When I first teach students about IELTS writing, and receive their first pieces, I often find them full of writing from dubious IELTS sources. When correcting these, I take a few breaths (and a panadol), and begin the difficult process of ‘de-brainwashing’ my students. Slowly and steadily, writing by writing, feedback session by feedback session, Powerpoint slide by Powerpoint slide, the bad influence begins to disappear, and good writing emerges, but the process is often difficult. But why does it happen in the first place?
In my IELTS Speaking book (p.137), I mention ‘Automatic IELTS’ by Joe (or Josephine) Makemoney, www.ieltscowmilker.com, and Gei Who Chen. These are not real people, but what I refer to generally as ‘bad IELTS sources’. These people want you to buy their books, download their e-books, get you into their classes, or reading their websites, and the easiest way is to promise ‘instant’ IELTS success through the memorisation of sentences and phrases.
Well, there are some advantages to what they give. Here are four.
1. Correct Grammar
These pieces of writing give you strings of words which are grammatically correct.
Also noteworthy from an examination of the data provided is that ….. .
Perhaps more significantly, these pieces give the words quickly. The above example is 11 immediate words, which can be written without thinking (and that’s the danger sign, as I will explain). The overwhelming majority of students can not produce even the minimum number of words within the recommended times (150 words in 20 minutes, and 250 words in 40 minutes, for Writing Task One and Two, respectively).
How do I know this? Well, all AIS Writing Answer Sheets have a space at the bottom of the second page, saying, ‘This writing took me ….. minutes, and I spent ….. minutes writing it.’ This means that I receive data everyday on this issue, and it shows me how most students take far too long to write far too few words.
Remember, these are only homework writing assignments, over subjects and Task 1 items thoroughly discussed in class. Imagine the situation in the real IELTS test.
3. Complex Sentences
These pieces seems to give complex sentences.
… is that [Subject] + [Verb] … [= a subordinate or dependent clause in your answer].
These pieces give confidence.
Because of these four reasons, this approach gives the illusion of an immediate answer. And it will always be popular. But here’s the problem. In both my IELTS Writing Books, I have written,
Candidates want easy answers; many people want easy money, but does this ‘memorisation’ approach work?
My answer to this question (here, and in my IELTS books) is ‘no, it doesn’t work at all.’
Yes, the ‘memorisation’ approach gives quick complex grammatically-correct strings of words, which make you feel confident – but is this REAL writing? Or junk words, junk grammar, and false confidence? Ultimately, the decision is yours; however, my IELTS Writing Task Two book (Tip 10, p.64), and Writing Task One book (Tip 6, p.21) both give the same message – that there are seven problems with this approach, as follows.
1. Junk Input
Can you really trust such material? Who wrote it? Do they really know what they are saying? [Be skeptical! Be critical! Demand proof!]. It might look well written (‘unanimous consensus, pivotal reason, contemporary society’) but it often is not. Check the ‘Three Short Tips on this Issue‘ again.
Memorisation means not thinking, which means the material is often mixed up. It can become absolutely impossible to understand (‘While there are certainly valid disagreements to the contrary, opposing people with different perspectives will often not argue’.)
Memorised sentences are usually so general that they become meaningless (‘A variety of people have different opinions on this issue.’) They are not ‘topic-specific’ – that is, they don’t connect in any way to the topic. Do such sentences ‘response to the task’?
4. & 5. Untruths & Dishonesty
Let’s lead with an example: ‘This issue has raised heated debate among citizens.’ Hmmm, the trouble is, this strange, boring, and somewhat artificial IELTS issue has raised no debate at all. The sentence is a fabrication. It is a lie. The writer is a dishonest person.
So, does this matter? But are you happy when people lie to you (particularly when you know the truth)? Can your vocabulary be considered good if it is not true? Is proving your dishonesty a good message to give?
This might matter more in Western culture than in Eastern culture – but IELTS, and IELTS examiners, are products of Western culture. Think about it.
6. Disregarded Passages
Following from the previous two points (4 & 5), are you sure the IELTS examiner will recognise the material as yours? What if the examiner notices a clear difference in grammar levels between one sentence and another?
By introducing large amounts of memorised material, the essay is not written by a single mind, but from many people creating it dishonestly. Do you think the parts are likely to fit together well? Will it logically follow, or throw up logical problems all over the place?
We can also prove this using the public version of the IELTS band descriptors. These tells us that your score goes higher when you:
· use non-mechanical approaches.
· address all parts of the task.
· have appropriate vocabulary.
· develop ideas.
· show clear meaning.
· support ideas.
· show (clear) progression.
· fit the parts together clearly.
An IELTS 7 begins to show all this, yet the ‘template’ material or ‘memorisation approach’ does the opposite! It is very mechanical, mostly uses inappropriate vocabulary, with unclear meaning, lack of progression, ignores the task, does not develop or support ideas, and fits into the writing badly.
The Golden Rule: Omit Needless Words! // Cut the Fluff!
In the introduction to the Writing Section, I mentioned my three rules. Write (1) concisely, (2) meaningfully, and (3) honestly. In relation to ‘dubious trends’ in IELTS Writing, I would like to mention one ‘golden’ rule. It actually comes from a classic book, first published in 1935 and still in print, called ‘The Elements of Style’, by William Strunk. Here’s a quote from p. XV.
Rule 17: Omit needless words!
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Independently, long before I read ‘The Elements of Style’, I placed the same advice in my IELTS Writing Task One and Two Books, as Tips 6 and 10, respectively, although I rephrased this advice into my own words: ‘Cut the Fluff!’
After 20 years of preparing students for IELTS, I have seen all sorts of memorised material, and have categorised the latest round into ‘bad trends’. Generally, we can say that they are bad simply because they break the golden rule of Professor Strunk and myself: ‘Omit needless words!’ and ‘Cut the fluff!’ but I will specifically attempt to prove the problem of each trend by referring to the public version of the IELTS Band Descriptors.
So, click on the tabs, and let’s explore these ‘dubious trends’ in IELTS Writing Task One and Task Two.