On this website, I normally discuss academic IELTS but today I am going to talk to you about the IELTS general writing test and, more specifically, I will show you how to write a letter of complaint.

As you probably know, in the IELTS general test, candidates are expected to write a letter of some kind. This is different from the academic test, in which candidates must describe a graph, table, diagram, or map.

Neither test is easier or harder, but they have very different challenges. I think that it is important that today we examine task one of IELTS general training (GT) in order to explore the issue of letter-writing. To that, we will look at:

  • Some different kinds of letter
  • Common complain letter topics
  • How to write a letter of complaint
  • Using the right language
  • Sample of good complaint letters

You can skip ahead to the most appropriate section if you like.

IELTS Writing Task 1 General

There are various differences between the IELTS academic and IELTS general exams, with task 1 of the writing test being a significant difference. This is because you are expected to describe something for the academic test but write to someone for the general test. It requires very different language, logic, and skill.

In the IELTS general writing test, you will be required to write a letter to a person about a subject that is presented in the task. There are numerous examples with different functions, such as:

  • Instructions about how to do something
  • Advice about what to do
  • Requesting something (such as a reference letter)
  • Application for a job/volunteering position
  • Agreeing/Scheduling an arrangement

There are various other possibilities and you should really be ready to write about almost anything for this section of the test. Remember that you will have to use your imagination because not every subject is applicable to you. For example, you might have to imagine you are moving to a new country, quitting your job, selling your furniture, or asking a former employer/teacher for a reference letter.

IELTS letter writing can require many different skills or situations, but today we are going to focus on one kind in particular. It is perhaps the most common IELTS letter topic: a letter of complaint.

Letter of Complaint Topics

If you are given the task of writing a letter of complaint for IELTS, you will generally be required to do two things:

  1. Describe what is wrong
  2. Suggest a solution

Of course, your exam paper will not make it sound this easy! It will contain other requirements, but essential those two things are the main purpose of the essay and so you should be prepared to include them.

Beyond that, each letter of complaint will have a basic premise and we can consider this its topic. This will be the thing that you are complaining about. During my years as an IELTS teacher, I have seen dozens of versions of this. You will be given a situation and told that you need to contact someone to complain. It could be a(n):

  • bad meal in a restaurant
  • late train
  • unfriendly staff member
  • faulty product
  • unpleasant experience
  • unexpected closure

Again, there are numerous possibilities but these will all essentially be the same: You need to describe the problem and suggest how the situation could be fixed.

How to Write a Letter of Complaint

In this section, we will actually explore the process of how to write an IELTS letter of complaint.

The Basic Requirements

The basic requirements of writing an IELTS letter of complaint are:

  • write at least 150 words
  • do this in approximately 20 minutes
  • answer all parts of the question
  • use standard letter-writing conventions

Beyond that, you will be judged on the level of English you use in the letter. If you write with a high degree of accuracy and use a variety of language structures, you will surely get a good score. However, you should also be familiar with the basics of writing letters in English.

Analysing the Question

Fortunately, IELTS writing task 1 questions are usually pretty simple in the general training exam. You do not have to think very hard about them in order to understand. Instead, you can just look at the instructions and follow them. There will seldom be difficult language, subtle ideas, or anything else to make it harder.

The firs thing you should do is make sure you understand the premise. This means “the main idea of the task.”

Let’s see an example:

You have just read an article in an international travel magazine which contained some information about your town that is incorrect.

Write a letter to the editor of the magazine. In your letter

– correct the information in the article

– explain why it is important for the magazine to give correct information

– suggest what the magazine should do about this situation.

At first look, it may seem as though there is a lot of information here, but the premise is simple. We can paraphrase it like this:

Write to an editor to tell them about a mistake in their magazine.

There are then three tasks that you must do relating to this premise:

  • Give the correct information
  • Say why you need to do this
  • Say how this could be fixed

Types of Complaint Letter

There are different types of complaint letter, which is why you need to read the question carefully and not make assumptions. You also cannot just memorise ten complaint letters and hope that these arise in your next test.

Instead, you should be ready to write a letter about almost anything. However, it is useful to consider that there are only a limited number of people to whom you may have to write any essay, so you should practice for those situations.

Some common recipients for your complaint letter are:

  • your landlord
  • a business owner
  • the manager of a service provider
  • a person who lives nearby

The topics should fall within normal IELTS scope, so the letter could be about:

  • noise complaint (and other social issues)
  • bad service
  • environmental concerns
  • a faulty product

Again, there are numerous possibilities, but when we think about broad categories it is easier to prepare for the real exam.

https://youtu.be/6Z6ylR-n3QM
A video about writing letters for IELTS.

Preparing your Answer

Once you have analysed the question, you should then look into formulating your answer. This begins with thinking of the right situation. Because IELTS writing comes with a difficult time limit, you should do this quickly.

There are two approaches you could take to this section:

 The Fast ApproachThe Careful Approach
AdvantagesThis means think of an idea quickly and begin writing. You can save time at the start that allows you to write more carefully later and slowly build logical ideas.You should plan your answer a little more, spending some time thinking about how you would develop it. This takes longer to start with but means that when you start writing, you ideas are already formed.  
DisadvantagesIf you pick the wrong idea, you might start writing the essay and then realise that you have nothing left to say.You may spend too much time at the beginning planning your letter and then not have enough time later. This means you might not have time to finish.

Honestly, there is no perfect answer here but I would say that you could mix these ideas together. Personally, when I write letters for my students, I tend to start quickly and use my imagination to complete it. However, this is easier for me as a native speaker because I always have a good enough vocabulary.

Anyway, make sure that you have a good idea to respond to the premise and also the three bullet points. These contain important ideas.

Finally, make sure that your idea is not too complicated. This is a common error. Choose something relatively simple so that you can talk about it easily. You can always use your imagination to pad the details later, but if you choose something overly complex, you will struggle to describe it sufficiently within the time limit.

Structuring your Letter

When it comes to structuring an IELTS task 2 essay, this is pretty easy… but with task 1 it is more complicated. This is true both for academic and general IELTS.

The important thing is that, first of all, you know the basic letter structure. This is the most fundamental thing and it is easy to learn, so make sure you understand before you start.

ielts writing template - letter of complaint

Your letter needs to begin with a salutation (such as “Dear”) and end with a sign-off (such as “Sincerely”) and in the middle you should have some paragraphs. There is no correct number. You just have to group information logically.

This can be a difficult thing to do, but remember the key rule for task 2:

One paragraph should have one main idea.

I usually find that an IELTS letter begins with a short paragraph that says why the person is writing, then another paragraph gives the background details. A third paragraph could explain more, such a solution, and a final paragraph might pose some summary, suggestion, or resolution.

However, once again I will note that there is no perfect letter formula. I will post various sample answers below so that you can see some different approaches to this.

IELTS General Writing Task 1 Language

When it comes to writing anything for IELTS, you are partly being tested on your vocabulary for that topic. Of course, no one is expected to be an expert in any topic so it doesn’t matter if you don’t know much vocabulary about magazines. Still, you should be able to deal with any topic that arises on at least a basic level.

You should make sure to always prepare for IELTS by learning different topics. I have a list of the 30 most common writing topics here. This can help you to absorb information more effectively and avoids the big problem with IELTS, which is that lazy teachers will tell you to memorize long lists of vocabulary like these:

This will not help you much with your IELTS skills. Most of the words are useless and the teachers just found them in a dictionary.

Instead, it is more helpful to learn common words and know how to use them correctly.

Vocabulary for Politely Complaining and Suggesting

It is important that you do not sound too angry or aggressive in your letter, so you should use some polite vocabulary for issuing complaints. This can sound direct but it should not be offensive.

Here are some examples of good language to use in your letter of complaint:

PhraseMeaningExamples
I am writing to complain about…This is a straightforward, direct way of starting your letter.I am writing to complain about the rude treatment I received in your store last weekend.
I was (very/bitterly/quite) disappointed with/aboutThis phrase can be modified with the words in brackets to show degree of feeling. It is a simple but effective way of saying you are unhappy.I was bitterly disappointed that the train was cancelled without any warning from the station staff.
I honestly expected better…This is a way of comparing what happened with your expectations in order to highlight disappointment.I honestly expected better from an establishment with such a sterling reputation.
I would like to suggest that…This is a good way to give a suggestion. It is polite and direct but softened so it is not aggressive.I would like to suggest that you include a wider range of options to take into consideration people’s food allergies.
I would be grateful if you could…This is a very polite way of making a suggestion. It is quite indirect but can be used in combination with the threat of (appropriate) further action.I would be grateful if you could issue a refund immediately so that this need go no further.
I hope that this can be remedied soon.This is a polite way of saying that you expect an apology, refund, or some other solution. It is not demanding but shows expectation gently and politely.Needless to say, I hope that this can be remedied soon.

Formal vs Informal IELTS Letters

Also, you really need to know the difference between formal and informal language because this is a serious issue in task 1 of the general training exam. Here, some letters require an informal reply (letters to friends and family) while others require a formal reply. Some fall in between, and we can call these semi-formal letters.

Today, we are looking at IELTS letters of complaint and these will always be formal. As such, you should pay attention to register (which means how formal your vocabulary and grammar are). I have a lesson about this in my free IELTS grammar course. It is included in this video:

Remember that features of a formal essay include:

  • Saying “Dear Sir or Madam” at the beginning
  • Signing off with “Sincerely” and your full name
  • Avoiding contractions (don’t, it’s, he’s, etc)
  • Sequencing your ideas logically (firstly, secondly, finally, etc)
  • Avoiding slang
  • Using the passive voice occasionally

In terms of content, it is also important to be appropriate. You are acting as a character (or imagining yourself in a fictional situation) but you should not display anger. Instead, you should be polite and serious.

Some More Advice

I have marked many thousands of essays and letters as part of my IELTS writing correction service, so I see many common mistakes. Here are some of them, with my suggestions included:

MistakeSolution
Dear John…For a formal letter, you should use a person’s title or surname, or else say “Dear Sir or Madam.”
Dear Mr John…We use a title (Mr, Mrs, etc) with a surname, not a first name. In this case, you could say “Dear Mr Smith,” for example.
Cheers…Some people sign off too informally. You should use a formal sign off like “Sincerely.”
Sincerely, DavidWhen you sign off, you should use your full name because it is informal just to use a first name.
Sincerely, Donald TrumpI have seen many people use a famous person’s name on their letter. Just use your own real name or else your letter will seem fake.

IELTS Writing Complaint Letter Samples

In this section, I am going to show you some of my sample answers. These are not intended as the only model for a good essay, but they are one possible way of writing a good letter.

First of all, we can start with the sample question from above (about a correction in a magazine). Here is my sample answer:

letter about a travel magazine - ielts general writing

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to draw attention to a factual error in the latest edition of Explorer magazine. In your recent article about St. Andrews, you stated that the nearest railway station was in Cupar, and thus getting from Edinburgh to St. Andrews by train would be rather difficult.

In fact, the nearest railway station is in Leuchars, which is just six miles away from St. Andrews, and less than ten minutes on a public bus. There are various buses and taxis right outside the train station, and so getting from Leuchars to St. Andrews is very easy. Moreover, I should mention that all trains heading from Edinburgh to either Dundee or Aberdeen will stop off at Leuchars on the way.

St. Andrews is a tourist town that receives many visitors each year, and it is important for both the local businesses and the tourists that this information is available. I hope that you can correct it in a future edition of Explorer.

Sincerely,

David S. Wills

Sample IELTS Letter of Complaint #2

Question

You live in a room in college which you share with another student. However, there are many problems with this arrangement and you find it very difficult to work.

Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college. In the letter,

  • describe the situation
  • explain your problems and why it is difficult to work
  • say what kind of accommodation you would prefer

Sample Answer

Dear Mr. Peterson,

I am writing to you to complain about my situation here at Seabraes Halls, where I have been living for the past three months.

Ever since arriving at this accommodation, I have struggled to focus on my studies because of the attitude and actions of my roommate. He is consistently partying and often brings friends over to our flat. It is extremely distracting and has had a serious impact upon my work. He routinely wakes me up at three o’clock in the morning, which makes it difficult for me to get up for my first classes, and has on several occasions interrupted my evening revision sessions. I feel deeply unprepared and am worried that this situation will negatively affect my future.

I would appreciate being moved to a more suitable environment. If you could please transfer me to a quieter location, with my studious flatmates, it would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

David Wills

Sample IELTS Letter of Complaint #3

Question

You recently bought a piece of equipment for your kitchen but it did not work. You phoned the shop but no action was taken.

Write a letter to the shop manager. In your letter

  • describe the problem with the equipment
  • explain what happened when you phoned the shop
  • say what you would like the manager to do

Sample Answer

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to complain about a blender I bought in your shop last week. When I took it home and plugged it in, it worked for about ten seconds before stopping. It has not worked since then and I doubt it ever will.

I understand that these things happen, but when I called your shop to complain, I was answered by a very rude young woman who did not seem to care at all about this problem. She told me that there was nothing she could do and inferred that the blender was probably fine.

I would like you to give me a replacement or a full refund as this blender simply does not work. It is clear that I have done nothing to damage it and so I cannot be held at fault for this. I know my consumer rights and they stipulate that you must offer a replacement or refund.

Please arrange a time for me to pick up my new blender and return the old one.

Sincerely,

David Wills

Question

You were hurt in a minor accident inside a supermarket, and you wish to complain to the supermarket. Write a letter to the manager of the supermarket. In your letter:

  • say who you are
  • give details about the accident
  • suggest how the supermarket could prevent similar accidents.

Sample Answer

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to inform you that I was injured in your supermarket last week when I slipped in a puddle that had been left in one of your aisles. I would like to seek assurance from you that this will not happen again.

The accident occurred last Thursday morning at your South Street branch, at around 9:30am. I was picking up a few groceries and then ventured into the frozen food aisle. Evidently, there had been a spillage and one of your staff had mopped it up, but they had not put down a warning sign that the floor was still wet.

I understand that these things happen and I will not be pressing charges, but I do want to recommend that you put in place certain protocols to ensure that it does not happen again. Firstly, you should have staff trained to deal with these situations quickly. You should also have warning signs stored with the mopping equipment in order to make sure that they are always visible.

For reference, my name is David Wills and I am from the nearby town of Cupar. I gave my details to your staff on the day of the accident, so you should have them on file.

Sincerely,

David Wills

Conclusion

Let’s try to review what we have learned so far. The important things to know about writing a letter of complaint in the IELTS writing exam are:

  • you should provide a formal letter
  • it should clearly state the problem and suggest a solution
  • you must directly respond to the question
  • do not sound angry/aggressive
  • instead, try to sound polite
  • be clear and address all three bullet points

If you follow this advice and continually work to improve your vocabulary and grammar skills, you should be able to produce excellent IELTS letters.