A few weeks ago I launched our new writing correction service and after marking hundreds of essays I noticed that most students make the same mistakes. Below are the 6 most common mistakes and how you can fix them and improve your writing.
Many students try to prepare for IELTS writing by learning long lists of ‘academic’ words and then try to include these words in their essays. The problem with this is that it leads to candidates using words that are either inappropriate (the meaning is wrong) or inaccurate (the grammar is wrong).
It is important to have a wide ranging vocabulary to get one of the higher band scores, but this doesn’t mean you should try and force as many complicated words into your essay as possible. That approach will only lead to mistakes and reduce your score.
Instead of learning long lists of words, try to read about the common Task 2 topics and note down any new words. You can do this by reading online newspapers, magazines or blogs. You should note the meaning, grammar, example sentences, synonyms and collocations. You can then review them regularly. When you know a word 100% you can use it in your essay, until then stick to the words you already know.
Small Grammar Mistakes
Most of the candidates I help have a very good grasp of grammar, but everyone makes small mistakes. If most of your sentences contain small errors, it is difficult to get over a Band 6 for grammar.
Some common grammar mistakes include articles, countable and uncountable nouns and subject-verb agreement. You should get a native English speaker or teacher to look at your writing and help you identify your common grammar mistakes. Most people have 2 or 3 things that they regularly get wrong and by identifying these you can then review the grammar, practice and produce more error-free sentences.
You should also give yourself 2-3 minutes at the end of the test to proofread your writing. Make sure you do this when you are practicing and you will remember to do it in the real exam.
Overusing Cohesive Devices
Cohesive devices are words like ‘For instance‘, ‘To conclude‘, ‘despite this‘ and ‘in addition‘. They tell the reader what we are doing in a sentence and indicate what the relationships are between the different clauses, sentences and paragraphs.
One of the biggest misconceptions about cohesive devices is ‘the more you use them, the better.’ They do have a purpose but they should only be used when necessary. If you look at Band 9 answers or academic writing in a journal or text book you will notice that they are used far more sparingly than you would expect.
Make sure that every sentence does not begin with a cohesive device and try to limit yourself to only 2-3 per paragraph. By doing this your writing will become more cohesive and coherent.
Not Addressing BOTH Parts of the Question Equally
Many Task 2 questions have two parts and some have two separate questions. A question could ask you to ‘discuss both views’, ‘discuss the advantages and disadvantages’ or ‘discuss the problems and solutions’. If you write 8 sentences about one and only two sentences about the other, you haven’t really covered both parts of the question.
You could also be asked a double questions like the one below:
As most people spend a major part of their adult life at work, job satisfaction is an important element of individual wellbeing.
What factors contribute to job satisfaction?
How realistic is the expectation of job satisfaction for all workers?
This task would require you to address both of the questions properly for you to get one of the higher scores for Task Response. Lots of students spend too much time on the first question and then only write one or two sentences about the first.
Writing About the Topic NOT the Question
One of the most frustrating things is marking an essay that has great grammar and vocabulary, but completely misses the point when it comes to answering the question. The most common problem here is writing everything you know about the general topic without actually addressing the specific question.
Let’s look at an example question:
Computers are being used more and more in education and so there will soon be no role for the teacher in education.
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
The general topic here is computers in education, but the question wants you to talk about how this affects the role of the teacher. If you write generally about computers in education you have not really answered the question. A good answer will talk specifically about how computers affect the role of the teacher.
When you analyse a question think about what the general topic is, but then also think about what the question is specifically asking you to do. Remember it is not a knowledge test, the examiner is not interested in how much you know about the topic, they are testing your ability to answer the question.
Not Developing Ideas
I call this the ‘shotgun approach’- listing as many ideas as possible in 40 minutes. For example, the task might ask you to ‘discuss the advantages and disadvantages’ and you write 6 advantages and 6 disadvantages. The problem with this is it is just a list of undeveloped ideas and not really an academic essay. It would be better if you had just two ideas and you developed them fully with explanations and examples.
Here is an example:
The question might ask you to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of working from home online.
A ‘shotgun approach’ paragraph might say:
There are many advantages to working at home. Firstly, it cuts down commuting time because you don’t have to travel to work. Secondly, it is more flexible because you can choose the time you work. Thirdly, it is very convenient because you don’t have to leave home. Fourthly, it saves costs. Lastly, it means you can spend more time with your family.
All of these ideas are relevant but none of them are really developed. You can develop them by explaining what they mean and how they answer the question. You can also illustrate them by giving an example.
The paragraph below takes just two ideas and develops them fully:
The main advantage is the fact that it means that we do not have to commute to and from work. This saves us lots of time because we are not stuck in a car or train every morning and evening. For example, a recent report in The Times stated that the average person working from home saved around 20 hours per month. A related benefit is that it enables us to be more flexible with our time. By removing the need to be in the office from 9-5 people can start earlier or work in the evenings. Personally, I prefer to work at night and the internet has given me the freedom to spend time with my family in the morning and work after they have gone to bed.
A good way to think about writing is that the person reading can’t ask you any questions like they would if you were speaking to them, so you need to explain each of your ideas fully to make sure they are clear and easy to understand.