What is ‘formal’ writing?
If you’re taking the IELTS Academic Test, you probably know that you have to write in a ‘formal’ ‘academic’ style, which means things like
- avoiding slang and colloquial expressions
- using ‘full’ verbs such as ‘collect‘ rather than phrasal verbs such as ‘pick up‘
- avoiding contractions such as ‘I’d’ ‘We’ll’ ‘It’s’
- using Passive Tense rather than Active tense e.g. ‘It is often said’ rather than ‘people often say’
- avoiding anecdotal (story-like) evidence like ‘My friend had a similar experience’
- using objective facts like ‘Research has shown that a number of people have had a similar experience’
- NOT using your opinion in Task 1 to describe a graph ‘Sales increased in February,
probably because of Valentine’s Day‘
- stating your opinion ‘formally’ in Task 2 e.g. ‘This essay argues that…’ ‘In my opinion…’
Reading lots of models will help you develop a formal, academic writing style.
What about formal writing in the General Training Test?
If you’re taking the IELTS General Training Test, the first thing you will see (Task 1) is a letter or email. Some people think this is a really easy task – everyone can write a simple letter of 150 words, can’t they?
So the question is this – if writing a letter is easy, what is the difference between a Band 8 and a Band 5 (or anything in between)?
The difference, my friends, is in the TONE. The TONE is the way you sound to the reader. The impression that you make on the reader. How the reader feels when they read your letter. How the reader responds to your letter. The effect that you have on the reader.
In the Cambridge First Exam, ‘communicative achievement’ is one of the four criteria (it used to be called ‘the effect on the reader’ and you got a grade according to whether it had a positive or negative effect on the reader).
This is what makes General Training Task 1 more difficult than it looks and also what so many people get wrong.
The problem with TONE in Task 1
Many ‘native’ speakers take the General Training Test in the UK in order to emigrate to Australia or Canada. Some of them haven’t done any preparation for the test, so they just write a letter as they would normally and that’s fine.
But some people think that, because it’s a test, they need to write everything very formally. This is so far from the truth. Indeed, when I post examples of informal letters to a friend, people are quite shocked at how informal my models are, and question if this is acceptable in IELTS.
When this happens I always go back to the writing band descriptors. So let’s have a look at them now.
Band 7 – the tone is consistent and appropriate
Band 6 -there may be inconsistencies in tone
Band 7 - uses less common lexical items with some awareness of style and collocation
Band 6 – attempts to use less common vocabulary but with some inaccuracy
So we can see that apart from answering the question fully (‘covering the requirements of the task’) one major difference in scores is in the TONE and the ability to use ‘less common lexical items‘.
What this means is that you have to show the examiner that you have the ability, skill and awareness to use e.g. ‘pick up‘ rather than ‘collect‘ (and vice versa) in the appropriate places.
The 3 types of letter in Task 1
There are basically 3 types of General Training letter:
- Formal – to someone you’ve probably never met e.g. a job application or letter of complaint.
- Semi-Formal – e.g. requesting time off from your boss or information from a public department
- Informal – to your friend who probably knows you quite well, so you can relax
You have to decide who your reader is, how well you know them and what effect you want to have on them. This will help you choose the most appropriate tone for your reader.
Compare the two examples of an informal letter to a friend below. I put together all of the inappropriate uses of formal words and expressions that I found when I was marking my students’ work. They are excellent examples of FORMAL Writing, but the effect on a friend would be rather strange. Then I changed them to make them more informal. What differences can you see?
How to make your letters informal
- Use ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye for now’ or ‘Lots of love’
- Ask questions: ‘How’s it going?’ ‘What have you been up to?’
- Use exclamation marks: ‘So excited!’
- Use commands: ‘Write soon!’
- Use phrasal verbs: ‘pick up’ ‘drop off’
- Use slang: ‘pop round’ ‘splash out’ ‘cash”asap”stuff”at the mo’
- Use contractions: ‘I’d’ ‘haven’t’ ‘I’ve”I’m’
- Shorten sentences ‘Hope you’re well’ ‘Got any recommendations?’
This is the only way that you can push your score up to a 7 or 8 when writing an informal letter.
But what about…?
I know, there are always ‘in between’ cases. What if you know your boss well? You can make that clear in the letter if you want, but it is a professional situation so you need to remain semi-formal. What if you’re writing to a pen-friend who you’ve never met? Ok, remain polite but still friendly and personal. What if you’re really angry in your letter of complaint? Always remain polite and non-threatening, but feel free to show some emotion.
In the formal letter of complaint to a bus company below, my student asked my why I had used ‘the bus did not turn up‘ instead of the formal ‘arrive‘ even though the rest of the letter is very formal.
There were 3 main reasons for my choice:
- ‘turn up’ will get me a better score for vocab because it is ‘less common’. ‘Arrive’ is a word you probably learn as a beginner.
- ‘turn up’ suggests annoyance – so it shows the examiner that I have ‘some awareness of style’.
- I am not applying for a job. I am not trying to impress the reader. I am trying to convey my unhappiness. So a certain amount of ’emotion’ is acceptable as long as I remain polite.
Also, the overall formal tone of the letter is consistently formal and polite and the purpose is clear.
So what next?
If you get an informal letter in the test, you have to turn on your ‘informal switch’. Start thinking and writing in the same way that you speak to a friend. Practise this. Read models. Get feedback. Post your examples in the Facebook group and I will try to comment on as many as I can. If you prefer individualised feedback and assessment, click here.
And check out my Live Facebook Training on this subject in the Writing Challenge Group here.