IELTS General Training – Writing Task 1: A guide to writing formal letters

IELTS General Training – Writing Task 1: Sample Question

Here is a sample writing task to consider:


You should spend about 20 minutes on this task.

You mistakenly bought the wrong medicine from a pharmacy but they have refused to give you a refund.

Write a letter to the store manager. In your letter

  • Explain what has happened so far
  • Give reasons why you deserve a refund
  • State what you intend to do if your request is not met

Write at least 150 words.

You DO NOT need to write any addresses.

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Tips to write an effective letter

It’s important to look at the information provided to you to work out if you need to write a formal or an informal letter. In this case, you can see that you have to write a letter of complaint to a person you do not know. This means the letter should be formal.

Also, according to the instructions, they say:

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam,

This is also an indicator that the letter needs to be formal. For informal letters, the instructions would just say:

Begin your letter as follows:

Dear ……..,

Please note that there is no need to include the date or any addresses in your letter (which is standard letter convention), you can just begin with the salutation.

How to begin your letter?

Here are some approaches which are not recommended:

  • Dear Jenny,

By using the recipient’s given name, you have made the letter informal.

  • Dear Manager,

The instructions clearly say you should begin with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.

  • Dear Sir,

This also goes against what the instructions tell you to do. Also, the recipient may be female, so this would be very inappropriate. Remember that you have never met the person, so you do not know their gender. Starting with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is the conventional way to commence a formal letter.

  • Dear sir or madam,

There is no capitalisation of ‘sir’ and ‘madam’

  • Dear Mr Smith,

By using the person’s surname, you are saying that you know the person or you have met them before. This does not fit the context of the question. You would only use the surname of the recipient if you know them AND you need to be polite or formal. Examples can include a letter to your boss, professor, etc.

Writing the purpose of your letter

Now, let’s look at what to do after the salutation. Look at the first part of the response in the sample below – do you notice anything missing?


Dear Sir or Madam, During my consultation with my family doctor on Thursday, he suggested to use a light analgesic, such as aspirin, to treat the headaches I suffer from time to time. This is what I explained to one of your staff yesterday, so you can understand my surprise when I arrived home to discover that the painkillers which were sold to me are in fact very strong.


Imagine you are the manager of the pharmacy and have received this letter. Do you know what the purpose of the letter is or do you need to look carefully to work it out? A good letter needs to have a clear purpose at the beginning, so make sure you include a sentence that shows this. For example:


Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing this letter to express my dissatisfaction about an item I purchased at your store yesterday. During my consultation with my family doctor on Thursday, he suggested to use a light analgesic, such as aspirin, to treat the headaches I suffer from time to time. This is what I explained to one of your staff yesterday, so you can understand my surprise when I arrived home to discover that the painkillers which were sold to me are in fact very strong.


When writing the purpose of your letter, try to avoid using the first bullet point in the question – save this for the body of the letter.

Tone of the letter is important

Remember also that the tone of the letter is important. Using the right vocabulary is key to maintaining a good tone. If you are too casual in a formal letter, or too formal in a letter to your friend, this will affect your marks. Let’s look at some of the formal language in the sample:

InformalFormal
tell you something I’m not happy aboutexpress my dissatisfaction
boughtpurchased
meetingconsultation
fixtreat
find outdiscover

Another aspect of tone is to ensure what you are saying is culturally appropriate. In some cultures, people are very direct when they complain, while in others they are indirect.

The same applies to other types of letters. Do people in your culture apologise, ask for information, send an invitation, etc. in the same way as English-speaking cultures? Let’s look at a sample response where the tone is affected:


I demand that a refund is given to me immediately as this is a poor way to treat your customers. If you do not, I will contact my lawyer and will take you to court.


This is quite an aggressive tone for the context of the situation. It may be better to be more indirect with a letter of complaint. Compare the response above to the one below:


I do feel that I am deserving of a refund as on top of being an error on behalf of one of your staff, I also have proof of purchase and the item has not been opened. I hope you will find it in your way to rectify the situation, as I see no other option but to consult the Fair Trading Commission. I hope we do not have to resort to that.


In this sample, the writer has clearly stated why they want a refund, but has used indirect language like:

“I do feel that …”

“I hope you will find it in your way …”

“… I see no other option but to …”

“I hope we do not have to resort to that.”

How to wrap up your letter

Female IELTS test taker in red full-sleeve t-shirt points her finger at her laptop

There is one final thing to consider when wrapping up your letter. Look at the following sample and think about whether anything should be added between the end of the final paragraph and the signature:


I do feel that I am deserving of a refund as on top of being an error on behalf of one of your staff, I also have a proof of purchase and the item has not been opened. I hope you will find it in your way to rectify the situation, as I see no other option but to consult the Fair Trading Commission. I hope we do not have to resort to that.

Yours faithfully,

Kelly Brown


When reading this letter, the ending feels a little abrupt. Therefore, we should include a rounding-off sentence to help with the flow. Look at the following example:


I do feel that I am deserving of a refund as on top of being an error on behalf of one of your staff, I also have a proof of purchase and the item has not been opened. I hope you will find it in your way to rectify the situation, as I see no other option but to consult the Fair Trading Commission. I hope we do not have to resort to that.

I look forward to your reply and a positive outcome as soon as possible.

Yours faithfully,

Kelly Brown


In this part, you only need to add a brief sentence to help the letter end smoothly rather than suddenly. However, make sure that the rounding-off sentence is appropriate for the context of the task. The above example would not be suitable for a letter of apology or a letter asking for information.

Lastly, as we have seen from the above, it’s important to use the right rules when writing letters, plus ensure that your tone is also well maintained in your answer.

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