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How to Develop Ideas in IELTS Writing

If you’ve taken a writing class, you probably know the word brainstorm. A brainstorm, also known as a mind map, is a technique used to get ideas for a piece of writing. The key to success in brainstorming is to open your mind and write down everything you can think of in a short period. For example, if the essay question is: How can people stay warm in winter? On a blank piece of paper, you might write ideas like fireplaces; moving to Florida; wool sweaters; and electric heaters. The critical thing to remember about brainstorming is that any idea is OK. Just write everything you can think of.

Then, after you have all your ideas on paper, do some organizing. Cross out the crazy ideas, keep the good ideas, then group them into paragraphs. Try it out!

IELTS is a language test, not a knowledge test
It’s not what you write; it’s how you write it. I’ve seen some crazy ideas in IELTS essays, and they still received very high marks. The point is, it isn’t your idea alone – it’s how you present the idea. Let’s look a little closer at this. Imagine the essay question is What are the best ways to lose weight? Then you decide to write three main solutions – eat only bananas; go skydiving every day, and massage your stomach. These sound like really strange ways to lose weight, but as long as you support them with clear and organized examples, you will still meet the requirements for a high score. Let’s look at an example paragraph for the above question.

Eating only bananas every day is a sure way to help overweight people slim down. Firstly, bananas don’t have any salt. This can help reduce inflammation in the stomach. In turn, this helps you digest faster and will lead to more fat loss throughout your body. Second, bananas have a magical power called potassium. This magic element cleans out the tiny fat cells in your muscle tissue by chemically latching on to them. The super-power potassium fat balls travel deeper and deeper into your tissues and…Looks crazy, doesn’t it? The ideas are not science. However, the response language is very clear and is supported with full examples and full explanations. So, even though it is a crazy idea, it can still receive high marks because it met the criteria.

So, in the end, remember this when you practice Task 2 writing. The IELTS essay is not a mysterious monster. Start by taking some time to relax and read the question carefully. Do some brainstorming before you start to write. Organize your ideas well into groups. Then explain those ideas using good examples. With some diligent practice writing, and by reviewing some example essays, success will be just around the corner
First World Problems
Most of the students I teach come from developing countries and they often complain that IELTS writing part two questions are biased towards ‘Western’ countries and are mostly ‘First world problems. For example:
In some countries, young people are encouraged to work or travel for a year between finishing high school and starting university studies. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages for young people who decide to do this.
‘What the hell is a ‘gap year?” shouted most of the learners in my class. I did have some sympathy for them on this question. Most of the Vietnamese students I currently teach have no first-hand experience with taking a year off before going to University. This seems like a very ‘Western’ idea to them and they felt a little bit annoyed with the question, which is totally understandable.

Fortunately, questions like these are rare and most of them will be on familiar topics that most people have an opinion on, such as health, education, and the environment. Remember that this is a language test, not a general knowledge test.

Do my ideas have to be entertaining?
Many students also worry that their ideas are not interesting enough or they are too boring. The examiner is not looking for you to entertain her. They are looking for you to demonstrate an ability to write an essay in English supported by evidence and relevant examples. There are no extra points for interesting ideas. What the ideas must be is relevant to the question being asked. Have a look at my post on question analysis for help with that.

You can have the most boring ideas in the world and still get a band score of 9, as long as your ideas are relevant.
This may seem illogical to some people who have already been to university and know that your ideas should be both relevant and interesting. Stop thinking about how you write at the university level, this is an IELTS exam, not a university essay. Give the IELTS examiners what they want and nothing else.

Below I will outline several solutions that have worked well for my students in the past. They are:

  1. Common Topic Familiarisation
  2. Brainstorming (least effective)
  3. Mind Mapping
  4. 5 Questions Method
  5. Personal Opinion Method (most effective)

No One Size Fits All
The main thing I have learned from teaching my students these methods is that no one method is suitable for everyone. You have to try each of them out and see which one works for you. When you are practicing remember, the examiner is looking for relevant ideas that you can support by explaining them and giving examples. You should also use the one that gives you ideas quickly. You will only have 2 or 3 minutes for idea generation in the exam. Don’t worry if this is taking you a lot of time at the moment, you will improve with practice. Pick a method below, set yourself a time limit and practice with some old past exam papers.

  1. Common Topic Familiarisation

This simply means knowing the 10 common topics that come up in the exam and learning some vocabulary associated with these repeated topics. The wider your vocabulary the easier it will be for you to think of ideas. If you have time, don’t just stick with the 10 most common topics, go even further.
When you have free time, have a look at some English newspapers and identify some topics that might come up in the IELTS test. When you do this you should be doing two things. The first is simply noting down any unknown vocabulary, try to guess the meaning from the context, and then look up the meaning to confirm on your smartphone or dictionary. This will really help you, not only for writing part 2 but also for all the other parts of the IELTS exam.

  1. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is basically thinking of as many ideas as possible relevant to your topic. It was developed by an advertising agency, in order to come up with new ideas for advertising campaigns. The technique involves putting keywords in the middle of a page and then writing down as many ideas associated with that idea as possible.
Some students, and many teachers, love this method and if it works for you then continue to use it, but I have a few problems with it. Firstly, some students spend too much time on this stage and try to think of too many ideas. Secondly, because they are thinking very generally, their ideas are not relevant. It then takes extra time, which you don’t have in the exam, to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant ideas.

  1. Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a way to visually organise your thoughts on to paper.
Some people love this method, because it represents how their brain is working and allows them to organise their thoughts. It is much more organised than simply brainstorming and can be done very quickly once you have practiced a few times with different questions.
A good technique is to place the keywords in the middle and then place the micro-keywords on the branches.
The only disadvantage to this method is that some students spend too much time creating the perfect mind map. There are no points for creating beautiful mind maps; they are only there to help you with ideas so do it quickly.

  1. 5 Questions Method

This method uses who/what/why/where/how question words in order to generate ideas. This works best for people who think very logically and also know a little bit about the topic already.
Let’s look at an example:

In some countries, young people are encouraged to work or travel for a year between finishing high school and starting university studies. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages for young people who decide to do this.
Why- to gain work experience, to experience life in different countries, to understand different cultures, to make money before going to university, lazy, not mature.
Where- tourist destinations, developing countries, local business, an internship in a big company.
How- save money, permission from parents and university, apply for internship/job, travel to inexpensive countries.

So as you can see, in a couple of minutes, we have generated many ideas by asking ourselves just three of the five questions. These ideas are much more than we need to complete the task, so always remember to choose the ones you feel comfortable writing about after you generate your ideas.

  1. Personal Opinion Method (or coffee shop method)

Personally, I think this is the most effective method because it is both the fastest and helps students focus on the question.

The method is simple. I ask students to imagine they are sitting with their friend or family member in a coffee shop and they ask your opinion. In an exam, there is a lot of pressure on you and you often find it difficult to think, but if you were in a relaxed environment with a friend you would have no problem giving your opinion.

To think of more ideas you just imagine that your friend has the opposite feelings to you about the topic and write their ideas down.

Let’s look at the example below:
Your friend- ‘Do you think it’s a good idea that young people take a year off between school and university to work or travel?’
You- ‘Yes. Many young people are not mature enough to go to university at 18 and traveling or working will help them mature. Working for a year could also allow them to save money and gain valuable work experience. If they go traveling, they will get to experience different cultures.
So you see you have just thought about all the ideas you will need for this question. You can write your ideas down (recommended) or just think about them for a minute.

This idea gives you a very clear idea about your opinion on the question and will help you stay relevant and write a clear, coherent essay. Like any method it takes practice, so try it out with a few past questions

Ideas for IELTS

Generating ideas for IELTS writing task 2 is often daunting for candidates preparing for the test.
There is a fear that a question will come up that you cannot answer because you know nothing about it. There is also a worry that the questions are geared towards Western orientated topics.

Below you’ll get some insight into exactly what the examiner is looking for when they mark your essay so you know what you really need to have in mind when you think of ideas for IELTS writing.
Also you’ll get some tips on what you can do to help you come up with ideas for IELTS writing topics.

What ideas for IELTS does the examiner want to see?

Many candidates tend to think that the examiner is looking for the best possible ideas that answer the question, and that they will award higher band scores for this. Actually, this is not true. There is nothing in the grading system that the examiner uses that assesses how clever your ideas are or knock-off points if s/he thinks they are too boring or uninteresting. What is important is the relevancy of the ideas.

This means that they must answer the question that you have been asked. They must also of course be properly explained through further support. Once you come up with some ideas you should use what you think are the best ones, but the important point about this is that you should not waste so much time, in the beginning, trying to come up with what you think is going to be the best idea to impress the examiner to the point that you have too little time to write a good essay.

With only 40 minutes to plan and write the essay, there is not time to do this. There is no point if you then don’t finish the essay or have poor grammar because you are rushing to finish it.

As long as your ideas answer the question and you can explain and justify them, that is fine.

What if the question is not relevant to my country?

Another concern of candidates is that as the exam is written in the UK and Australia, it will be questions related to Western countries and not the country or culture that they come from. This should not be the case as the writers of the test are aware that most people taking the test are from other countries and cultures. The questions are designed to be general in nature and based on topics and issues that are relevant to most countries around the world.

Very occasionally a topic may come up that is possibly not as relevant to your country as it may be for some others, but if this is the case you have to think about the fact that examiners are not looking for perfect ideas.
It’s how you explain and support them that is key so you have to use the knowledge that you do have.

What strategies can I use to come up with ideas for IELTS?

Next we’ll look at some strategies you can use to come up with ideas for IELTS essays.

Reading around relevant topics

You can broaden your knowledge of potential ideas for IELTS by reading around the kinds of topics that come up in IELTS. You should be doing this anyway as you want to  improve your reading skills and also your ability to have knowledge for the speaking test too. Questions connected in some way to the following topics are fairly common in the exam:

  • Education
  • Health, Diet and Fitness
  • Globalisation
  • Work and Unemployment
  • Crime, the Law, and Criminal Justice
  • Children and Families
  • Technological Development and Change
  • The Environment
  • Public Transport
  • Advertising

But these are quite broad topics so the questions will be directed to a particular aspect related to these topics. But keeping up-to-date with what is going on in the world by reading international newspapers or magazines will help.
A good way though to find out more about the specific issues related to these broad topics that come up is by looking at old essay questions and sample answers.

Read the essay but also go into an internet search engine such as google and find some articles on the topic. Search for things such as “reasons for living alone“, “advantages and disadvantages of living alone“.
Remember this is all reading practice, so even if the topic does not come up you are still developing your reading ability and your critical thinking skills, both of which will help you with IELTS.
Note also that there are also topics that will never come up, and these are ones connected to religion, politics and war. So you don’t need to research about these.

Brainstorming Ideas

Brainstorming and planning is something that is covered in this IELTS writing task 2 lesson:-
Brainstorming is when you write down any ideas that come into your head about a particular question or topic. At first you are not dismissing any, you just write them down however good or bad they seem.

You then select which ones are the best. For an IELTS essay you will usually only need around four ideas to answer a question, as with it being such a short essay, two are usually enough to provide support in one body paragraph.
The important thing to remember again is that you are not getting marked on the ideas themselves (as long as they answer the question) but the way in which you present them in terms of coherency, cohesion and grammar.

Ask ‘why’ questions

Another way to come up with ideas for IELTS writing is to turn the essay question into shorter questions and ask other questions to develop the ideas further. This is an excellent way to not only develop ideas but also to develop support for your ideas as it helps to focus your thoughts. This can mostly be done by developing ‘why?‘ questions.

Let us look at an example essay question to illustrate this. This is a recent IELTS essay question from People living in the 21st century generally have better quality of lives than people born in earlier centuries.
To what extent do you agree or disagree?

So turn this into some simple questions to focus you on an answer: Why is life better?

  • People are healthier.

Why are they healthier?

  • Because of more access to medicine.

Why else?

  • Greater access to cleaner water and safer food.

By thinking like this you can start to come up with ideas and develop them into paragraphs. You don’t really have time though to start writing out all these questions. This is just a way to develop or train the way your mind works when you look at an essay question. So when you next look at a question, try asking yourself ‘why?’ and may help you start to develop ideas and extend them.

 So these are all potential ways for you to develop ideas for IELTS. Remember as always it’s a very personal thing, so do what is most suitable for you. But the key thing to remember and take away from this is that you are not getting marked on how amazing your ideas are. Someone who comes up with a boring idea but who explains it well and uses good grammar and organization is going to get a better score than someone who thinks of a great idea but can’t explain it properly or presents it badly

This article is combined from various sources mentioned below

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  1. When someone writes a paragraph he/she retains the plan of a user in his/her brain that how an ielts examiner can understand it. So that’s why this post is perfect. Thanks!

  2. I have been preparing for quite a while now and your blog is really helpful. one last thing can you evaluate my essays?

  3. I have attempted the ielts twice and I have failed to achieve the desired score especially in the writing module. so is there anything that you can suggest to me where I can make an improvement?

  4. Caught your website accidentally, Now I am used to this. Great help to develop new ideas and explain them.

  5. Is it possible to explain both ideas for each question or I have to choose only one of these ideas?

  6. This is a great help. Sir reading section is not improving please help me in that part how I can achieve a good band score in reading.

  7. Are one idea and one example per paragraph enough? and you could lose points for that?

  8. How get eassly 6 band in ielts .when you have only one month time only, I dont think only developing ideas is going to be enough.

    1. It depends on Raleigh, only Raleigh. This small piece of tips on writing cannot give you 6. You have to have a broad knowledge.

  9. It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before ending I am reading this great piece of writing to improve my IELTS.

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