Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Letter Writing tips for IELTS general test

IELTS letters – 10 top tips

How should you write a letter in general training IELTS? Here are some tips to help you maximise your band score so that your IELTS letters impress the examiner. A summary of these tips would be that letter writing may have its own conventions but so does IELTS – so whatever else you do, make sure you answer the question and use good English.

1. Make sure you answer the whole question

This is probably the most common mistake. Each IELTS letter question contains 3 bullet points and you need to make sure that you address all 3 points in your answer. If you leave one of them out, you will be penalised on task response. A more detailed point is that you need to make sure that you include the appropriate amount of detail for each point – this may mean you need to write more about one topic and less about another.

If you like, go and visit my sample IELTS letter questions page and make sure you can identify the tasks in each letter.

2. Think about who you are writing to

Perhaps the one complex thing about letter writing is that you need to be aware of register. This means that you need to be able to write in a more formal style if the letter is to someone you don’t know and in a less formal style to a friend. Part of the problem here is that conventions differ in different countries and cultures. One sensible piece of advice is to aim for a relatively neutral style and don’t try to be too formal or too informal.

3. Think about the purpose(s) of the letter

Before you start writing, you should think about what the purpose of the letter is. IELTS letters tend to be quite predictable and generally fall into one or more of these functions:

  • complaint
  • request
  • explanation
  • apology
  • application
  • suggestion

This information helps you because you can then use the appropriate letter writing vocabulary for each of those functions.

4. Don’t forget to use varied grammar

A common problem with letters is that candidates use language that is too simple. Just as in essays, there is a band score for grammatical range and accuracy. This means that even if you are writing to a friend, you still need to use varied sentences. You cannot just use short and simple sentences.

5. Learn how to start a letter

When we write more formal letters, we tend to start with a sentence explaining exactly why we are writing. A common phrase here is “I am writing to….”. We start like that because the person doesn’t know us and needs to understand what the purpose of the letter is.

When we write to a friend, we normally start by talking a little about our relationship in a fairly general paragraph. A common phrase might be, “I was so pleased to hear from you again. It’s been ages since we’ve seen one another…”. It’s important not to forget to do this in IELTS letters as it shows the examiner you understand the type of letter you are writing.

6. Learn how to end a letter

There are also conventional ways to end letters. If you are unsure how to do this, the best advice is to think about what you expect to happen next. In a more formal letter where you have asked for some information, you might write:

“I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

By contrast, in a letter to a friend who is coming to visit you, you might try:

“I can’t wait to see you. And don’t forget to give my love to all your family.”

You can learn some set phrases to help you do this but as I say the best advice is just to think about what you expect to happen next.

7. Plan your letter

What? Plan a letter? Well you may not bother in life, but IELTS is a very peculiar form of life and you should definitely spend time thinking about and organising your letter. This means that you should think carefully about:

  • how many paragraphs you are going to use
  • what the main points to include are
  • what details you need to add
  • what vocabulary you need

8. Make sure you write at least 150 words

This should be self-explanatory. You will be penalised if you write less than 150 words and my general advice is that you should aim for about 175 words. I say this because the examiner may not count any words you have directly copied form the question.

9. Check your spelling and punctuation

Perhaps because letters are often less formal than essays, candidates frequently make more basic spelling and punctuation mistakes in letters. Don’t be one of those people: even if it is an informal letter make sure you use correct English. This means:

  • you may use short forms like “can’t” if it’s an informal letter
  • you shouldn’t use abbreviations like “cos”
  • be very careful with spelling of common words like “believe” and “sincerely”
  • write in sentences with full stops and capital letters

10. Practise using standard letter writing phrases

Letters have their own language to some extent. One way to improve your letter writing is to look at sample IELTS letters and find phrases which you can use in your own letters.


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