IELTS Letter Writing Tips
This post will help you to write better letters in task 1 of the General Training IELTS paper. If you are doing the Academic module please take a look at our tips for Academic task 1.
General Training Task 1 Overview
In task 1 of the General Training paper you will have 20 minutes to write a letter. Your letter should be at least 150 words.
Below are possible situations and letters you might be asked to write about:
- Letter of complaint
- Application or resignation letter
- Inviting a friend or colleague to join you at an event or social occasion
- Making a request
- Making formal arrangements
- Explaining something to a friend or colleague
- Making an apology
Below are some example questions:
Frequently Asked Questions
- Should I write the address and date like a normal letter?
No, in the test there is no reason to do either of these things.
- Are paragraphs important?
Yes, very important. See below for a structure I tell all of my General Training students to use. You should also skip a line between paragraphs to make it very clear to the examiner.
- How many main ideas should I include?
The question will give you a reason to write the letter and 3 bullet points with information you must include. You should therefore have 4 main ideas: why you are writing the letter and the three bullet points. You should have one paragraph only for one main idea.
In this example we would have to mention 4 things: why you are writing (to complain), who you are, details of the accident and how the supermarket could prevent similar accidents.
- Can I use words and phrases from the question?
No, you should avoid this. Instead you should use synonyms and paraphrasing to vary your language.
- Should I finish letters on the right or left?
It is normal to end letters on the left in the UK. Please do this, even if it is not customary in your culture to do so.
- Should I sign my name at the end?
There is no need to do this. Just write your first name for an informal or semi-formal letter and both your first and family name for formal letters.
Common Mistakes and Solutions
- It is difficult to tell what the main purpose of the letter is.
Solution– Your first paragraph should clearly state why you are writing the letter.
- Not covering all the bullet points sufficiently.
Solution– Make a plan like I advise below and this will help you remember to include everything you need.
- Poor Paragraphing.
Solution– Remember that there should be 4 main ideas in your letter and they should each have their own separate paragraph. Skip a line between paragraphs.
- Not using the correct tone.
Solution- Identify if the letter requires a formal, informal or semi-formal tone. This will depend on who you are writing to, the situation and whether you know the name of the person or not. See my tips below for more information on how to do this.
- Letter is difficult to understand.
Solution– Use the structure I advise below and keep your ideas simple.
Task 1 Letter Writing Tips
- Make a Plan
All of my students who get above a band 7 in writing all have one thing in common- they plan before they write. I know that it takes a little extra time, but it will actually save you time because you will know exactly what to write and you will not get lost.
Writing without a plan is like trying to drive to a strange place without a map. You will get lost and have to stop and ask for directions.
Remember that you will have to state why you are writing and then cover the three bullet points. Here is a basic structure that will help you plan your letters:
Paragraph 1– Explain why you are writing the letter
Paragraph 2– Bullet point 1
Paragraph 3– Bullet point 2
Paragraph 4– Bullet point 3
Closing remark (e.g. I look forward to hearing from you etc.)
Ending (Yours sincerely, Kind regards, All the best etc.)
This structure should not change and the only thing you will have to think about is using the correct style, fulfilling the aim of the letter and filling in the details.
- Use the Correct Style
One of the keys to a high band score is using the appropriate style, formal, semi-formal or informal.
The question will tell you the situation and should indicate if you are writing to a friend, colleague or someone you don’t know.
If you have never met the person before and you don’t know their first or last name, then you should use a formal style. You should definitely use a formal tone for letters of application and when making complaints. Formal styles allow us to sound respectful and professional; however, if we use this tone with someone we know it can often sound cold or unfriendly.
If the person is a friend then you should use an informal style. With people we know well, we don’t need to sound too formal and the letter should have a relaxed tone.
Semi-formal is often the one that confuses people. Semi-formal is used when you know the name of the person, but it is within a professional or official context. Imagine writing a letter to a colleague or someone from a different company you know. If you write in a formal style it will sound unfriendly, but informal might sound disrespectful. In this situation we should use a semi-formal style.
We will look at the different grammar and vocabulary you should use for each style of writing below.
- Answer the Whole Question
The question will always have three bullet points and you are expected to cover all three of these in your letter. A good thing to do is to separate them into three separate paragraphs and then you know that you have properly answered the question.
Some points may take longer to write about than other, but you should avoid writing 5-6 sentences about one point and then only one sentence about the other two.
In this example we will obviously write less for the first bullet point than the second and third, but it does not mean we shouldn’t include it.
- Boost Your Grammar Score With Complex Sentences
Grammar is one of the four areas you will be assessed on and gaining high marks in this area is not just about making sure you don’t make any mistakes, but also using a range of appropriate tenses and complex sentences.
Complex sentences are not really all that complex. A simple sentence contains just one clause and one idea, for example. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party.’ and ‘I was sick on the day of you party.’
A complex sentence has more than one clause in it and we can make them by combining more than one clause or idea in a sentence. If we combine the sentences in the previous paragraph together it might look like this ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party because I was sick that day.’ As you can see, they are not so complex.
To help you make complex sentences, think of the ideas you need to include in your letter at the planning stage and then think about how you could combine some of these in complex sentences.
- Use the Correct Tense
The questions will be designed so that you have to use a range of tenses. In other words, the examiner will be testing your ability to write in a variety of tenses.
If we look at the first example above, you will notice that there are several different tenses we should use:
- Explain why you changed jobs (past )
- Describe your new job (present)
- Tell him or her your other news (could be past or present, but also a good opportunity for you to show the examiner that you know how to use future structures)
Try to make a plan before you write and mark which tenses you will use in the plan.
- Begin and End Your Letter Correctly
There are a number of different ways you can start and finish your letter, but here are the ways I advise my students:
Formal and you don’t know the name:
Formal and you do know the name:
Dear [Mr(s). Family Name]
Dear [First Name]
Dear [First Name]
- Go Over the Word Limit
Part of answering the question correctly is writing at least 150 words. The examiner will count every word, so don’t think you can get away with just writing around 150 words, it must be more or you will lose marks.
You will not have time to count how many words you have, so the best thing to do is practice with the official IELTS exam paper and count how many words you write on that. You will then be able to see how much of your writing 150 words looks like.
Try to write about 10% over 150 words when you are practicing and this will help you in the exam.
- Follow the 100% Rule
The biggest mistake students make in the IELTS writing test is trying to show off their grammar and vocabulary. By ‘show off’ I mean that they try to use very complex grammar and vocabulary. This is fine if your English is at a very high level, but not so good if it means you make lots of mistakes.
It is much better to use simple language and use it correctly, than using complex words and phrases and making lots of mistakes.
For this reason, I suggest you follow the 100% rule. If you are not 100% sure about the grammar or vocabulary you have just written, delete it and write it in a simpler way.
Also, make sure you leave yourself 2 or 3 minutes to check your spelling and grammar at the end.
Finally, have someone check your writing and identify your common mistakes. You can then concentrate on fixing them.
- Don’t Be Overly Informal
You might be asked to write to a friend, but that doesn’t mean you should stop using correct grammar and spelling.
Avoid using abbreviations like ‘cus’ instead of ‘because’ or ‘u ‘ instead of ‘you’.
You should also never use text message style acronyms like ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG’.
Emoticons are also not allowed 🙂
- Ideas Should Be Relevant But Don’t Have To Be Not Amazing
You will have to think of some ideas and supporting details but don’t worry, these do not need to be interesting or amazing, they just need to be relevant.
For example in this question you will have to explain why you need to take time off work. Don’t try to impress the examiner a wonderfully dramatic story, just keep it simple e.g. family or health problems.
I hope you found these tips useful. If you have any comments or queries, please add them below.
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