How to quickly think of ideas in IELTS writing.
Updated: August 2022
A common problem many IELTS students is that they find it hard to think of ideas for their essays, especially when they are under pressure in the exam.
This is because of stress and creativity. If you have trouble thinking for yourself and have gone through an education system where memorisation is the main way of learning, then you will have real trouble getting ideas and you will need to find an approach to developing your imagination.
Stress is also a factor. You only have 10 minutes to plan your essay so many people go blank, with practice this can be resolved. Reading news stories and listening to podcasts based on the common IELTS topics is a good way to get ideas (at the end of this post there is a list of those topics).
Usually, the most obvious ideas are the best and they don’t have to be ‘high level’. In this post, I will go through some useful techniques that I teach my students.
Four key points to consider
1. Do not over-complicate it. The most obvious ideas are best in IELTS writing but they should be specific ideas. You do not need to be an expert on the topic. As long as you can write a relevant idea and explain and develop it with an example then that is enough.
2. Having specific ideas are important. If your ideas are too general you could lose marks in task response. Analyse the task question well. Make sure you understand what to write about and then pick out the keywords. Then think of ideas directly connected to the issues in the task question.
3. Do not write too many ideas. In IELTS essays you only need one main idea per paragraph, which can be developed by explaining and giving an example. The official IELTS marking criteria for Band 7 coherence and cohesions says: ‘presents a clear central topic within each paragraph’
4. Do not panic. Many students while practising can think of ideas easily and can discuss them, however, in the IELTS exam their brain stops working. This is due to stress. You will need to manage your stress levels during the exam otherwise your brain will just melt.
Three Methods for getting ideas (one I don’t advise)
1. Listing advantages and disadvantages or problems and solutions: This idea works well, particularly for a problem solution essay or an advantage disadvantage essay. You just list problems on the left and solutions on the right, or advantages on the left and disadvantages on the right.
Remember that you should be selective. You should not write a list of ideas in your body paragraph. One central idea per paragraph is enough.
2. Asking yourself questions: This technique is very useful for getting ideas quickly, imagine talking to a friend over a coffee and you are discussing the topic, ask lots of questions and keep asking ‘why?’ make notes as ideas come up.
3. Mind mapping: This is when you map out various words and ideas connected to the central topic, the key topic is in a circle and there are various connected circles and ideas. Some students say this works for them but I found that I end up with too many ideas and it takes too long to plan. I don’t recommend this approach.
Here is the question again for the problem solution essay from the last lesson.
All over the world societies are facing a growing problem with obesity. This problem affects both children and adults. What are the reasons for this rise in obesity? How can it be solved?
I have decided to use method number 2 and list problems and possible solutions below.
Problem: Overconsumption of fast food or ready meals.
Solution: government should raise the tax on fast food.
Problem: Too much sugar and trans fats in convenience food.
Solution: government regulations are needed to stop this.
Problem: Lack of exercise due to a busy lifestyle.
Solution: special incentives, paid leave once a week to join a sports or fitness club.
Problem: Gym membership and sports clubs fees are expensive.
Solution: Sports centres need to regulate their prices.
Problem: Unhealthy food is cheaper.
Solution: The food industry has to address the problem.
This took me about 2 minutes to list them, now I need to select just one problem and one solution (2 problems and solutions if you feel confident) and write about those.
Important: When writing the body paragraphs, do not list problems and solutions, you need to choose just one or two and give examples and explain them in more detail. This lesson is just to show how to get ideas quickly.
Ask yourself lots of questions to get ideas
Here I have chosen method number 3 and wrote notes based on questions I asked myself.
“.…What is the cause of obesity? lack of exercise… Why? people don’t have time to
exercise… Explain? because they are busy… Why? because they have to work.
…What’s the solution? do more exercise. ….How? employers could offer incentives, and find
time to get to the gym…..What about junk food? …what can be done about overeating? …etc”
Below is a task question for a Problem-Solution essay, can you think of ideas using the methods I already outlined? This is just an exercise on getting ideas, we are not going to write the body paragraphs yet.
These days many people have access to computers and a large number of children play computer games. What are the negative impacts of playing computer games and what can be done to minimise the bad effects?
Click below for my ideas.
The most obvious ideas are the best
if you get a task question like this:
Many manufactured food and drink products contain high levels of sugar, which causes many health problems. Sugary products should be made more expensive to encourage people to consume less sugar. Do you agree or disagree?
The first thing that comes to mind is that too much sugar causes obesity and other health issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
I could simply agree with the statement in the task, stating that sugar is very unhealthy and explain my opinion that sugar causes obesity and so on.
This seems very obvious, so you are probably thinking ‘well that’s what everyone else would say!’ so they are not good original ideas. The examiner doesn’t care, as long as your ideas are on-topic and address the task question directly it is fine.
You will have to develop your ideas and explain them with an example. The example doesn’t have to be true but it must be plausible. Click here for a lesson on how to write examples.
Common IELTS essay topics
Here are the most common IELTS topics that come up in writing task 2 and also the speaking sections. I advise searching for news stories and podcasts based on these topics to help you get ideas. Choose one topic a day and read or listen to a story about it while taking notes.
Any questions? leave a comment below.