letter writing

Pitfalls to Avoid in IELTS Letter Writing (Part 3)

So far in the series on letter writing, we’ve considered four ways in which you could end up losing marks – not stating the purpose clearly, employing an inappropriate tone, not fully covering bullet points, and failing to notice plural forms. 

Now, read on for some more advice on what not to do when attempting Writing task 1 in IELTS General Training.

5. Poor organisation

Structuring the letter shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, as test takers have enough help, a fact that not many cotton on to. The bullet points on your examination paper will always be ordered logically, so all you have to do is follow it.  Do not waste time trying to rearrange the sequence. There’s absolutely no point in you reinventing the wheel!

Similarly, there is a misconception that the more linking expressions a letter has, the better its organisation. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Just like how underuse of linking expressions is a problem, overuse too is something to be avoided.

Remember, there’s no substitute for clarity of thought. This means even a generous sprinkle of linking expressions cannot help you achieve good organisation if the ideas you’ve presented aren’t clearly related to each other.

6. Memorizing model letters

Like with any other exam, success in IELTS demands a disciplined effort from the test taker. So, it’s best to draw up a timetable and work on your English skills systematically. When you’ve not been able to do this, last-minute exam jitters can get the better of you, and you begin searching for shortcuts. It isn’t uncommon for test takers to memorize entire model letters in the hope that one among them might appear in the exam.

However, there are no quick fixes here. At first sight, tasks may appear to be the same, but there’s always a difference. Besides, IELTS examiners are language experts trained to spot and penalise memorised responses. A better approach would be to learn language chunks that help you perform common letter writing functions, such as apologising, making suggestions, and turning someone down.

And here’s a final tip: friendly letters may look easy, but they are often the hardest to write if you are a non-native speaker. So, don’t forget to give yourself loads of practice.

Pitfalls to Avoid in IELTS Letter Writing (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we considered how to avoid two potential pitfalls when attempting the letter writing task in IELTS. 

Here are a few more things to watch out for if you wish to achieve a good writing band score.

3. Not covering bullet points adequately

In IELTS, test takers are told exactly what information to add in the letter, in the form of three bullet points. It goes without saying that these three points form the very heart of the task, so they have to be sufficiently developed. Failing to do so will mean a lower band score on Task Achievement, one of the four assessment criterions. Of course, a lower band in one area equals a lower overall writing score.

See to it that you read the bulleted list carefully, thinking up ways to extend each point purposefully. Everyday situations are used to set IELTS letter writing tasks, so use this knowledge to your advantage. Imagine yourself in the situation detailed in the task, and you’ll soon have enough ideas to flesh out each bullet point.

4. Failing to notice plural forms

One thing that snares even competent users of English is the use of plural forms in the task. The bulleted list, or the part above it that sets the context, may have plural nouns (e.g. problems) or determiners (e.g. some) that refer to an indefinite quantity.

Test takers need to pick up on any suggestion of plural forms in the task and respond appropriately. For instance, if the task states that you have some furniture to sell, make sure you include details of more than one piece of furniture. Similarly, if you’ve been asked to explain problems you are facing, the letter should mention at least two problems. If you happen to write about only one, you’ll get penalised for sure. To avoid running such a risk, it might be a good idea to underline plural nouns, or determiners such as some, as soon as you see them. That way, you’ll remember to include enough information later on while drawing up a plan.   

Remember, in an exam situation, staying alert is as important a thing to do as anything else. We’ll be back with more advice on letter writing.

Structuring a Letter (Part 2)

 

We’ve already looked at two ways to help lend your letter better structure – beginning with a fitting salutation and stating the general purpose of your letter.

Here are some more tips for organising information effectively.

 

3. Match letter to the purpose of writing

A good letter is always a purposeful one, with its different parts sewn up together to achieve clear progression. So, before beginning writing, ask yourself why you’re doing so in the first place.

Once you identify the purpose, think of information that’ll help you achieve it and decide on an appropriate way of ordering it. For instance, if it’s a complaint letter, begin by explaining what the issue is, and then say how it is affecting you and what you’d want the recipient to do.

 

4. Have one main idea per paragraph

As far as writing goes, experts swear by one rule in particular: less is more. A letter that is verbose tends to be harder to follow, so it makes sense to keep things simple.

What is also important is that there’s sufficient paragraphing, helping the reader move from one point to another effortlessly. And the best way to achieve this is by creating short paragraphs, each with about two to four sentences. That way, when reading a new paragraph, the reader knows that they are looking at new information.

 

5. Use an appropriate ending

Just like how having a fitting beginning is important, so is the need to end your letter in a suitable way.

If a formal letter begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, end it using ‘Yours faithfully’. If you’ve used a title and surname at the beginning, then the ending should be ‘Yours sincerely’. In friendly letters, like with salutations, the ending also needs to have a casual feel to it, so use something informal such as ‘Lots of love’ or ‘Cheers’.

And here’s a final tip: formal letters have more fixed rules than friendly ones, so not following them can make you sound rude.

 

 

GLOSSARY

fitting
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for the occasion
Example : Keith served us a tasty Asian dessert, which was a fitting end to the lovely meal.

 

sew up
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to put different parts of something together to get the desired result
Example : It took them almost a month to sew up the business deal.

 

swear by
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to have great confidence in something
Example : My parents swear by this herb’s ability to cure various ailments.

 

verbose
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing that has more words than needed
Example : His letter was both illegible and verbose. 

Structuring a Letter (Part 1)

 

Electronic means of communicating, such as emailing and text-messaging, may have long made letter writing passé, but the skills required to put together a letter remain relevant.

While vocabulary and grammar top the list of things that people most want to get right, not many give due consideration to a key component – structure. In some cases, the vocabulary may be precise and the grammar accurate, but the fact is that a letter without a clear beginning, middle, and finishing paragraph is likely to confuse the reader.

Although a one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work when deciding how to organise your writing, here are some useful pointers on what to include and in which order.

 

1. Begin with a suitable greeting

Opening a letter with a greeting is something that everyone does, but the beginning they choose may not always fit the context. How a letter should begin depends on two things: who the reader is, and just how well they know the writer.

A formal letter typical begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, unless you’ve already spoken or written to the recipient. In that case, begin with the full title and their surname (e.g. ‘Dear Prof Higgins’, ‘Dear Ms Jackson’, ‘Dear Dr Floyd’). Friendly letters, on the other hand, usually begin with the word ‘Dear’ followed by the recipient’s first name.

 

2. State the purpose

It’s best to make clear right at the beginning of your letter why you are writing to someone. The benefit is that the reader knows straight away what the context is, making it easier for them to comprehend the information that is to follow.

If it is a formal or semi-formal letter that you’re writing, you simply can’t go wrong when you begin with the phrase ‘I am writing to’. By comparison, friendly letters are quite chatty right from the word go, so begin with an informal phrase (e.g. ‘It’s been a while since we last met.’) before you get to the topic.

 

Remember, how well you structure your writing depends on how well you’ve planned it.

 

 

GLOSSARY

passé
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is no longer popular or effective
Example : I’m not surprised Pete’s film flopped. His ideas on film-making are so passé.

 

one-size-fits-all
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is suitable for all circumstances
Example : In teaching, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method that works for all types of students.

 

(right) from the word go
Form : phrase
Meaning : from the very beginning
Example : The band’s first performance was a disaster from the word go.

 

How to Master Writing Emails/Letters in English

postbox-med

Image courtesy of Davina Ware (Flickr)

 

Letters may seem outdated in this digital age, but the skills needed to produce one are still considered important. Naturally, many international language tests evaluate the test taker’s ability to produce pieces of communication, such as letters, memos or emails.

 

In the IELTS General Training format, the writing module has two tasks. In the first one, candidates are given a situation and asked to write a letter. Depending on the situation, they have to choose from one of three kinds of tone – friendly, semi-formal, or formal.

 

Tone Example situation
Friendly Write a letter to a friend inviting him/her to a party you are having next month.
Semi-formal Write a letter to your manager requesting him/her for one week’s leave.
Formal Write a letter to the general manager of a restaurant complaining about the poor service you received during your visit there.

 

So, what exactly is tone? Simply put, it is the style of writing that is most suitable for a given situation.

 

Identifying the appropriate tone for a letter can be tricky at times. In fact, it is not uncommon in IELTS for test takers to get the tone horribly wrong. As a result, the letter sounds rude or inappropriate, thereby affecting their overall writing score.

 

So, how can you identify the appropriate tone? Well, here’s one key factor to consider:

 

The recipient

Is the person you are writing to (i.e. the recipient) someone you know? What sort of relationship do you share with them ‒ formal or friendly?

 

If the recipient is unknown, or if they are much senior to you (in age or rank), the letter needs to have a respectful tone (semi-formal to formal). On the other hand, if it’s a friend you’re writing to, the letter will certainly be chatty, looking more like a conversation.

More about tone in the next part!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

outdated
Form : adjective
Meaning : no longer useful or fashionable
Example : The computer systems in Kevin’s company are really outdated.

 

tricky
Form : adjective
Meaning : difficult to deal with
Example : Aged people sometimes find smart phones tricky to operate.

 

horribly
Form : adverb
Meaning : in a bad way
Example : He got injured when a karate move went horribly wrong.

 

chatty
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing style that is friendly 
Example : Judith sent me a bright, chatty letter about her life in Greece.

 

 

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