Is there an ideal number of paragraphs to an IELTS essay? I have recently come across two pieces of advice on IELTS forums on this topic that I happen to disagree with. One is that there is no problem with writing a 3 paragraph essay and the other is that the “ideal” number of paragraphs is 5. In this post I am going to look at this issue and put forward my point of view.
3 paragraphs - requirement!
One piece of advice I met was that the only requirement was to write an essay of at least 250 words and so it was open to the candidate to write a 3 paragraph essay. Well, let’s see. It is true that 250 words is a requirement and the official advice is that you will be penalised if you write fewer words.
It’s not, however, that straightforward. The standard instructions start by asking you to write an essay for an educated reader with no specialist knowledge and almost invariably use similar wording to this:
You should use your own ideas, knowledge and experience and support your arguments with examples and relevant evidence
The key word here is “arguments“: ie you need more than one argument and in a correctly constructed essay each argument requires a separate paragraph. So if you accept that you also need a separate introduction and conclusion, then you should see that you will need at least 4 paragraphs. Can you write 3 paragraphs? Yes, but to use a nice English idiom, you are playing with fire and you may get penalised.
5 paragraphs – a must?
What about 5 paragraphs then? One piece of advice I saw was you must write 5 paragraphs. “Must” here is nonsense. Youcan write 5 paragraphs, but there is no must about it. I would go further than that, must isn’t just wrong here, for me it isdangerously wrong. Always beware of IELTS trainers who use the word must – there is almost always another way – the only must in IELTS is to answer the question. 5 paragraphs may be right for them, but that does not mean it is right for you: you are yourself, your language level and learning style may well mean you will do it another way. More than that, in the exam you need a plan B. What happens when your 5 paragraph plan doesn’t fit the essay question?
The best advice is to be prepared to write either a 4 or 5 paragraph essay. Look at the question, make your decision.
4 paragraphs – why?
This is my general preference for argument based essays. Let me explain why.
To be efficient you don’t want to write more than 270 words or so. If you choose 5 paragraphs, you may become inefficient by writing too many words.
You should develop your paragraphs properly – this is important for coherence and cohesion. In the five paragraph structure coherence between the paragraphs is less straightforward.
It is typically more impressive to write more about less, than less about more.
In an exam simple is good: if you have a argument based essay, the simplest structure possible is the for and against structure with one well-developed content paragraph for and one against. In a 5 paragraph essay what is the purpose of the 5th paragraph? Frequently it is an undeveloped conclusion or introduction – neither of which is good.
5 paragraphs – why?
I don’t want to make the opposite mistake of saying you must write 4 paragraphs. So here are some reasons why you might choose a 5 paragraph structure:
You are a “top” level candidate aiming for a score of 8 or above – ie you are at the very highest learner level of English. In this case it can often be easier to write more words than fewer words.
You are a “low” level candidate aiming for a score around 5.0 – 5.5. At this level it can sometimes be difficult to extend your ideas as you do not have the words, so 3 shorter content paragraphs make sense.
In the argument based essay, you prefer a structure where you argue more on one side than the other, so you use two content paragraphs arguing for and one against.
You get a question you don’t like at all and your standard structure doesn’t fit. The only way you can get to 250 words is by writing 5 paragraphs.
I can’t give you that answer: it depends on who you are and what the question is.