Generating Ideas Writing Essay

This post will help you think of better ideas for task 2 questions.

One of the biggest fears students have is opening up the writing paper, looking at task 2 and having no ideas. Idea generation in IELTS writing task 2 is something students worry a lot about, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The reason for this fear is natural, but there are easy solutions.

First World Problems

Most of the students I teach come from developing countries and they often complain that IELTS writing part two questions are biased towards ‘Western’ countries and are mostly ‘First world problems’. For example:

In some countries, young people are encouraged to work or travel for a year between finishing high school and starting university studies. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages for young people who decide to do this.

‘What the hell is a ‘gap year?” shouted most of the learners in my class. I did have some sympathy for them on this question. Most of the Vietnamese students I currently teach have no first hand experience with taking a year off before going to University. This seems like a very ‘Western’ idea to them and they felt a little bit annoyed with the question, which is totally understandable.

Fortunately, questions like these are rare and most of them will be on familiar topics that most people have an opinion on, such as health, education and the environment. Remember that this is a language test not a general knowledge test.

Do my ideas have to be entertaining?

Many students also worry that their ideas are not interesting enough or they are too boring. The examiner is not looking for you to entertain her. They are looking for you to demonstrate an ability to write an essay in English supported by evidence and relevant examples. There are no extra points for interesting ideas. What the ideas must be is relevant to the question being asked. Have a look at my post on question analysis for help with that.

You can have the most boring ideas in the world and still get a band score 9, as long as your ideas are relevant.

This may seem illogical to some people who have already been to university and know that your ideas should be both relevant and interesting. Stop thinking about how you write at university level, this is an IELTS exam, not a university essay. Give the IELTS examiners what they want and nothing else.


Below I will outline several solutions that have worked well for my students in the past. They are:

  1. Common Topic Familiarisation
  2. Brainstorming (least effective)
  3. Mind Mapping
  4. 5 Questions Method
  5. Personal Opinion Method (most effective)

No One Size Fits All

The main thing I have learned from teaching my students these methods is that no one method is suitable for everyone. You have to try each of them out and see which one works for you. When you are practicing remember, the examiner is looking for relevant ideas that you can support by explaining them and giving examples. You should also use the one that gives you ideas quickly. You will only have 2 or 3 minutes for idea generation in the exam. Don’t worry if this is taking you a lot of time at the moment, you will improve with practice. Pick a method below, set yourself a time limit and practice with some old past exam papers.

  1. Common Topic Familiarisation

This simply means knowing the 10 common topics that come up in the exam and learning some vocabulary associated with these repeated topics. The wider your vocabulary the easier it will be for you to think of ideas. If you have time, don’t just stick with the 10 most common topics, go even further.

When you have free time, have a look at some English newspapers and identify some topics that might come up in the IELTS test. When you do this you should be doing two things. The first is simply noting down any unknown vocabulary, try to guess the meaning from the context and then look up the meaning to confirm on your smart phone or dictionary. This will really help you, not only for writing part 2 but also for all the other parts of the IELTS exam.

  1. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is basically thinking of as many ideas as possible relevant to your topic. It was developed by an advertising agency, in order to come up with new ideas for advertising campaigns. The technique involves putting keywords in the middle of a page and then writing down as many ideas associated with that idea as possible.

Some students, and many teachers, love this method and if it works for you then continue to use it, but I have a few problems with it. Firstly, some students spend too much time on this stage and try to think of too many ideas. Secondly, because they are thinking very generally, their ideas are not relevant. It then takes extra time, which you don’t have in the exam, to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant ideas.

  1. Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a way to visually organise your thoughts on to paper.

Some people love this method, because it represents how their brain is working and allows them to organise their thoughts. It is much more organised than simply brainstorming and can be done very quickly once you have practiced a few times with different questions.

A good technique is to place the keywords in the middle and then place the micro-keywordson the branches.

The only disadvantage to this method is that some students spend too much time creating the perfect mind map. There are no points for creating beautiful mind maps; they are only there to help you with ideas so do it quickly.

  1. 5 Questions Method

This method uses who/what/why/where/how question words in order to generate ideas. This works best for people who think very logically and also know a little bit about the topic already.

Let’s look at an example:

In some countries, young people are encouraged to work or travel for a year between finishing high school and starting university studies. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages for young people who decide to do this.

Why- to gain work experience, to experience life in different countries, to understand different cultures, to make money before going to university, lazy, not mature.

Where- tourist destinations, developing countries, local business, internship in big company.

How- save money, permission from parents and university, apply for internship/job, travel to inexpensive countries.

So as you can see, in a couple of minutes we have generated many ideas by asking ourselves just three of the five questions. These ideas are much more than we need to complete the task, so always remember to choose the ones you feel comfortable writing about after you generate your ideas.

  1. Personal Opinion Method (or coffee shop method)

Personally, I think this is the most effective method because it is both the fastest and helps students focus on the question.

The method is simple. I ask students to imagine they are sitting with their friend or family member in a coffee shop and they ask your opinion. In an exam there is a lot of pressure on you and you often find it difficult to think, but if you were in a relaxed environment with a friend you would have no problem giving your opinion.

To think of more ideas you just imagine that your friend has the opposite feelings to you about the topic and write their ideas down.

Let’s look at the example below:

Your friend- ‘Do you think it’s a good idea that young people take a year off between school and university to work or travel?’

You- ‘Yes. Many young people are not mature enough to go to university at 18 and travelling or working will help them mature. Working for a year could also allow them to save money and gain valuable work experience. If they go travelling, they will get to experience different cultures.

So you see you have just thought about all the ideas you will need for this question. You can write your ideas down (recommended) or just think about it for a minute.

This idea gives you a very clear idea about your opinion on the question and will help you stay relevant and write a clear, coherent essay. Like any method it takes practice, so try it out with a few past questions.

I hope this has been of help to you and please let me know if you have any questions or feedback.

If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

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Very few native speakers will ever start writing at the top of the first page and continue straight through until they finish at bottom of the last one. The entire process has five steps, but the first step in the writing process is coming up with your thoughts and ideas, also known as prewriting. Prewriting helps students gather ideas and give them a bank of possibilities for their writing. This way, as students write they do not have to make decisions simultaneously about content and language. Help your students get a head start before they write with any of these six methods for prewriting. The bank of ideas they will generate will be an invaluable resource as they write.

  • Brainstorming

    Brainstorming is an activity with which most people are familiar. The object in brainstorming is to compile as large a list as possible of potential examples for a given topic. This is a great activity to do in small groups or with the entire class. Brainstorming a list of ice cream flavors is an easy one to start with when introducing the concept. Naturally, one idea will spark another, so it is helpful to have students working together when brainstorming. Give your students permission to be as creative as they like. Anything goes with brainstorming. Challenge your students to come up with as many examples as they possibly can for whatever topic you give them.

  • Free writing

    Free writing is an individual activity for getting thoughts from your head on to paper. Explain the concept of stream of consciousness to your students and tell them that free writing is simply putting on paper every thought that is going through their heads. Like with brainstorming, anything goes. The goal of this activity is to never let your pen or pencil stop writing. Help students understand that though they will begin with a particular topic in mind, it is okay to veer off on tangents as they write. Spelling and grammar are not important for this activity; it is ideas that we are trying to grasp. Give your students a set length of time for this activity. If they are young you may want to limit it to two or three minutes; older students can probably write for five to ten minutes. Then when students have completed the activity, have them go back and read what they have written digging through the mire for the gems hidden within.

  • Journalistic Questions

    Journalistic questions approach a topic in a more structured manner. Start by reviewing the question words: who, what, where, when, why and how. Then, for your given topic, ask questions starting with each of these words. For example, if your topic was study habits, you might ask, “Who has good study habits? Who benefits from good study habits? What are the good habits? Where do people with good study habits study? Where to they keep their books? Where do they organize notes and homework? When do they study? When do they complete assignments? ...” There are an infinite number of questions you can ask about any given subject. This activity can be done either individually or in groups with success. Have students write answers to each question. When finished prewriting, have them go back and read what they have written and organize their thoughts in preparation for writing.

  • Cluster Mapping

    Cluster mapping, also called idea webbing, is a great way to show relationships between ideas. Cluster mapping is also part idea generation and part organization, so students will know exactly how to group their ideas once they are ready to write. To begin, write your topic in the center of the page and put a circle around it. Then you can move in one of two directions. With younger children, have them think of questions about the topic. For example, if the topic is spiders, they may ask, “What do spiders eat? Where to spiders live? What do spiders look like?” Each question should be written in a bubble connected to the central topic. Tell students to spread these bubbles out over the page as they will be adding to each. Then, have students answer the questions connecting still smaller bubbles to the bubbles containing the questions. If their question was “What do spiders do?” then they might make connecting bubbles saying they capture flies, they spin webs, they scare nursery rhyme characters, etc. With students who have more knowledge about their central topic, their bubbles connected to the central idea should include subtopics and/or details about the subtopics. A student may start with spiders as the central theme, make a connecting bubble with the subtopic of diet, then connect bubbles to that subtopic with different types of insects on which spiders feed. Generally speaking, each of the subtopics would be one paragraph in a composed piece of writing with examples and support for the idea surrounding it.

  • Flow Charting

    Flow charting is similar to cluster mapping in that it shows relationships between ideas. However, flow charting is most effective when examining cause and effect relationships. With the central theme drug abuse in the center of your page, to the left students would make list of causes for drug abuse with arrows pointing at the central idea. What causes drug abuse? Peer pressure, medical need, parental example and boredom are all potential causes of drug abuse. Each would therefore be in its own box in the diagram with an arrow pointing from it to the central idea of drug abuse. Then examine the effects of drug abuse and place those in separate boxes to the right of the central idea each with an arrow going from the central idea to it. Homelessness, loss of jobs, failure in school, isolation, further abuse and addiction may all be results of drug abuse. When writing, students can then focus on either half of the diagram (causes of drug abuse or effects of drug abuse) or follow the cause and effect pathway from cause to effect and cause to effect. Depending on the topic, students may create a chain of cause and effect relationships and choose to write about the series.

  • Double/Triple Entry

    Double or Triple Entry is another focused brainstorming activity. This is especially useful when comparing and contrasting two or three topics or when exploring two or three areas of one topic. With this prewriting method, have students make two (or three) columns on their paper. Each column should have a topic which focuses the idea generation. For example, if you were going to compare love and hate, you might label your columns similarities and differences and list your ideas in the appropriate sections. If your students are writing about their ethnic heritage in comparison to another, you could have them label one column with each culture. When finished, students should have a good idea of the points on which they can compare or contrast their topics.

  • Whether you choose to use all these methods with your students or only one or two, prewriting gives your students the tools and foundation for successful writing. Prewriting alleviates students’ anxiety freeing their minds to focus on words after generating ideas instead of completing both steps simultaneously. Prewriting will give your students confidence and direction as they write not to mention improve the quality of their ideas and organization in their writing. Why not try it with your students before assigning your next writing topic?

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