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IELTS General Writing Task 1 Guide for 2021: Step-by-Step Instructions, Tips, and Sample Answers for the General Writing Task Letter

Hi, I'm Jan. I'm a former IELTS examiner for IDP in Toronto and I help students crack the code on Band 7+ writing.

This IELTS Writing Task 1 General guide was developed by myself and other former IELTS examiners to eliminate the confusion that students face. It will teach you the SIMPLEST possible way to write a formal, semi-formal, and informal letter for the IELTS general exam. We'll go over the marking criteria, best structure, powerful writing tips, and several model answers.

For the Writing Task 1 Academic guide, click here.

For the Writing Task 2 guide, click here.

Jan Waginski - IELTS instructor

Table Of Contents

Instructions and Requirements

What are the requirements for IELTS Writing Task 1 General?

  • You have 20 minutes to write a letter to an institution, the government, a business, your school, your employer, or friend.
  • Your letter must have a minimum of 150 words. 200 words is a typical word count for a high-scoring response.
  • Your letter must satisfy the marking criteria for content (Task Achievement), arrangement (Coherence and Cohesion), vocabulary (Lexical Resource), and grammar (Grammatical Range and Accuracy). We will go over the most important criteria below.
  • Your letter must be written at the right level of formality: letters can be formal, semi-formal, or informal. We will go over these below.

Marking criteria

Your IELTS letter will be marked according to four marking criteria:

IELTS Writing Task 1 marking criteria_Band 6-9


Marking criteria - Task Achievement

IELTS Letter - Task Achievement Criteria - Band 6 to Band 9

Task Achievement criteria tell us what CONTENT we must include and which level of FORMALITY we must write at:

  1. Answer all parts of the prompt.
  2. Develop your response with details.
  3. Use the appropriate tone.

These are the main criteria that tell us what we MUST include:

1. “Presents a clear purpose, with the tone consistent and appropriate”:

  • “a clear purpose” means that we need an introduction that clearly expresses the purpose of our letter 
  • “With the tone consistent and appropriate” means that the level of formality (formal, semi-formal, informal) must be appropriate for the prompt and consistently applied throughout the letter. What that means is you don’t want to start the letter in a formal tone but then switch to informal tone.

2. “Presents, highlights and illustrates bullet points clearly and appropriately”:

  • “Presents” means that you need to cover EVERY bullet point. However, it does not mean that you need to spend the same amount of time on each bullet point as they may not be of equal importance or require equal levels of development.
  • “Highlights” means that each bullet point should be clearly addressed. The easiest way to do this is to cover each bullet point in a separate paragraph.
  • “Illustrates” means that your explanations for each bullet point need to be sufficiently developed with reasons/examples that support your ideas. Note that the criteria do not specifically require reasons/examples as do the Writing Task #2 criteria - it's just that reasons and examples are the main ways to develop your ideas.


Marking criteria - Coherence and Cohesion

IELTS Letter - Coherence and Cohesion Criteria - Band 6 to Band 9

Coherence and Cohesion criteria tell us that our content must be clearly organized and use abundant cohesive devices (transitions) to clearly show the reader how ideas are related to each other.

1. “Skilfully manages paragraphing”:

  • Each paragraph has a SINGLE controlling idea.

2. “Sequences information and ideas logically”:

  • Paragraphs follow the order of the bullets in the prompt (you don’t have to do it this way but this is the easiest way to satisfy this criterion)
  • Sentences within paragraphs flow from general to specific.

3. “Uses a range of cohesive devices appropriately”:

  • IELTS wants to see a variety of transitions. In general, MOST of your sentences (about ⅗) should begin with a transition (First, Next, Finally, For example, As a result) that clearly indicates the purpose of the sentence as well as its connection to the previous sentence.

Marking criteria - Lexical Resource

IELTS Letter - Lexical Resource Criteria - Band 6 to Band 9

Lexical Resource criteria tell us that we need to use a wide range of vocabulary, including low-frequency words and expressions.

1. “Uses a wide range of vocabulary fluently and flexibly to convey precise meanings”:

  • You cannot be repetitive with vocabulary. 
  • Use one word instead of five to express an idea.

2. “Skillfully uses uncommon lexical items”:

  • This DOES NOT MEAN that you need to use BIG words. “Uncommon” is a technical definition that refers to how frequently vocabulary is used. For example, “address a problem” is considered  upper-level vocabulary compared to “deal with a problem.” Why? It’s considered upper level simply because it's less common to say “address a problem” than it is to say “deal with a problem.”

The examiner does not have a list of vocabulary that they are looking for. They are looking for vocabulary that is appropriate and precise. It is a TERRIBLE STRATEGY to use big words where small words can be used. Your main goal as a writer is to clearly convey your ideas to the reader. IT SHOULD NOT BE YOUR GOAL to impress the reader/examiner with your vocabulary.

Your goal is to avoid any chance of misunderstanding, and complex language guarantees misunderstanding. You should pretend you are writing for an intelligent 12-year-old, which will prevent you from using long, wordy explanations. If you wouldn't use that kind of language with a 12-year-old, don't use it with an adult either - it will confuse them too.

Marking criteria - Grammatical Range and Accuracy

IELTS Letter - Grammatical Range and Accuracy Criteria - Band 6 to Band 9

Grammatical Range and Accuracy criteria tell us that we need to use a wide variety of grammatical structures and that a high percentage of our sentences need to be completely error-free if we want Band 7 or above.

1. “Produces frequent error-free sentences”:

  • Roughly half your sentences (40%+) need to be completely error-free for Band 7. This means they need to be free even from minor errors like punctuation and article issues. For this reason, your sentences should not be too long as this increases your chances of making mistakes. There is no need for sentences that are longer than three clauses. 

2. “Uses a wide range of structures”:

  • You need to use a variety of grammar and complex sentence structures. Examiners are on the lookout for the structures below, which are COMMONLY used:
  1. Passive voice
  2. Subordinate clauses
  3. Embedded subordinate clauses
  4. Unreal conditional
  5. Relative clauses
  6. Semicolon sentences
  7. Participial phrases
  8. Colon sentences
  9. Appositives
  10. Noun clause in subjunctive mood for orders and suggestions

These are described in more detail below.

IELTS General Writing Task 1 scoring - IELTS rounds down!

Most people don't know this but IELTS calculates your overall score and your writing score differently. 

Your overall IELTS score is rounded the same way that we are taught to round in math class. If you get Band 7 on reading, Band 7 on listening, Band 7 on speaking, and Band 6 on writing, you will end up with Band 7 overall. 

Overall Band Score: (7+7+7+6)/4 = 6.75 > Rounded UP to 7

However, your writing and speaking score are calculated differently. For writing and speaking, IELTS ROUNDS DOWN!  On writing, if you get Band 7 on Task Achievement, Band 7 on Coherence and Cohesion, Band 7 on Lexical Resource, and Band 6 on Grammatical Range and Accuracy, you will end up with Band 6.5 overall. 

Writing/Speaking Band Score: (7+7+7+6)/4 = 6.75 > Rounded DOWN to 6.5

3 Types of Letters

Based on the type of letter that you are writing, which is determined by the context, the register* will need to be formal, semi-formal, or informal.

*Register refers to the level of formality.

Formal letters

FORMAL register is required when writing to someone you haven’t spoken with before:

  • job application
  • complaint
  • letter to the editor 
  • letter to the government
  • Formal register is also used when speaking to a very senior individual in your organization, such as the president or CEO.

In formal letters

  • DO NOT use contractions

Semi-formal letters

SEMI-FORMAL register is required when writing to someone you know, but who is not a friend:

  • letter to a neighbour
  • suggestion to the company where you work
  • providing feedback for a product or service
  • letter to a teacher

Informal letters

INFORMAL register is required when writing to a friend. You only write this way to people with whom you share your personal life.

  • DO NOT use formal language. It sounds awkward and you will get a low score.
  • Use contractions.

How to Write a Letter for IELTS Writing Task 1 General

The best structure for the IELTS letter

  1. GREETING: Address the recipient
  2. PURPOSE: State the purpose of the letter
  3. POINTS: Cover all required points in the body of the letter (1 point per paragraph). It's ok if some of these paragraphs are very short.
  4. INSTRUCTIONS: Call to action
  5. END: Close the letter

The best process for writing the IELTS letter

Use the ABCDE writing process for all writing tasks:

  • ANALYZE the prompt: Be 100% clear about what you MUST write about. Be clear about the tone: formal, semi-formal, or informal.
  • BRAINSTORM ideas for each bullet. Write these down in POINT FORM! You'll transform your point-form ideas into full sentences later. Note that each bullet is usually one paragraph.
  • CHECK to make sure that you haven't missed any bullets and that all ideas are 100% related to the prompt. CHUCK anything that is not 100% related - it will be considered off-topic and you will lose marks.
  • DEVELOP your point form ideas into full sentences and paragraphs.
  • EDIT. Read your work out loud and trust your ears to notice anything that sounds awkward.

Use your imagination to fill in the details

You will need to invent the details in your IELTS letter. The letter samples below were 100% invented, although they were inspired by real life events.

Use the W5H questions to help you add details:

  • WHO?
  • WHAT?
  • WHERE?
  • WHEN?
  • WHY?
  • HOW?

More on this below...

1. GREETING: Address the recipient

You will be instructed how to begin your letter.

  • Sometimes the instructions tell you to begin with "Dear...,"
  • Sometimes no instructions are provided and you will need to use your best judgment.

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday. Write a letter to your friend.

In your letter

  • give contact details for when you are away
  • give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • describe other household duties

Write at least 150 words. You do NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear .....................,

Source: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/writing/general-training/task-1

The instructions tell you to begin with "Dear...": 

Dear Fred,

FORMAL

  • AS INSTRUCTED: Dear Mr. Johnson, 
  • NO RECIPIENT PROVIDED: Dear Sir or Madam,

SEMI-FORMAL

  • Dear Mr. Johnson, 

  • Dear John,

INFORMAL

  • Hey John, 

  • Hi John,

2. PURPOSE: State the purpose of the letter

The purpose of the letter is based on the context, which is stated at the beginning of the prompt. In many cases, the purpose can be written in one sentence, followed by the 1st bullet. In other cases, especially when writing to a friend, it's more natural to ease into the letter by writing a short introductory paragraph.

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday. Write a letter to your friend.

In your letter

  • give contact details for when you are away
  • give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • describe other household duties

Write at least 150 words. You do NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear .....................,

Source: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/writing/general-training/task-1

Use your imagination:

  • Why do you need someone to house sit and watch your pet?
  • Did your previous arrangements change? Why?
  • Why are you going on vacation?
  • What kind of pet is it? What's its name?

You can write:

Thank you so much for agreeing to watch our house and Bailey while we're in Miami! You're a real lifesaver. We thought we'd have to put off our vacation plans when Mike cancelled at the last minute.

  • In this situation, it would be normal to begin by thanking your friend profusely for such a big favour, and by stating what would have happened if they had not helped you.


FORMAL

  • I am writing to request… 
  • I am writing in connection with...
  • I am writing to inquire about...
  • Thank you for your request for... 
  • Thank you for your letter regarding…

SEMI-FORMAL

  • I appreciate your offer to… 
  • I would like to request…
  • I am writing to request...
  • I am writing to inform you that...

INFORMAL

  • NOTE: You can start this type of letter with small talk before proceeding to the purpose of the letter (It's great to hear from you! I hope you're doing well. It's been ages since I heard from you! I hope...)
  • I thought I'd ask if you're interested in + _ing
  • Thanks for the invitation to…
  • Thank you so much for the offer to...

3. POINTS: Cover all required points in the body of the letter

  • You must cover ALL bullet points in the prompt. If you don't, the highest score you can receive on Task Achievement is a Band 6.
  • A paragraph MUST have a SINGLE controlling idea. In most cases, cover each bullet in its own paragraph.
  • Not all bullets require the same level of development. Some can be addressed very briefly while others will require a more substantial paragraph. In this case, the first bullet about providing contact details does not require much development, but the other two points clearly do:

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday. Write a letter to your friend.

In your letter

  • give contact details for when you are away
  • give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • describe other household duties

Write at least 150 words. You do NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear .....................,

Source: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/writing/general-training/task-1

Use your imagination:

  • Why are you going on vacation?
  • Where will you be staying? Which hotel?
  • What kind of needs does your pet have? What does it like to do?
  • What needs to be taken care of around the house? Maintenance? Deliveries? Garbage day? What have you done to prepare the house (cleaning, food, bedroom, bathroom)?
  • How is your friend getting in the house?

You can write:

In case you need to reach us, we'll be staying at the Miami Hilton. You can reach the hotel's main desk at 786-834-6573, but I will have my cellphone, which should work fine.

You'll have a lot of fun with Bailey. She's really grown and just loves to run, so she'll be great company on your jogs. Everything she needs (leash, poop and scoop, dog food and treats, schedule for food and walks) is right by the side door. If you don't feel like running, the park behind our house now has a fenced-in off-leash area, so you can let her loose there.

In terms of looking after the house, there really isn't much to do. I've prepared the guestroom for you, the same one you stayed in last time. The fridge is pretty full and I've left a case of your favourite beer for you for Saturday's game. The keys are under the flowerpot by the side door.


Providing advice

FORMAL

  • I would recommend that you… 

SEMI-FORMAL

  • It would be a good idea to…

INFORMAL

  • I think you should… 

Inviting

FORMAL

  • I would like to invite you to join us… 

SEMI-FORMAL

  • It would be good if you could make it…

INFORMAL

  • You should come over and see… 

Requesting

FORMAL

  • Your help in this matter would be greatly appreciated. 

SEMI-FORMAL

  • Would it be possible to…?

INFORMAL

  • Can you…?

4. INSTRUCTIONS: Call to action

State what you would like the person to do. Do they need to follow up with you? Do they need to send you something?

In some cases, there is no call to action needed:

  • You can thank the person again for what they have agreed to do.
  • You can simply state that they can get in touch with you if they need help with anything else.

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday. Write a letter to your friend.

In your letter

  • give contact details for when you are away
  • give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • describe other household duties

Write at least 150 words. You do NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear .....................,

Source: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/writing/general-training/task-1

Since this is an informal letter and there is no specific follow-up needed, you can write: 

Again, thank you so much Fred. Please don't hesitate to call if you need anything.


FORMAL

  • I would be very grateful if you would allow me to… as it would...

SEMI-FORMAL

  • I would be grateful if you could...

INFORMAL

  • I think it would be a lot of fun if… 
  • It would be great to…
  • Again, thank you so much for...!

5. END: Close the letter

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday. Write a letter to your friend.

In your letter

  • give contact details for when you are away
  • give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • describe other household duties

Write at least 150 words. You do NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear .....................,

Source: https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/free-ielts-practice-tests/writing/general-training/task-1

This is an informal letter. Since your friend is watching your house and pet and you're coming home from vacation, write something appropriate. A standard ending like "sincerely" or "love" would be less appropriate in this context:

See you Wednesday morning - we'll bring you back something fun!

Jan


FORMAL

  • I look forward to…
    Sincerely,
  • IF YOU KNOW THEIR NAME: Yours sincerely,
  • IF YOU DON'T KNOW THEIR NAME: Yours faithfully,

SEMI-FORMAL

  • Kind regards,

INFORMAL

  • Talk to you soon, 
  • Looking forward to seeing you,
  • See you...

This is the full letter. At 222 words, this is a typical length for a high-scoring letter.

Dear Fred,

Thank you so much for agreeing to watch our house and Bailey while we're in Miami! You're a real lifesaver. We thought we'd have to put off our vacation plans when Mike cancelled at the last minute.

In case you need to reach us, we'll be staying at the Miami Hilton. You can contact reception at 786-834-6573, but I will have my cellphone, which should work fine.

You'll have a lot of fun with Bailey. She's really grown and just loves to run, so she'll be great company on your jogs. Everything she needs (leash, poop and scoop, dog food and treats, schedule for food and walks) is right by the side door. If you don't feel like running, the park behind our house now has a fenced-in off-leash area, so you can let her loose there.

In terms of looking after the house, there really isn't much to do. I've prepared the guestroom for you, the same one you stayed in last time. The fridge is pretty full and I've left a case of your favourite beer for you for Saturday's game. The keys are under the flowerpot by the side door.

Again, thank you so much Fred. Please don't hesitate to call if you need anything.

See you Wednesday morning - we'll bring you back something fun!

Jan


NOTE: A full collection of functional language is available with full course access. Functional language is organized by purpose and register (level of formality):

  • Advice
  • Apology
  • Application
  • Bad news
  • Complaint
  • Example
  • Good news
  • Inclusions
  • Information (providing information)
  • Invitation
  • Reason
  • Request
  • Review/feedback
  • Promise
  • Satisfaction 
  • Suggestion
  • Thanks

IELTS sample letters - 8 letter topics

  1. Advice
  2. Apology
  3. Application
  4. Complaint
  5. Information
  6. Invitation
  7. Request
  8. Review/feedback

1. Advice letter - informal

Example prompt: A friend recently sent you a letter asking for advice about whether to try to find work or go to college. In your opinion, he/she should find work. Write a letter to this friend. In your letter 

  • tell your friend why he/she would not enjoy college 
  • explain why finding work is the right choice for him/her 
  • suggest types of work that would suit him/her 

Write at least 150 words. 

You do NOT need to write any addresses. 

Begin your letter as follows: 

Dear…, 

 

Dear Rosanne, 

Great to hear from you and I am happy to help with your dilemma! To be honest, I think finding a job would be best for you at the moment. I know what you went through at the end of school last year and how much you disliked doing coursework and going to class. If you start college now, there will be more of the same and you will just get demotivated.   

Getting a job would benefit you so much more because, as you said, you’re not sure what you want to do. You could take some time to get some work experience and try out a few different jobs, then you could always go to college when you are surer about what you want to study. What do you think? 

My uncle has just opened a clothes shop in the high street and he is looking for sales reps at the moment. You would be great as you’re a people person and I know you love fashion. It would also be a chance to work in the fashion industry to see if you like it.   

If you’re interested, then let me know and we can arrange something. 

Love, 

Simon    

  • 202 words 
  • After a friendly opening, the first paragraph gets right to the first bullet. A reason is given for saying she would not enjoy school: what she disliked about school before (coursework and going to class) hasn't changed.
  • The second paragraph deals with the second bullet: a reason is given for suggesting work as the better choice (gain work experience in order to figure out what to study further).
  • The third paragraph responds to the third bullet: a specific job is suggested.
  • NOTE: This feels like a real letter because the details bring it to life. You need to imagine a REAL PERSON reading this letter in order to hear YOUR BEST ADVICE about why she should choose work over school. This is important!

2. Apology letter - semi-formal

Example prompt: Your neighbours have recently written to you to complain about the noise from your house/flat. Write a letter to your neighbours. In your letter 

  • explain the reasons for the noise 
  • apologize 
  • describe what action you will take 

 Write at least 150 words. 

You do NOT need to write any addresses. 


Hello Peter and Barbara, 

I received your letter yesterday about the noise coming from our house and I thought I had better reply and explain. The builders start work at 7 in the morning and I know that this has caused you a lot of discomfort so please accept my apologies for this. I know you both have jobs to go to so this must have been very annoying for you. 

As you know, we are having the kitchen refurbished and it is taking longer than we thought it would take. When the builders started, it looked like a simple job but they have found problems with the pipes and have had to remove them. They have been using a large drill and this has created a lot of noise.  

I have spoken to the builder in charge and have asked him and his team to start work a little later from 9 in the morning. He has also informed me that the drilling will only continue for another two days.  

Again, I am sorry for the disturbance but it is nearly finished. 

Please drop by to talk if this isn’t a sufficient solution for you. 

Best wishes, 

Neil and Nicola  

  • 201 words 
  • This is a semi-formal letter to your neighbour, someone you know but not at the level of a friend. Be polite but not formal. 
  • The letter opens by acknowledging receipt of the complaint and states the purpose - an explanation. The second sentence goes into the second bullet, an apology.
  • The second paragraph explains the reasons for the noise in depth (the first bullet).  
  • The third paragraph covers the third bullet: what action will be taken.
  • NOTE: This feels like a real letter because the details bring it to life. You need to imagine a REAL NEIGHBOUR reading this letter in order to find out why you are making so much noise and what you're going to do about it.

IELTS Writing Task Achievement Tip - Order of points

You don't have to cover the bullets in the same order as in the question. Usually, the bullets are in an order that makes sense for that situation. Sometimes, however, you will find that covering the bullets in a different order flows more smoothly. This is fine.

3. Application letter - formal

Example prompt: You've seen an ad from a couple in Poland for someone to teach their two children your language for one year. Write a letter to the couple and in your letter, 

  • Explain why you believe you would be suitable for this job 
  • State what other things you could do for the family 
  • Provide reasons for why you want the job 

Write at least 150 words. 

You do NOT need to write any addresses. 

  

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nowak, 

I am writing to apply for the position of English teacher for your two children, which I saw advertised in The Guardian newspaper. I am a primary teacher in the UK and will be moving to Warsaw next month due to my husband’s job. As your children are both primary age, I would be very happy to teach both your children English. In my current class at school, there are children from many different countries and so I am used to working with children whose mother tongue is not English. 

As I will not be working and will have a lot of time when I arrive in Poland, I can also help out with household chores or do the school run if you require. It would be a wonderful opportunity to work for a Polish family and learn about your culture while also teaching your children about mine. I have always enjoyed spending time with children and it would be a great experience for me to teach yours English and be a part of their lives.   

Please do not hesitate to contact me for further details or references. 

Best wishes, 

Pamela Anderson   

  • 197 words 
  • This is a formal letter. The first paragraph always begins by directly stating the purpose of the letter. The second sentence goes into the first bullet: she states her qualifications and describes her experience.
  • The second paragraph responds to the second bullet (she states what other things she could do) and the third bullet (why she wants the job).
  • NOTE: This feels like a real letter because the details bring it to life. You need to imagine a REAL PARENT reading this letter in order to find out if they want to hire you to teach their kids and spend lots of time with them for a whole year. You're trying to convince them to hire you - reassure them that you know what you're doing.

4. Complaint letter

Included with full course access.

5. Information letter

Included with full course access.

6. Invitation letter

Included with full course access.

7. Request letter

Included with full course access.

8. Review/feedback letter

Included with full course access.

More IELTS writing samples

Where to get access to our full collection of 40 Task #1 and 60 Task #2 model responses written by ex-IELTS examiners:

Models like these are one of the best ways to prepare for IELTS. 40 Writing Task #1 General and over 60 Writing Task #2 models, all written by native speaker ex-examiners, are now included in the IELTS course. For most letter types*, three versions are included: formal, semi-formal, and informal.

*All application letters are formal.

IELTS General Writing Task 1 Tips

How to edit your own writing

Read aloud

Research shows that grammar is largely auditory. Your ears play a very important role! It’s just like listening to an instrument that you don’t know how to play: if the musician hits the wrong note, it just SOUNDS awkward even though you may not know why. In the same way, when you read your work out loud, if ANYTHING sounds awkward, change it to a simpler construction that SOUNDS good. Trust your ears!

If any grammatical construction sounds awkward, use a simpler verb tense.

If any vocabulary sounds awkward, describe your idea using simple words.

When editing, look for different issues separately

The brain is not good at finding problems unless you give it specific instructions. This is why doctors, even though they are super smart, have checklists to make sure they didn't forget any tools inside the patient after surgery. There are just too many things to think about so sometimes we need a small checklist to remind us what to look for. 

For that reason, for example, if you often have punctuation issues, you need to go through your writing specifically looking for punctuation problems. As mentioned previously, read your work out loud and where you find yourself pausing (to take a breath between ideas), you need punctuation.

Once you’ve gone through your writing looking for that first problem, go through your writing again looking for the next problem. Then read it out loud for a third time looking for a 3rd issue your writing typically has. 

This process is slow initially, but once you start looking for these specific problems on a regular basis, you’re training your brain to automatically look for those problems. Your brain will get faster and more accurate at identifying those problems, and pretty soon you're not going to have them. Then you can move on to the next problem. 

Take it step-by-step and look for a couple things at a time rather than looking for 10 different problems at once, which is overwhelming and doesn’t work.

Top 10 Grammar Structures for IELTS Letter Writing

A Band 7 on Grammatical Range and Accuracy requires "a variety of complex sentences." A Band 8 on Grammatical Range and Accuracy requires "a wide range of structures."

There are 10 grammar structures you MUST know to get a Band 7+ on IELTS Writing Task 1 General. Examiners are on the lookout for these. These structures are COMMONLY used in English and are often appropriate for all written and oral parts of the IELTS exam. Band 7 means your English is at an advanced level. At this level, these structures are necessary to express yourself precisely and fluently:

  1. Passive voice
  2. Unreal conditional
  3. Subordinate clauses
  4. Relative clauses
  5. Semi-colon sentences
  6. Colon sentences
  7. Participial phrases - active voice
  8. Participial phrases - passive voice
  9. Appositives
  10. Noun clauses in subjunctive mood for orders and suggestions
IELTS Letter - Grammatical Range and Accuracy Criteria - Band 6 to Band 9

IELTS Writing Grammar Tip - Best Sentence Length for Band 7 Level Grammar

Many students write very long sentences because they believe this will impress the examiner. This certainly will impress the examiner, but ONLY if your long sentences are grammatically flawless. However, the Band 7 criteria very clearly state “produces frequent error-free sentences.” Even a SINGLE MISTAKE in a long sentence means that the entire sentence is no longer error-free.

For example, one student recently wrote Task #1 Academic in four sentences (his sentences had 45 words on average)! He was very lucky as 2 sentences were flawless; therefore, half his sentences were error-free so he received a Band 7 rating on grammar.

However, even among professional writers, this is not a normal way to write. While two of these monster sentences were technically flawless, they had so many clauses in them that I had to reread his work several times to make sure I understood it correctly. In other words, these long sentences were not at all reader friendly. Don’t take chances like this! I strongly recommend limiting sentences to three clauses. You don’t need anything longer for Band 7 performance.

In short, your #1 goal as a writer is to be clear, and long sentences do not help with clarity. In general, you can limit sentence length to 3 clauses.

As another example, Dr. Bruno had taken IELTS repeatedly and failed to get at least Band 7 on writing, which he needed to work as a doctor in Canada. After training with Toronto IELTS Prep, Dr. Bruno simplified his approach to writing and finally got the Band 7 he needed:

I appreciate all your corrections and tips. It made a huge difference to notice that [not enough] “error-free” sentences were pushing my score down. I tried to control those errors during my last test, and it seems everything went well!”

“I just wrote the texts in a simple way instead of using complex structures to give a good impression. I also paid more attention to subject/verb and tenses, avoiding those basic single/plural errors. I didn’t have time to read and correct my texts at the end (like always), but I believe that I controlled my errors during the writing process.

Dr. Bruno E.

1. Passive voice

Passive voice is useful when the subject is too obvious: 

Baby English: The bakers bake the bread at 5 AM daily. 

  • This is baby English. Only bakers bake bread so it’s unnecessary to write “bakers bake the bread.” 

Better: The bread is baked at 5 AM daily. 

  • In this case, passive voice is better. The focus of the sentence is now on when the bread is baked. We don’t need to be reminded that bakers bake the bread (instead of police officers or firefighters!). 

2. Unreal conditional

Unreal conditional is commonly used to give advice: 

  • If I were you, I wouldn’t wear those shabby clothes to the meeting. 
  • If we were to remodel the lobby, it would leave a much better impression on our visitors.

3. Subordinate clauses

Using a subordinate clause is the most common way to make a complex sentence. 

If the subordinate clause comes BEFORE the independent clause, ALWAYS place a comma AFTER the subordinate clause. 

If the subordinate clause comes AFTER a short independent clause, do not use a comma. If the subordinate clause comes after a long independent clause, it’s your choice whether or not to use a comma between them. Use your ears to make this decision: read the sentence out loud and if you find that you need to pause between the two clauses, then you should probably use a comma.  

  • Subordinate clause 1stBecause it’s nice outside, we went to the park. 

  • Subordinate clause 2nd: We went to the park because it’s nice outside. 

IELTS Writing Grammar Tip - Use a Subordinate Clause in the Middle of a Sentence

It's easy to add a subordinate clause at the beginning or end of a sentence:

  • While he was camping, my friend encountered a bear.
  • My friend encountered a bear while he was camping.

It's less common to use a subordinate clause in the middle of a sentence. This is considered ADVANCED usage:

  • My friend, while he was camping, encountered a bear.

4. Relative clauses

The second most common way to make a complex sentence is to use a relative clause.

Relative clauses are also called adjective clauses because they describe a noun/noun phrase (person, place, thing, or idea). They provide details just like adjectives do, but they come after the noun instead of before itRelative clauses generally begin with who, that, or which.

  • My friend Jim, who lives in Montreal, is visiting next week. 
  • The X501, which we ordered last week, has finally arrived. 

Relative clauses also provide important information about the entire preceding clause:

  • He was late getting to the airport, which means he missed his flight. 


Relative clauses follow 2 punctuation patterns. 

1. Use commas around the relative clause if it’s an extra detail: 

  • Jim, who lives in Montréal, is visiting next weekend. 
  • The X501, which we ordered last week, has finally arrived.

These are called "non-defining relative clauses" because the audience knows who you’re talking about ("Jim") or what you're talking about ("the X501") without the relative clause, so the information about where Jim lives or when the part was ordered is an extra detail. If we remove the relative clause from the sentence, we still know who/what you’re talking about:  

  • Jim is visiting next weekend. 
  • The X501 has finally arrived.

IELTS Writing Grammar Tip - Read Aloud to Hear the Commas

You can hear these commas! When you read your work out loud, you will find yourself pausing naturally on both sides of these kinds of relative clauses. Use your ears to help with grammar! 

2. Don’t use commas if we need the relative clause to understand what the noun refers to: 

  • My friend who lives in Montréal is visiting next weekend. 
  • The part that we ordered last week has finally arrived.

These are called "defining relative clauses" because you need the information in the relative clause to understand which noun the speaker is referring to. The audience doesn’t know who you're talking about ("my friend") or what you're talking about ("the part") without this information in the relative clause. It’s NOT just an extra detail like in the previous example about Jim.

  • My friend is visiting next weekend. Which friend?
  • The part has finally arrived. Which part?

IELTS Writing Grammar Tip - No Pause, No Comma

In these examples, when you read your work out loud, you will NOT pause on both sides of the relative clause. Use your ears to help with grammar! 

Which vs that 

In a defining relative clause, you can use either “which” or “that”:

  • The part which/that we ordered last week has finally arrived. 

 

In a non-defining relative clause, DO NOT use "that":

  • The X501, which/that we ordered last week, has finally arrived. 

5. Semi-colon sentences

Another way to join simple sentences is to use a semi-colon + conjunctive adverb combination. Just remember that both sides of the semi-colon MUST be independent clauses (i.e., stand-alone sentences). 

  • I would love to stay at the 5-star hotel; however, it’s too expensive. 

6. Participial phrases - active voice

Participial phrases are a common construction that you can think of as a compressed version of a subordinate or relative clause.

Subordinate clause > participial phrase:

  • Subordinate clause: While we were walking through the woods, we saw several deer.
  • Participial phrase: Walking through the woods, we saw several deer.

Relative clause > participial phrase:

  • Relative clause: We saw several deer that were walking through the woods.
  • Participial phrase: We saw several deer walking through the woods.

Typical uses:

  • Considering the amount of money this item cost, we expected it to arrive in better condition.

7. Participial phrases - passive voice

Participial phrases also come in passive voice:

  • Given the current situation, it's probably best to stay home.
  • Based on your personality, I'd say going to work makes more sense than going to school.

8. Colon sentences

Use a colon for lists or instructions:

  • You should definitely bring these items on your trip: bug spray, bear spray, and a flare gun.
  • The recipe will turn out better if you do things the other way around: first mix the wet ingredients and then add the dry ingredients.

9. Appositives

In many cases, it's not necessary to use a relative clause for important details, in particular when the detail is another name for that noun. Instead, use an appositive:

  • I'm quite familiar with this machine as I used it at another company, Magna Automotive, to assemble car seats.
  • I'll be taking a course, Fundamentals of Accounting, in the fall.

In these cases, the appositive is another name for the noun:

  •  another company = Magna Automotive
  • a course = Fundamentals of Accounting

10. Noun clauses in subjunctive mood for orders and suggestions

For orders and suggestions, English grammar gets a bit weird. You have to use noun clauses in subjunctive mood in these cases:

NOTE: In noun clauses in subjunctive mood, DO NOT add "S" to 3rd person singular verbs as you normally do. In fact, DO NOT conjugate the verb in the noun clause at all. ONLY the verb following the main subject is conjugated.

Normal situation:

  • She exercises daily.

Subjunctive mood for suggestions:

  • The doctor suggested that she exercise more.
  • It's very important that she exercise more.
  • The doctor will probably advise that she exercise more.

Even though "exercise" follows a 3rd person singular pronoun ("she"), we DO NOT change the ending. Note also that the verb in the noun clause remains unchanged regardless of the verb tense in the main verb (the first example is in past tense, the second example is in present tense, the third example is in the future).

Subjunctive mood in passive voice:

  • It's critical that the new community centre be built in a central location accessible to the majority of its members.
  • It's important to the community that the park not be developed into highrises.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is IELTS Writing Task 1 General Easier than IELTS Writing Task 1 Academic?

Yes. Average scores for the General exam are higher than for the Academic exam. It is Writing Task #1 Academic that brings down people's scores. Writing Task #1 General is much easier.

Should I use a lot of high level vocabulary on IELTS?

Yes, but "high level vocabulary" doesn't mean what you think it means. "High level vocabulary" refers to less frequently used vocabulary - it is not related to how big a word is. 

  • Calling something "inexpensive" is considered basic vocabulary (Level B1 if you are familiar with CEFR)
  • Calling something "cheap" is considered advanced vocabulary (Level C1 on CEFR).

In general, trying to use big words is a terrible strategy on IELTS and in real life. Your #1 goal as a writer is clarity; your goal should NOT be to impress the reader with your vocabulary knowledge. Professional writers will always tell you to use the simplest, most direct words to communicate an idea.

IELTS assesses your vocabulary on whether it is accurate and precise. The examiner does not have a list of words they are looking for.

What if I’m not sure of register/level of formality?

Err on the side of caution and go with the higher level. Occasionally in a workplace scenario, you might be instructed to write to a person in authority. If it's your direct manager, go with semi-formal; if it's the company president, go with formal.

How do I get my IELTS writing checked online?

In my humble opinion, the best IELTS writing program is the Toronto IELTS Prep online writing program. It starts with a diagnostic assessment and 1 hour consultation & training session to make sure you understand why you're not getting Band 7+, and EXACTLY what you need to do to get Band 7+ on writing. 

For many people, this one-hour consultation is enough to help them get the Band score they need. This often happens because they simply misunderstand what IELTS wants to see. The consultation clarifies exactly what IELTS is looking for.

This is not a writing correction service! WRITING CORRECTION SERVICES DO NOT WORK for the same reason that a swimming coach simply showing you how she swims is not going to help you learn how to swim. If a swimming coach shows you how to improve your swimming technique, she is then supposed to check whether YOU know how to apply the new technique.

In the same way, when you practice writing with Toronto IELTS Prep, your work is checked twice: 

  • When you first submit your writing, you get a Band score and detailed, descriptive feedback. This is colour-coded by problem type so we can see where you are losing the most marks, and thus what you need to focus on. You also receive links to mini follow-up lessons in our grammar and sentence structure lesson bank.
  • You then revise your work based on the feedback and re-submit it.
  • Your writing is re-checked to see if you understand how to correct the areas you are having trouble with. At this stage, your work is corrected and additional explanations for changes are provided.


Jan Waginski, OCT

About Jan Waginski

Certifications & Qualifications

  • Certified Ontario teacher with Ontario College of Teachers (OCT)
  • Certified Ontario ESL teacher with Teachers of English as a Second Language (TESL Ontario)
  • Former IELTS examiner with IDP Canada
  • York University: B.A. Psychology and Politics
  • University of Toronto: B.Ed.
  • Former essay writing instructor at Seneca College
  • Former essay writing instructor at University of Ontario Institute of Technology (CultureWorks@UOIT)
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