If you’re studying for the IELTS, you’re probably aware that obtaining a high score in Writing tends to be more difficult than obtaining a high score in Listening, Reading, or Speaking. In fact, it common for Writing scores to be lower than the others by a full band, sometimes more. The statistics kept by the British Council indicate that this pattern holds true across countries and native languages, including English.
In many cases, candidates score in the 8-9 range without too much trouble in Listening and Reading, and often above 7 in Speaking, but then find themselves stuck—sometimes repeatedly—at 6 or 6.5 in Writing.
This is not entirely surprising. Producing a foreign language is more challenging than understanding one, and unlike in speaking, tone of voice and facial expressions cannot be used to convey or support written meaning—if a person doesn’t say precisely what they mean, the reader will become confused. Moreover, while everyday language is acceptable for the speaking test, the Writing Test requires the application of more formal grammar, vocabulary, and syntax to discussions of relatively sophisticated concepts. This is not an easy task, even for native English speakers.
Despite this, the persistent gap between Writing scores and Listening/Reading/Speaking scores leads to frequent claims that the IELTS is a scam designed to extract money from candidates by forcing them to continually re-take the exam. With very few exceptions, however, the reality is that essays that receive Band 6 scores are written at a Band 6 level.
Although there is only a half-band difference between a 6.5 and a 7, it is also the difference between B2 level (essentially advanced intermediate) and C1 (lower advanced). By definition, an “advanced” user of English is one who has mastered beginning- and intermediate-level material, and so to earn a 7, you must demonstrate a solid grasp of the fundamentals, plus show that you are capable of going beyond them. It does not matter how many high-level words or advanced constructions you attempt to include; if enough of the basics aren’t right, you’ll stay stuck in Band 6.
That all said, common issues in Band 6 essays tend to fall into a clear set of categories. Here are 10 of the top ones:
1) You’re translating from your native language*
To make a very broad generalization, Band 6 writing often sounds as if it were translated from the writer’s first language, whereas Band 7 writing sounds as though it were composed in English (which does not mean that it must be perfect).
This can be an enormous leap to make because it requires you to stop thinking about English as something that exists in relation to Chinese, or Portuguese, or Hindi, or Korean, etc. (or that has the same structure as your first language and merely uses different words), but rather as a separate entity that exists on its own terms. If you really want to achieve fluency, this is a mental barrier you must eventually break through. Watch television or films in English, and repeat what the characters say. Read out loud, even if you’re alone. Practice getting the sound and the rhythm of the language in your head so that you can start to make it your own. Learning grammar isn’t just about memorizing specific constructions; it’s also about developing a sense of how words are put together.
*Note that Anglophones typically say native language or first language, not mother tongue.
2) You don’t follow basic conventions in spacing, punctuation, and capitalization
Repeat after me: Writing an essay isn’t like texting, writing an essay isn’t like texting, writing an essay isn’t like texting…
Interestingly, few of the lessons and tips you’ll find online emphasize the sheer importance of having your writing look correct. But do not underestimate the power of appearance.
So, for the record, the standard formula for using punctuation in English is as follows:
word + punctuation + 1 space + word
Do not add omit or add spaces.
In the example below, notice how this rule is applied each time a punctuation mark is used:
In the past, people shopped in physical stores. Today, they make many of their purchases online.
- Proper names (people, places, names of months, companies, brands)
- The first word after a period/full stop
- The word I
Do. Not. Capitalize. Anything. Else.
3) You under-, over-, or misuse linking devices
You may know that the use of linking devices (i.e., transitional words and phrases such as therefore, however, indeed) is a big part of your Coherence and Cohesion mark. If you don’t use them, or under-use them, you certainly won’t score well. Conversely, you shouldn’t try to stick one of these words at the beginning of every sentence, whether it’s needed or not.
But there’s another piece that often goes overlooked: to achieve a high band score in this area, your use of transitions must be fluid and natural—that is, the words/phrases should serve only to connect your ideas and should not draw any attention to themselves. A common mistake among Band 6 scorers is to alter standard phrases in order to make them seem more sophisticated, often in ways that are very un-idiomatic (e.g., writing on the dark side instead of on the other hand) and that cause the reader to focus on them instead of on the ideas they connect.
Linking devices are formulas; the language isn’t intended to be original, and you won’t earn points for trying to make them into something they’re not.
4) Your sentences are too long/out of control
Yes, to obtain a high Writing score, you must include some “complex sentences”; however, a “complex” sentence is essentially a sentence that contains different types of clauses. Such sentences can actually be fairly short and straightforward. For example, Because so many people now shop online, numerous local businesses have closed is a complex sentence.
Many IELTS candidates, however, mistakenly believe that “complex” means “very long and complicated” and add clause after clause. The result in run-ons that feel sloppy and out of control, and that can be difficult for a reader to follow—indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of Band-6 writing. Try to limit your sentences to three clauses (phrases that contain a subject and verb).
You have to master being simple and clear before you can get sophisticated. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with a mess.
5) You (mis-)use too many big words
When the IELTS marking guidelines refer to “less-common” vocabulary, they mean high-content, topic-specific words such as carbon-neutral emissions in an essay about the environment, or balcony, usher, and box officein a letter about going to a concert.
They do not mean that you should write things like in a highly expeditious manner (or worse, in highly expeditious manner) instead of rapidly. You don’t get extra points for using fancy words where common, to-the-point ones are more appropriate. The point of the IELTS Writing Test is to show that you can use English as a vehicle to convey in a clear and coherent manner, not to demonstrate that you’ve memorized a thesaurus.
Besides, using obscure vocabulary won’t compensate for grammar/syntax errors; on the contrary, it will make those mistakes even more obvious.
It also won’t help you if those fancy words aren’t used quite correctly. As a general rule, the less common the word, the more specific the meaning, and the fewer the situations in which it can acceptably be used. So stop trying to memorize a zillion collocations/idioms, and focus on learning high-content words associated with common IELTS essays topics, e.g., city life, transportation, family, education, and the arts. Good use of these words + solid basic grammar and syntax = Band 7.
6) You have trouble with articles
When a person’s native language does not use definite articles (a/an) and a definite article (the), they may underestimate the importance of these words in English, and their outsized potential to affect an IEltS Writing score.
This is a serious problem because articles are used constantly, and English does not sound like English without them. An issue in this area can easily translate into mistakes in the majority of your sentences, leaving you almost no room for additional errors and bringing the grammar part of your score so low that you cannot compensate for it in other areas.
Unless you have already been told by a native English speaker from the UK, US, Australia, etc. that your article usage is solid, find someone from one of those places, and ask them to check just your articles. Even if you don’t have much money, you can find a cheap tutor online. A native speaker will be able to tell instantaneously whether something is amiss in a way that non-native teachers often cannot.
7) You have trouble with common tenses
Contrary to popular belief, there is no requirement that you use particular “advanced” tenses or forms such as the passive voice in your IELTS essays. And at any rate, errors in Band 6 essays tend to stem not (only) from the incorrect use of complex structures but from mistakes in high-frequency intermediate structures. By definition, an advanced user is someone who has mastered intermediate-level material, and so you must demonstrate a solid understanding of the most common tenses in order to obtain a 7.
It is not enough to know how common tenses are formed, or to be able to recite rules for how they are used—you must be able to apply your knowledge, under pressure, in a novel situation.
Common areas of difficulty include:
- The present perfect (has done) vs. the simple past (did), particularly with since and for.
- The overuse of the conditional (they could/would do), often where the simple present (they do) is more appropriate.
- The use of the future instead of the conditional in requests and polite constructions (e.g., I will likeinstead of I would like).
8) Your language is too casual, too formal, or both
Much of the confusion in this area stems from the use of the term “formal” essay. In reality, the type of writing required for the Task 2 essay (and Task 1 General Training) is better described as semi-formal—truly formal language is reserved for official documents such as legal contracts. Misunderstandings about what constitutes “formal” language are often responsible for the overuse of obscure excessively fancy language. To get a sense of what “moderately formal” language looks/sounds like, check a serious newspaper/news site or magazine such as the BBC or The Economist. That’s the approximate level of formality, or register, you’re aiming for.
The flip side of this problem, of course, is the use of overly informal language. As a rule, you should not use contractions in Task 2 essays (e.g., write do not rather than don’t), and you should also avoid using too many phrasal verbs—especially ones with get—since these tend to create a more casual tone. The same goes for a lot (use many or numerous instead) and vague/informal words like things and stuff.
In IELTS General Training, overly correct language in an informal letter is also a fairly common—though under-discussed—problem. Anglophones do not normally use formal conjunctions such as therefore when communicating with friends (they say so instead), but this is the type of thing that tends to turn up in Task 1 letters. If you typically use English only at work or in the classroom, you need to get comfortable with a more casual level of language—read some popular novels and pay attention to the dialogue.
Finally, you must be careful not to mix formal and informal language, e.g., In some impoverished nations(formal), a lot of kids have to quit school (informal) and work in factories rather than In some impoverished nations, many children are forced to withdraw from school and work in factories. This is another very common issue in Band 6 essays.
9) You go off-topic or don’t answer questions fully
Remember that you must pay close attention to the how the question is worded and answer exactly and completely what is asked.
If you are asked to give examples, plural, you must provide more than one example. If you are asked to include a personal example, include a personal example. If you are instructed to give your opinion, you must make clear which side of the argument you agree with or, in the case of “to what extent questions”, how strongly you agree/disagree with a particular viewpoint. 250 words is not a lot of space—aim for clarity, not subtlety or complexity.
In addition, the relationship between your examples and the point you are making must be clear—the reader should not have to make an effort to follow the logic of your ideas.
To avoid these problems, you should plan to spend about five minutes brainstorming and outlining before you begin to write. Knowing how your essay will be organized before you begin to write will help you keep your argument focused and thorough, and help you avoid the classic Band-6 disorganized “feel”. It will give you a chance to think of examples that might not be immediately obvious, and to select your strongest ones—it will also give you a chance to get past the panicked “I can’t think of any ideas” stage.
10) You don’t develop your examples
A very common mistake among Band 6 scorers is to simply list every idea they can think of to support their argument, without stopping to develop any particular point. As a result, their paragraphs read more like lists of points, jumping from idea to idea, often without transitional words or phrases between them.
A good guideline is to spend 3-5 sentences (depending on length) developing each major point—essentially a paragraph. That gives you enough space to present two solid examples, and to elaborate on them in sufficient detail . Any less than that and you won’t be able to discuss your point in sufficient depth; any more, and you risk adding irrelevant details/repeating yourself and taking up space that could be better used to advance your argument.