping means putting ideas on a piece of paper with the main idea at the centre, and other ideas on the outside. You might, for example, put the main topic in the middle and your micro-keywords on the outside.
If you are a visual sort of person, this will be ideal for you; however, for other people it might not be at all helpful. It can also take a long time to do it.
Some people really love mind-mapping, and it is certainly useful for them. You might want to look into it before your exam, and do some practice to see if it helps.
Is honesty the best policy?
IELTS is a test of your language skills; not your honesty or knowledge. If a question asks to what extent you agree or disagree, you will not have to sit a lie detector test!
Sometimes, the best thing is to write what pops into your head, and makes for a solid essay plan. Here’s why:
Last year I had an Indian student whom I was helping with his writing skills. He wrote this pretty wonderful essay and gave it to me. I asked if he had gotten help on it, or copied it from the internet. It just didn’t sound like him. He looked embarrassed and said, “I didn’t really know how to explain my point of view, and to be honest I didn’t feel that strongly about it. So I just wrote what was easiest.” He had disagreed with a statement about traffic, but could generate more ideas from the opposite perspective.
The fact is, the IELTS exam is important and you only have 40 minutes to write a good essay. If you feel that it is easier to write an essay that disagrees with something, even if your heart says you agree, then write the better essay! Sometimes our hearts tell us things that are hard to put into words.
Sometimes it is hard to write a really great IELTS writing task 2 essay because we just can’t think of good ideas. However, there are some things you can do to generate better ideas. You need to be familiar with the most common IELTS topics, and look at how other people tackle tricky questions. Then you need to set aside some time at the beginning of your IELTS writing exam to generate ideas – either through brainstorming, mind-mapping, or any other method that is useful for you. Just remember: too many ideas will ruin your structure, so pare it down to just one idea per paragraph.