I have been teaching IELTS since 2010 and one thing that I commonly hear from my students is that they want to have more advanced writing skills. Generally, they think that their writing needs to be more complicated in order to get a better score for IELTS.
This viewpoint is encouraged by unqualified “tutors” on YouTube and in mediocre training centres around the world. You often hear these people claiming that IELTS success depends upon having a vast vocabulary of obscure words and long sentences made up of many clauses.
But is any of this true? Not really. In today’s article, I’m going to tell you why simplicity is probably the best approach for success in IELTS writing.
The Problem with Complexity
My main job these days is marking IELTS practice essays. This means that I spend several hours every day reading IELTS writing papers written by students from all over the world. I have marked more than one hundred essays in the past month, and so I see certain patterns and problems.
One of the main issues that I encounter is needless complexity. This means that an essay is filled with unnecessarily difficult words and challenging grammatical structures.
But what is the problem with that? Well, there are two main problems:
- These are usually used incorrectly.
- They are unnatural and difficult.
Obviously, the first point is the most important. In IELTS, as in everything else in life, it is best to be correct and accurate. An essay that is written in basic English with no mistakes will score higher than an essay filled with incorrectly used vocabulary and long sentences. That should be abundantly clear to all people wishing to learn English.
Sadly, most lazy teachers tell their students that it is important to use specialist language, and so they pick lists of “IELTS words” to memorise. This is not useful at all. Then they tell their students to string together lots of clauses into these huge sentences that make absolutely no sense. The result is just a complete mess.
Let’s take a look at this example sentence from an essay that I marked several months ago:
- The started salary or the average salary of any job is high doesn’t mean the money you get when you do their job Is as the statistic when people work energetically and passionately, the result that they get may be different.
What does this sentence mean? What is its main idea?
I have no idea.
This is the problem with sentences that are needlessly complicated. It is quite difficult to write a sentence of this length with completely accurate grammar. When that happens, you must ask yourself whether it could have been stated in a more precise and straightforward way.
Let’s look at another example. Tell me which of these passages is better:
- Over the following years, these positions reversed in order. Farming, fishing, and foresting slid slowly downwards over the first forty years, before plummeting after that. By 2010, it was by far the least common area of employment, having fallen from 70% to just 2%. The other category stayed at 10% but fell from second most popular to second least popular, while sales and office jobs quadrupled from 5% to 20%. The two least common job types rose suddenly in the latter half of the twentieth century, so that by 2010 industrial jobs were in first place, followed closely by technical ones.
- Over the following years, these positions reversed in order so that farming, fishing, and foresting descended incrementally downwards over the first forty years, before taking a more explosive route down after that; following this, by 2010, it was by far the least common area of employment, having fall from 70% to a mediocre 2%, while the alternative category stayed at 10% but fell from second place to the penultimate place in terms of popularity and sales and office jobs quadrupled from one twentieth to one fifth. Meanwhile, the two least common job types rose suddenly in the latter half of the XXth century, so that by 2010 jobs for industrious people were the leaders, followed closely by technical ones.
Clearly, the first answer is a good one and the second is very poor. They look pretty similar, but the second answer contains a really long run-on sentence, which is a big mistake in terms of punctuation. Here, there is simply too much information crammed into one sentence. Grammatically, it is not good, but even if it was technically correct, it is a major strain for the reader to follow. IELTS examiners have to read dozens of essays and you should not trouble them with difficult sentences that they will have to read five times in order to understand.
The second answer also uses some incorrect vocabulary and phrases. You can see that “industrial jobs” has become “jobs for industrious people,” which may seem like the same meaning, but it actually different. “Second least popular” has become “penultimate,” which is not exactly the same.
I frequently encounter essays that contain uncommon words. This is probably because the student has used a dictionary to write their essay, or else they previously learned the word in a long list of vocabulary. These words are typically quite difficult to use because of their limited meaning. If you put it into a slightly different context, the meaning gets lost. This causes a major problem. In addition, some people just learn new words without really paying attention to how they are used in a grammatical sense.
Keeping it Simple
It should be pretty obvious now that it is important to keep your writing relatively simple in order to increase your chances of IELTS success. By simple, I don’t mean that you should write in a childish manner. You should use a mix of the four sentence types:
However, you must avoid the temptation to overuse the latter (compound-complex). It is the most difficult, and getting it right can be a challenge.
It is important to have a variety of sentence types in your writing, as well as a mix of words and transitional phrases, but you should not fall into the trap of attempting difficult language just for the sake of it. Make sure that you know how to use each word before you put it into your IELTS essay.
Learning English can take a long time, and it requires a lot of effort to get good at grammar. There are no shortcuts and you cannot trick the examiner by including any magical words or phrases. Just continually work on improving your language until you can write with accuracy. Eventually, you will succeed.