22 Oct 2018

When is the last time you complained about something? Probably not long ago. One just has to look at crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp or Amazon to see that millions of people post complaints every day.

Given the amount of griping that goes on, it’s likely that you have some experience in this area BUT do you know how to write a formal complaint letter?

In case you aren’t aware, the writing component of the General Training IELTS exam includes two assignments for test takers to complete in one hour. One is a letter which should be at least 150 words and take about 20 minutes to write. The other is an essay (250 words) that will take the remaining 40 minutes to plan and execute.

There are many different types of letters that could appear on the exam (inviting, applying for a job, apologizing, asking advice, etc.) and it’s quite possible you will be asked to complain about something.

Getting familiar with the language, tone and structure of the different letter types is smart. To help you out, in this blog, we’ll look at three important things to consider when composing a complaint letter.

Let’s start by checking out an example task. Although the details will differ, the basic structure of the assignment, no matter what kind of letter, will be like this:

General Writing Training Graphic

1. Use a Formal Tone for Complaints

Before you write, it’s important to know that the way people talk about their dissatisfaction with something online is very different when compared to how they would do it in a formal complaint letter.


Negative online reviews are often angry or vindictive. This is NOT what IELTS examiners are looking for on your writing test.


Unlike some public reviews that are meant to shame a product maker or service provider, the IELTS complaint letter is designed to get someone’s attention so that something that went wrong will be corrected.

This requires a FORMAL TONE, and that means that you need to refrain from using threatening language that distracts from the purpose of the letter.

Remember that the reason given for writing the letter is to explain the problem or problems and then right the wrong. The best way to do this is to stick to the facts and not see the issue as a personal insult.

Choose simple problems that have logical solutions. Make it easy to see how and why someone would make amends or take action to correct the problem.

For specific advice on how to create a formal tone, go here.

2. Use a Proper Letter Format

Basically, this letter follows the same pattern as all other IELTS letters. You will find a more detailed blog about how to organize your ideas in letters here.

The formatting for a complaint letter can be tailored in these ways:

Following the salutation, the opening of the letter should immediately get to the point and briefly outline your reason for writing. Using the example above, you would be asking for a resolution to the problems with the product you purchased.

After this, you address the requirements of each of the bullet points that appear in the task. You could write a paragraph for each point but keep in mind that paragraphs in letters can be short and are simpler than those in an essay.

If, for example, the details about a problem become lengthy, you could easily divide your response to this bullet into two short paragraphs instead of thinking you have to write all problems in one overly long section.


Also, pay close attention to singulars and plurals. Details and problems are plural, so give more than just one. For instance, details about a purchase could be where and when you bought the item and how much you paid.

In addition, the easier it is to follow your thoughts, the higher you will score. You can help achieve better readability by using phrases to signal when you change or add subjects. Link sentences or paragraphs with complaint specific statements like, “The first problem was . . . “followed by, “to make matters worse . . .” or “another disappointment was . . .”

When you have finished covering the three bullet points, it’s useful to finish with a sentence that restates what you want the reader to do about these problems. It might simply be, “Thank you for your attention to this matter and I look forward to hearing from you OR I look forward to receiving the refund OR resolving this issue.

The closing will continue to be formal so “Yours truly” or “Sincerely” are safe choices – even if you are writing to a friend.

3. Use Complaining Words

In order to maintain a formal tone, it is better to use “soft” words to express your dissatisfaction. Avoid hyperbole or over exaggeration of the facts so that you can sound credible and polite.

Here are some words and phrases that work well with a complaint letter.

Words and phrases to show that you are not happy with something:


It is unacceptable that . . . (insert problem)

It is unacceptable that a brand new air conditioner is blowing hot air.

The fact that . . . is not working is unacceptable.

The fact that the fan is not working is unacceptable.

It is not acceptable to (insert problem)

It is not acceptable to buy something that does not work.


It was disappointing that . . . (insert problem)

It was disappointing that the new air conditioner did not cool the house.

I was disappointed to discover that . . .

I was disappointed to discover that the air conditioner was not in working order.

I am disappointed because . . .

I am disappointed because I paid a lot of money for a machine that does not work.


I was displeased to see that . . . (insert problem)

I was displeased to see that the fan was not rotating when I turned it on.

I am not pleased that . . .

I am not pleased that I spent a lot of money and my house is still hot.

How to politely request that someone do something:

Sometimes IELTS candidates can become overly demanding and sound rude when they ask for something in a complaint letter, and this can affect their score.

Maintain an even temper throughout the letter and remember that you do not want to insult the recipient, you want them to help you with your problem. The phrase “Give me a refund” will not be received as well as “I would like a refund”.


I would like a refund, please.

I would like to ask that you refund my money.

As a resolution to this problem, I would appreciate it if you would repair the machine at no cost to me.

I would like to request that you give me a refund.

I would be grateful if you would replace this machine.

I believe the best way to resolve these problems is to return the machine and refund my money.

Here’s a sample answer to the above task to see all of the above in action. Good luck and have fun with your preparation.

Sample Complaint Letter


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