IELTS Letters – What to Write When You Don’t Know What To Write

September 25, 2018 by Angela Rutherford

If you are worried that you will not know what to write about in your IELTS General Training letter, I’m here to help ease your mind and assure you that even if the topic presented on the test seems a little foreign, you can do well.

For those who are new to the General Training version of the IELTS test, in addition to the speaking, reading and listening sections, you will have two writing assignments to complete within an hour - a 250-word essay and a 150-word letter.

For the letter, you will be given a typical situation, a person to address the letter to and a reason for writing. It’s is scored in four areas: organization, vocabulary, grammar and content. To score well for content, you need to convey a sense of understanding of the situation (who, what, where, when) and the purpose or intent of the letter (why).

Fortunately, it is almost impossible to come across a letter writing task that is about something you can’t relate to – at least in some way. That’s because this is a global exam and the experts who design it work very hard to make sure the task can be understood and completed by just about any candidate on the planet. However, on rare occasions, people come across a question that gives them trouble. I’m here to suggest how you might move beyond that kind of block and come up with something to say.

Young man holding speech bubble with question marks


Some say that they have been thrown off because they were unfamiliar with some element of the situation. This caused them to waste time worrying and perhaps not complete the writing or hurry through carelessly.

A case in point was a young woman who had never owned a pet but was presented with this task:

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter:

* Give contact details for when you are away

* Give instructions about how to care for your pet

* Describe other household duties

She was stumped by this because she wasn’t an animal lover at all and had no idea what to do with one. Because she spent so much time stressing about it, she had to leave that part of her response out and rush to complete the other points before time was up. Keep in mind that with only an hour to finish the two writing tasks, she had just 20 minutes to work on the letter (the shorter of the two assignments).

If something like this happens to you, take a breath and start with what you know. Work on the other points and come back to the section you are struggling with. You will lower your score if you don’t cover all of the bullet points.

Lady with a lightbulb over her head


Looking back afterwards, this candidate realized that she could have made up some details about taking care of the animal. She just had to stop and imagine a similar situation. She had her children and many people treat their pets like a child so she could have created some details about feeding and playing with the pet.

Even if the details about how to care for the animal weren’t completely accurate (feeding a cat kibble, walking a dog on a leash, etc.) she would have improved her score by including something about what to do to keep the animal (cat, dog, bird, fish, lizard, etc.) alive and well.

That’s because this is a LANGUAGE test, so knowledge is secondary. Responding somewhat accurately is better than being silent on the subject. Focusing on keywords like “care for” and “instructions” could have gone a long way when it came to fabricating that response.

So use your imagination if you encounter a problem like this. Circle the keywords and draw on some experience as close to that situation as you can imagine covering all three bullets in the question.


Although you can’t predict exactly what will be on your exam, looking at common letter types and topics as well as practicing can help you avoid test anxiety. You will build confidence and a vocabulary bank for a variety of scenarios. Here are some examples of what you might find your letter about:

Lists from What to Write when you Don't Know What to Write BlogPRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

For your own personal practice, there are many examples of IELTS task 1 letters online. You can find a long list (about 200) of them as well as some higher level sample letters at IELTS Mentor to start with.

It’s also a great idea to have an expert comment on your work. There is an excellent service available through IDP called IELTS Writing Assist. You complete and submit a mock test and receive feedback and a personalized action plan about how to improve your writing band score.

The fact that you are reading this blog says that you are getting yourself ready to do your best on the test and that’s a good indicator that you will. You can overcome any writing block if you take a breath, start with what you know and get your creative energy working on the rest. Good luck and have fun with it.

Angela Rutherford is an experienced English teacher and exam preparation coach who lives and works in Toronto, Canada. After a career teaching in Ontario public and international private schools, she established her own tutoring business and enjoys working exclusively with IELTS candidates who want to do their best on the exam.

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