How non-English speakers can write better

Reading time: About 3.5 minutes

Here’s some practical advice on how to write better English if it’s not your native language… 

I was briefly fluent in French when I was 20. I knew this for two reasons: First, I’d gone to visit a friend in Quebec City and ended up getting so sick with a throat infection, I had to see a doctor. I spoke to him in his native language assuming I had no choice — and, at the end of the appointment, he complimented me on my use of the language. I was thrilled. A few months later, I remember walking home from school one day and realizing that I was thinking in French. Another thrill.

Sadly, as a result of not practicing for more than 35 years, I’ve lost the language. I can understand small snippets of conversation but I can no longer speak it, beyond a stylish bonjour. Still, I have enormous respect for those who can manage more than one language.

Recently, a number of English-as-a-second-language readers — Andrii Khakhariev, among them — have emailed me asking for advice on how to improve their writing. I don’t regard myself as an expert in this area but I’ve done some research and here are seven strategies I can suggest:

  1. Give yourself plenty of time for your writing. Yes, I know this is frustrating — you want to write faster — but recognize the demands you’re putting on yourself. Writing is not like speaking. In speech you can get help with synonyms from the people you’re talking with. You can also move your hands and play-act what you’re trying to say. As well, you’ll get instant feedback about whether your friends or colleagues understand you. In writing you have none of these advantages. Worse, there are certain expectations about using grammatically correct sentence structure in writing. This means it’s going to take more time. Don’t blame yourself for this. It’s just a tiresome reality of life.
  2. Read as much as you can. When people — native or non-native speakers — ask me how they can become better writers, I always suggest that they read more. This is not a cop out. Reading is by far the best way to learn how to write. I suggest you read only well written material (get advice on sources from friends or teachers) and stick to the subject areas that you want to write about yourself, so you can absorb the special vocabulary you may require. If you have the time, you should also think about copying. Copying word-for-word is the best way I know to internalize the syntax and vocabulary of good writing. You can read more about that here.
  3. Have your work reviewed by a native-speaking friend. Every writer needs an editor, even me. I know you can’t afford an editor. Either can I — or not for this column, at least, which is free. So I have it reviewed by a friend and former newspaper colleague before it goes live on my blog. (When I write books, which I can sell, I pay a professional copy editor to do the work.) Look for a friend who’ll be willing to do the same for you. This kind of stop-gap measure will help reassure you before you submit your work to a teacher or boss or hit the “publish” button.
  4. Build a personalized dictionary. We all have special needs when we’re writing. Your native language may make certain aspects of English particularly difficult for you. Or your profession — or area of study — may present a specialized vocabulary or require specific idioms. Save yourself some time by writing your own personalized dictionary in a notebook. It will be shorter than the regular dictionary and 100% useful to you. Always carry it around with you so you can review it while you’re waiting for a meeting to start, standing in line or riding public transit.
  5. Be aware of the differences between American and British English. I’m sorry to tell you that there’s more than one English language. The two big ones are American and British, but there are also variations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other places where English is spoken. The accents are all different, for a start, but some of the vocabulary also varies. In the US and Canada, for example, we use the word “cookie” to describe a crisp or chewy sweet treat. In the UK they are called “biscuits.” In the UK to knock someone up means to wake them up by knocking on their door. In the US it means to make someone pregnant. So don’t get these two terms confused!
  6. Pay special attention to the definite article: “the”. I’m not enough of a linguist to be able to give you a rule, but I’ve noticed that many foreign speakers have a hard time with the word “the” in English. Either they leave it out or they use it too much. I expect this is because English is quirky and the “rules” don’t always make sense. This was illustrated to me when my own kids started attending my husband’s and my alma mater. The Student Union Building (SUB) on campus never took the definite article in my day. “We’ll meet you at SUB,” we used to say. But somewhere, in the intervening 35 years, it’s taken the definite article. “Let’s go to the SUB,” is now the correct way to phrase that sentence. Why? I can’t tell you! But our kids tease us mercilessly when we get it wrong.
  7. Start a personal blog. Writing better, faster, is all about practice. Just as running every day will make you a better runner and lifting weights every day will give you more strength, so too writing every day will make you a better writer. I know it’s hard to do things that don’t have deadlines attached, so I suggest you start a personal blog that you update every x number of days. (Try to produce it at least once a week.) It doesn’t matter if it has much of an audience – the value to you is entirely in the writing. As well, if it’s a personal blog, it won’t matter if you make the occasional mistake.

By writing in a second language you are demonstrating enormous commitment and intelligence. Take it to the next level by becoming really good at it and your job opportunities and self-esteem will also increase.

Do you write in English as a second language (or know someone who does)? What strategies help you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.