Last year, I wrote an article about why people always score so poorly for IELTS writing compared to the other parts of the IELTS exam. It was a popular article because it’s a very common question. Everyone wants to know why their writing is graded so poorly.
To put it as simply as possible, writing is just harder than other parts of language. It requires a great degree of accuracy and there are many things that you can get wrong: spelling, punctuation, structure, and so on. These aren’t really important at all in speaking or listening.
So when it comes to IELTS writing, you need to watch out for the above problems and many other issues that can negatively affect your grade. In today’s article, I’m going to explain how you can do better at IELTS writing by avoiding some common mistakes.
First, though, I will recommend that you use my writing correction service so that you can actually know what your IELTS writing score is likely to be and what mistakes you regularly make. This is really important because most people don’t know what their most common errors are without an expert to tell them. Once they know, they can easily begin to fix the mistakes and watch their score increase.
What are the Most Common IELTS Writing Mistakes?
There are so many mistakes that you could make in IELTS writing, and it’s hard to say which are the most common. However, this year I have marked about 1,000 essays and I have a pretty good idea of the mistakes I most frequently see.
- Subject-verb disagreement
- Comma use
- Semi-colon use
- Incorrect pronouns
- Structural issues
There are more, of course, but those are probably the most common. I could have put “semi-colon use” and “comma use” together as “punctuation,” but actually I feel that they are quite distinct and I would like to discuss them separately.
Before we get started, why don’t you take a look at this video about all the things you should check in your IELTS essay:
One of the biggest and most common errors that I see in IELTS writing today is that of subject-verb disagreement. This basically means when the subject and verb of a sentence don’t match.
Look at the following example:
- The government advise people to buy electric cars in order to save the environment.
What is the subject of this sentence? Government.
What is the verb of this sentence? Advise.
The problem is that the subject is in singular form and the verb is in plural form. In other words, they don’t match. We can fix this by making them both singular or both plural:
- The government advises people to buy electric cars in order to save the environment.
- Governments advise people to buy electric cars in order to save the environment.
This is often a problem when using the present simple tense as in the above examples, but it can also be an issue when dealing with tenses that involve auxiliary verbs such as “have.” Let’s look at another example:
- People has been protesting against fracking due to its devastating environmental effects.
- The internet have revolutionized our world by making communication so much easier.
Here you can see two instances of subject-verb disagreement in these excerpts from IELTS essays. In the first, we have a plural subject (people) with a singular auxiliary verb (has) and in the second we have a singular subject (internet) and a plural auxiliary verb (have). We can easily fix them:
- People have been protesting against fracking due to its devastating environmental effects.
- The internet has revolutionized our world by making communication so much easier.
If this seems very easy to you, then consider that in most cases the problem occurs when the subject and verb are quite far away from each other like this:
- On the contrary, books can be used nearly forever and requires much less money.
The mistake occurred because the IELTS candidate forgot that “require” matches with “books” as the words are separated by six other words. It could be very simply fixed:
- On the contrary, books can be used nearly forever and require much less money.
Using a comma is a really hard part of English. It is so hard, in fact, that even most native speakers don’t really know the correct way to do it. In fact, as an editor I often see essays and books by professional writers who don’t understand commas. 😆
You don’t need to be able to use commas perfectly in order to get a higher score in IELTS writing, but you do need to avoid the basic mistakes that can occur, and to master the most basic of the comma rules.
The biggest mistake that students make with commas is the comma splice. That basically means putting two independent clauses together with just a comma between them. This is wrong, and you should avoid it if possible. This article talks about comma splices in detail and shows you how to avoid them and fix them.
You also need to remember that commas should be used after introductory and transitional phrases. Think of comma words like “therefore” and “for example” and “in conclusion.” These should all be followed by commas. We also put them after introductory phrases, which includes setting the scene and placing the event in time. For example:
- Six years ago, I met a man called Paul…
- In my first year at university, I was very shy…
- On the left, there is a handle….
- In my opinion, environmental degradation is…
Rather than repeat all the possible comma rules and mistakes here, I will advise you to check out this article on comma use.
Related to the problems with commas are semi-colons. These rare pieces of punctuation actually do provide a good addition to academic writing, although they are uncommon in regular, daily English. Most people just know them from emojis nowadays. 😉
The reason why I have included semi-colons here is primarily that they are not used where they are in fact needed. It is uncommon to see someone using one incorrectly, whereas they tend to omit them where they should be, using a comma instead.
Let me explain:
The semi-colon is a piece of punctuation that does not have many uses, but it does have a few that can be helpful in IELTS writing. It is typically used in a compound sentence (2x independent clauses). The first way is to use it to split two very closely related clauses:
- The days were beginning to get shorter; it seemed the night got earlier and earlier.
- There was a big traffic jam; cars were barely moving around town.
Again, in a compound sentence, if the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase, use a semi-colon. The structure looks like this:
INDEPENDENT CLAUSE+ SEMI-COLON + CONJUNCTIVE ADVERB + COMMA + INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
- The two countries had been at war for the previous decade; as a result, brokering peace would not be easy.
- The price of homes has been rising for several decades; therefore, young people cannot get on the property ladder.
- The dog and cat lived together all their lives; however, they were certainly not friends.
If individual items in a list are separated by commas, use semi-colons to break it up more clearly.
- Important European capitals include Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and London, England.
If you are really struggling with punctuation, check out this video I made recently. It’s part of a long series of videos aimed at helping you with grammar for IELTS writing:
Lately, I have seen many essays featuring incorrect pronoun use. This basically occurs when someone attempts to use a pronoun to avoid repeating a noun, but the pronoun is not in the right form. Similar to the mistake with subject-verb disagreement, this is usually a matter of plural vs singular.
Let’s take an example:
- Shopping centers nowadays provide a lot of options for its customers.
So, what is the problem with this sentence?
The problem is that we have a noun (shopping centers) and a pronoun (its) that refers to the noun. The noun is in plural form, while the pronoun is in singular form. We need to change the latter to match the former:
- Shopping centers nowadays provide a lot of options for their customers.
This is a very easy mistake to fix once you have spotted it, but it’s also an easy mistake to make because the pronoun often comes in a later sentence, and you may forget the form of the original noun. You can get some feedback with my writing correction service to help you solve this problem.
This next mistake is a real problem for some people, but not so much for others. Even native speakers tend to fall into those two categories. Spelling can be hard and there are just so many words in English. Many of them of just not intuitive, and some seem to follow completely different rules from the rest of the language.
Unfortunately, spelling is quite important for IELTS. It’s ok to make one or two small errors, but you can’t make many and you really shouldn’t get common words wrong. If you are struggling with spelling, you need to find the words that you often get wrong, and then practice them over and over until you get them right.
This website will show you some ideas about improving your spelling. (It’s not related to me or my company.)
One related issue is mixing British and English spellings, which is actually considered an error by IELTS examiners, even though they are both correct.
Finally, let’s talk about essay structure. Actually, I often talk about essay structure on this website. I do it because it’s probably the easiest part of the essay to fix. While it takes years to master grammar, you can master structure in just a few days.
Basically, an essay should have 4 or 5 paragraphs and should look like this:
- Body paragraph 1
- Body paragraph 2
Those body paragraphs will vary depending on the question type, but you might have one dedicated to each side of an argument, or both will support your view, or maybe one looks at advantages while the other looks are disadvantages… There are many possibilities.
The important thing is that your essay is logically arranged. That refers both to internal and external paragraph structure. Internal paragraph structure means how your sentences flow together from one idea to the next. This is really important or else it will be difficult for the examiner to follow your ideas, and he or she might give you a reduced score for Coherence and Cohesion.
Basically, an IELTS essay needs to have a reasonable structure. You can find a list of structures here. Learn them and apply them to your writing during all of your practice sessions. It will really help you.
One Last Thing
I hope that this article has really helped you. There are obviously many issues that could occur with an IELTS essay and you will need to work hard to get your writing to a high enough standard to avoid them all. It is nearly impossible to write a perfect essay, but if you can reduce your errors to a minimum, you will stand a good chance of achieving a band 7 or higher.
Please e-mail me or leave a comment if you have any questions about IELTS writing. I also reply and I am happy to help you.