How to "crack" IELTS/TOEFL writing.

A lot of my students have asked me, "is there some way to 'crack' IELTS and TOEFL writing?" and "how can I learn how to write an essay without spending a lot of time on studying how to write?"

 

My answers, although usually disappointing, are "no" and "you can't."

 

There are a lot of websites that claim to help you "crack" IELTS/TOEFL, or offer a generic "fill in the blanks" essay template, which a) doesn't teach you how to write, and b) doesn't guarantee a high score. Learning how to write well is one of the essential parts of mastering a language. Learning how to fill in the blanks of a generic form is not mastery!

 

Several of my students have tried the "fill in the blanks" format and have received terribly disappointing IELTS and TOEFL writing scores. IELTS and TOEFL examiners KNOW when you use a template, and they will deduct you points because of it! 

 

The only way to truly "crack" IELTS or TOEFL writing is to learn how to write! The only way to learn how to write is to practice, practice, practice. 

 

Most westerners begin to write essays in junior high school. In high school, our essays are ripped apart by our English, History, and Social Studies teachers. When we get to university, we receive terrible grades on our essays unless our writing is flawless and our logic is airtight. Native English speakers spend more than 10 years learning how to write, and even then, the vast majority of us aren't even very good at writing! 

 

How, then, can you "crack" a writing task without putting in a substantial amount of effort? It's impossible!

 

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you (I'm sorry!),  here are 3 things you CAN do to become a better writer. 

 

1. Learn how to think critically. 


The most common complaint I have heard from my writing students is "Even if I think about this writing prompt in Japanese, I have no idea what to write."

 

In my opinion, the Japanese education system does not place enough emphasis on critical thinking. Whereas westerners are trained from a relatively young age to examine different points of view and develop and voice opinions, the Japanese are not. Unfortunately, this lack of training becomes glaringly obvious when Japanese students are faced with a critical thinking task in which they must quickly come up with and defend an opinion, as is required in IELTS/TOEFL writing.

 

Luckily, there are plenty of resources online where one can learn the basics of critical thinking (sometimes even for free!). Here are a few:

 

クリティカルシンキングの本(Amazon)

 

Critical Thinking in Global Challenges at Coursera (an amazing website where you can take real university courses for free)

 

クリティカル・シンキング at Globis

 

If you begin to master how to think critically in your own native language, then you will be better able to think critically in English, too. 

 

 

2. Practice writing.

 

I mean it! It is absolutely necessary. 

 

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

 

Do you know who said that? It was Ernest Hemingway, one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th century. If he was so critical about his writing, imagine how many pages a regular person needs to write before he or she gets even one *sentence* of masterpiece!

 

When you are learning how to write, you need to write. A lot. 


"But I don't know what to write about!" 

 

If you are preparing for an IELTS or TOEFL examination, there are countless resources online (here, here, and here to name a few) to find writing prompts and read practice essays

 

If you are trying to write an admissions essay, look for example essays online (like here, here, or here), read them, and then use those essays as inspiration for your own (of course, without copying them!!)

 

If you just want to become a better writer in general, write a diary. Write about your day. What you ate. What you saw. Eventually, writing will become less of a task and more of a joy.

 

As with any skill, writing well in any language requires patience and a lot of practice. 

 

3. Have someone look at and critique your writing.

 

When I first moved to Japan, I didn't study Japanese at all because I didn't have a teacher or class to keep me on track. When I finally got around to taking Japanese lessons this year, my writing skills improved by leaps and bounds. You can write a thousand pages, but if nobody tells you whether or not it's good, your writing will never improve, and you'll have wasted a lot of time. Having a teacher help you as you are beginning to write will help you enormously in the long run. 


There you have it! There is no magic spell (呪文) or "crack" to become a better writer, but you can do it if you put in a lot of effort!

 

What is your biggest problem when it comes to English writing?  

In Nara, Japan.
In Nara, Japan.

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