One common problem faced by many IELTS test takers is generating ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2. They look at the statement and question…and have absolutely no idea what to write about!
The worst thing to do is to simply start writing with no idea of what you’re going to write about. You will just get stuck, or you will write complete rubbish!
This post will give you some ideas for generating ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2. Once you’ve got some ideas, it’s much easier to put them into a clear, logical structure.
Before I get to methods for generating ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2, let’s look at some 4 of the reasons why generating ideas can be difficult.
Problem 1: Difficult And Extreme Topics
First of all, it’s important to understand that authentic IELTS essays will be on topics that you can reasonably be expected to form an opinion on. IELTS want to give you the opportunity to write a lot, so that the IELTS examiner can see what your written English is like.
Secondly, IELTS essays won’t require any specialized knowledge to answer, just your own thoughts. IELTS is a language test, not a knowledge test.
Occasionally though, you’ll be unlucky and get a question on a topic that you’ve never really thought about. Sometimes, this question might be about an issue mainly faced by people in the western world. For example:
In recent years, many small local shops have closed because customers travel to large shopping centres or malls to do their shopping.
Is this a positive or a negative development?
(Cambridge IELTS General Training 12 Test 8)
This is certainly a problem at the moment in the United Kingdom, and it has been a problem in the USA for decades. But I think it’s less of a problem in many parts of Asia and Europe. IELTS do try to use questions that everyone, anywhere in the world, can answer, but sometimes a “rogue question” does appear. That’s why it’s even more important to use some idea generation methods.
Problem 2: Using Bad IELTS Questions
Another very common reason why students find it hard to generate ideas is because they are using terrible essay questions when they practise.
You can find lots of questions online, but a lot of these are badly written, or are on obscure, extreme or strange topics. For example, I recently read a student’s essay where they were asked to discuss the idea that “we can’t learn anything from History.” I think it’s very difficult to discuss this idea because it’s so extreme.
Many websites also publish lists of “reported essay questions” – some of these can be unreliable: they depend on the accurate reporting of the question by test takers, but even a single wrong word can change the meaning of the question.
So instead, only use AUTHENTIC IELTS essay questions. By “authentic”, I mean questions written by reputable publishers like Cambridge English, Collins and Macmillan, or test questions on websites run by IELTS, the British Council and IDP. I recommend you use essay questions from the “Cambridge IELTS Authentic Practice Tests” series. These include carefully written essay questions. Here is a selection of some of these IELTS essay questions.
Problem 3: “In My Culture, I’m Not Encouraged To Form Opinions”
In many cultures, it’s often the case that students are not encouraged to come up with their own opinions. Instead, they are told what to think by their teachers. This means that if students are asked to form their opinion on something -which is what IELTS does – it will be quite difficult.
I think the best way to overcome this is to listen to the views of other people. Watch YouTube videos or read blogs where people give their opinions about something. You could also join an English conversation class in your home town where you have the opportunity to discuss topics.
Problem 4: Trying To Be Interesting
Many students find generating ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2 difficult because they want to come up with interesting or unique ideas.
Test takers doing an advanced degree often have this problem. Those doing PhDs might want to show that they can think originally. Similarly, test takers who are specialists in a field related to the task, such as doctors writing an essay about healthcare, might want to display their expertise.
But ideas in an IELTS essay do not need to be interesting, or original, or knowledgeable. They just need to be RELEVANT: in other words, do your ideas respond directly to the task?
Moreover, your ideas should be simple. It’s much easier to explain and support a simple idea than a complicated one, especially in a short essay like the IELTS. But, again, I often see candidates (doctors especially!) who try to explain complicated ideas in an essay on healthcare, but end up writing a confusing, overly descriptive essay.
So choose ideas that are simple and relevant, not interesting and complicated.
7 Methods for Generating Ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2
1. Practice Generating Ideas…But Don’t Write The Essay
Generating ideas, like writing essays, is a skill. Like every skill, you need to practise it in order to get better at it. So I recommend that you practice ONLY generating ideas…without writing essays afterwards.
Find a list of authentic IELTS questions, such as my list. Sit down at a desk, or in a coffee shop, and simply try to come up with ideas that respond to the essay question. Don’t write the essay. Don’t even write any sentences. Just come up with 3 or 4 main ideas that respond to the question.
If you find this difficult, generate ideas in your own language and make notes in your own language. This means you only need to focus on ONE skill (generating ideas) and not TWO (generating ideas and English)
To come up with ideas, really think about the issue you have been asked to discuss. What do you really think and feel about it? If a friend asked you for your opinion, what would you really say.
If you find actual IELTS questions too difficult, try these easier questions:
- What are the main causes of traffic congestion, and how can we solve it?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-employed?
- What are the main causes of obesity, and how can people lose weight?
- Sport is a great way of bringing people together. Do you agree or disagree?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using social media?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of travelling?
- Some people think that you should get married before you are 30, while others think you should wait until you are older. Discuss both views and give your own opinion.
- Some people think that Liverpool is the best team in the world, while others think that it is Barcelona. Discuss both views and give your own opinion.
- Many people buy lots of shoes. Why is this the case? Do you think it is a good or bad thing?
- Some people like to buy luxury goods (e.g. designer bags). Why do you this this is? What problems can it cause?
If you only spend 10 minutes a day coming up with ideas, you will soon be an expert idea generator.
2. Analyse Model Essays: Reverse Engineer
Find some model IELTS essays: these are essays written at around a Band 8 or Band 9 level. You can find lots of these on websites, although some model essays are much better than others. Here are some model IELTS essays that I have written. The “Cambridge IELTS Authentic Practice Tests” series is also a good source of model essays.
Read them carefully. Analyse the essay: look for the main ideas and write them down. You’re basically writing out the plan that the writer of the essay may have used. In other words, turn the essay into a plan. (This is known as “reverse engineering”: you take the finished piece of writing, and try to discover the plan that led to the essay).
Reverse engineering a model essay will help you to see what ideas went into this model essay, and how you could do the same.
3. Find Ideas On The Internet
Try searching for ideas on the Internet. IELTS essay topics are on common topics, so it’s likely that someone on the Internet will have written a blog post or a new article on a similar topic.
Take this question:
Today more and more tourists are visiting places where conditions are difficult, such as the Sahara desert or the Antarctic.
What are the benefits and disadvantages for tourists who visit such places?
(Cambridge 12 General Training Test 5)
When I googled “why should I visit Antarctica”, I found this site, which gives you 9 reasons to visit Antarctica.
Next I googled “why should I visit Sahara”, and I got some more reasons.
And then I found some of the difficulties a visitor to the desert might find:
Obviously you wont be able to do this in the actual exam, but by doing it when you practise generating ideas, you will expose yourself to the ideas and thinking of other people. This will help you develop your own idea generation skills.
4. Ask Yourself Some Questions About The Topic
Another simple method to help you come up with ideas is to ask questions using the main question words: who, what, where, when, how.
For example, here’s a tricky essay question:
Some people say that music is a good way of bringing people of different cultures and ages together.
To what extent do you agree or disagree with this opinion?
(Cambridge 14 Academic Test 3)
To get yourself thinking about the topic, ask yourself some questions:
Who is brought together?
Maybe young people. Young people might have similar tastes in music despite living in different countries. For example, many young people all over the world like hip-hop.
What kind of music?
Classical music is enjoyed all over world, for example opera. Everyobody likes Abba and The Beatles as well.
Where does it bring people together?
People from different cultures might enjoy the same music at parties or music festivals and celebrations.
Asking yourself some basic questions will help you to generate some initial ideas. They might not relate directly to the IELTS question yet, but now you are thinking about music festivals, Abba and young people. So next you can start changing and organizing these ideas.
5. Simplify The Question
Many IELTS questions are quite long and complicated. If you focus on the whole question, it can be difficult to generate ideas because you have to understand the question and think of answers at the same time. So it’s a good idea to make the question simpler.
For example, here’s a complicated question about recycling:
Some people claim that not enough of the waste from homes is recycled. They say that the only way to increase recycling is for governments to make it a legal requirement.
To what extent do you think laws are needed to make people recycle more of their waste?
(Cambridge 11 Test 2)
This 48 word statement and question could be summarised in just 4 words:
Are recycling laws needed?
This makes coming generating ideas much easier, because you now have a simple question to answer.
But beware, don’t CHANGE the question. Make sure it’s asking the actual IELTS question in a short way. And when you plan your essay in detail, make sure you look back at the full question: this will help ensure you answer the question directly.
6. Imagine Your Teacher Or Friend Is Asking You The Question
Instead of thinking about a question on an exam paper, imaging your teacher in the classroom, or an intelligent friend in a cafe, is asking you the question. Try to answer them. You might find this is much easier than staring at a blank sheet of paper.
7. Generate Main Ideas From Specific Examples
One reason why people have difficulty coming up with ideas is that it’s very general and abstract.
Often, when you get a question, you might find yourself thinking about a specific example rather than a general idea. For example, with the question about music bringing people together, you might think about hip-hop. Then you can move your thinking from the specific example (hip-hop) to the main idea (young people all over the world often enjoy the same music). Now you have your main idea!
If the topic is the causes of obesity, you might think about pizzas and soda. These examples help you move your thinking up to your main, general idea.
Conclusion…and a Golden Rule
Hopefully these ideas will help you generate some relevant ideas for your IELTS essay. In fact, you might find you have too many ideas! If you have too many ideas, here’s a golden rule:
Choose the ideas that are easiest to explain.
Remember, for a high band score, the IELTS examiner is looking for relevant ideas that are well developed, not interesting or complicated ideas. So choose the ideas that are easiest to write about.