Writing can be the most satisfying of all the language skills you’ll learn, as you’ll always have physical evidence of your effort and achievement to brag about. It requires a lot of effort and involvement, though you can take your own time and you’re always free to use reference materials that are available to you.
Writing should be practiced right from the start of the language. Creating sentences and thoughts in your head is not half as effective as writing them down. Don’t just write down what you’re thinking, try writing down what you hear and what you read as well.
Writing and speaking are also deeply interconnected. The better you can put your thoughts down on paper (or a computer screen), the more fluent and expressive you can become during speech, even if the actual process takes quite a while. To write effectively, you need to know enough vocabulary to be able to use the right words, and you’ll need to know your basic grammar. The more you write, the better you get at everything else.
Trying to capture your thoughts and organizing them into meaningful sentences before they get away can be exasperating to anyone. There are many such frustrations in the initial stage of writing in a foreign language.
If you happen to be a very good writer in your native tongue, but in your target language your writing is at the level of a kindergartener, you’ll probably feel like someone with hands tied behind the back. But fret not. With the right techniques, you can be just as skilled in writing in your target language.
The following few paragraphs contain various tips to improve your writing in a more systematic manner. Applying them effectively will relieve you of further stress and frustration.
Make the effort to write regularly. If you make writing part of your regular schedule it will seem less like a horrible chore and more like a normal part of your routine. Take as much time as you need to complete your work, as long as you spend it creatively and not procrastinating or stressing yourself out.
Make it a habit to also write accurately, and to get your spelling and grammar corrected. Use phrases that you’ve mastered along the way to express your thoughts. Of course, when you first start out, your sentences might be along the lines of “I have a cat. It is white. It likes milk”. But with a little practice you might be able to develop more complex sentence structures.
Take note to avoid writing complicated prose when you’re only able to speak very simply. Your writing and speaking skills must complement each other, and you have to develop them simultaneously so that they’ll reinforce one another. Once you become spontaneous in your writing (without pressure this is sometimes very easy to achieve) you will find yourself being able to collect your thoughts much more clearly than before.
Try switching between sentence patterns as much as you can. This makes your writing more interesting to read as well. Just like you need to collect conversation snippets for speaking, you need a handy storage of writing weapons as well. For example, you should, in any language, keep a list of discourse connectors such as “therefore”, “more over”, “that is”, “so to speak”. (There should be other lists of common sayings as well including many idioms and most frequently used phrases.) These words not only help you to write more naturally but also make you appear a more sophisticated language speaker/writer.
Also try to write in various writing styles. Each of us have our own unique style of writing, and some of us can quite stubbornly stick to our own style without ever changing it. However, it is important that you try out various styles, as they not only develop your writing skills, but they improve different aspects of your overall language.
Once you start on your writing spree however, do review what you’ve written frequently before proceeding to the next major idea. These are called intermittent revisions. Major revisions should be postponed until all the ideas are written down so you can structure your work.
Some people don’t like using borrowed words, and like to start writing from scratch.
Does this method work?
It might. But chances are, it’ll slow you down.
A more efficient way is to memorize a medium-length text of around 800 to 1,200 words, and follow these 4 steps:
- Divide the text into 3 parts and with or without the aid of the original text, recover the parts one by one over a week (1st week).
- Without the aid of the original text, recover the 1st part of the text and refer back to the text, correct it and proceed to the 2nd Complete this in the following week. (2nd week)
- Rewrite the whole text again, either in one shot or in 3 installments over the following week (3rd week).
- Practicing delivering the text orally in the following week (4thweek).
This one-text-a-month approach may sound like a slow progress, however, it is a rather effective way to improve writing.
There are a few things to note, however:
- The selection of text is very important. It should not be too easy; otherwise you don’t get to stretch yourself. It shouldn’t be overly advanced as it’d be beyond your saturation point. I’d recommend any text with around 15 – 20% of new vocabulary content.
- When I said practicing the text over a week I meant spreading it over a week by applying the revision procedure illustrated in the super memory chapter. The point is to really immerse yourself in a foreign language environment on a daily basis.
Repeatedly review the text after that month, and consciously apply the sentences in your speech to a foreigner or when you are practicing speech on your own.
If you sustain your motivation and make it a point to commit to do something every single day, then you’re halfway on your way to language success. If you are busy on a particular day, reduce the workload to, say, 10 minutes. It may not sound significant or helpful at all, but it works wonderfully to sustain the continuity. You don’t want to regret later not devoting enough at a crucial point like this when you’re still developing your skills. Always make sure to maintain the momentum or the environment of foreign language.
I know what you’re thinking… Is it worth putting in all this hard work?
Definitely! Reproducing texts help you write about things you don’t know much about. It opens up a lot of information to you and by writing it down you will be able to retain your knowledge as well.
And try to imitate a style of writing that you’ve read recently to help you frame your thoughts and structure your paragraphs. This will help your writing look better as you won’t use the same sentence structure over and over again. Once you’ve learned the sentences, you can try substituting words into them according to the situation.
Also try summarizing movies, essays, books. You don’t have to spend time pondering over the content, and you can practice your comprehension skills.
Yes, I did warn you against this writing style not too long ago. But then once you’ve gained some familiarity with writing in a language (and you’re bored of reproducing texts) then you can challenge yourself to start writing on your own.
It takes a lot of confidence to write original material in any language, especially if you’re trying to express yourself using your own thoughts and words. But this is a very important skill, as you can’t always be putting other people’s words in your mouth. This is the one area where you can get the most satisfaction and sense of accomplishment as you’re truly thinking and writing on your own in a new language. Some things to keep in mind are:
- Write on a topic that interests you. This can help you build your confidence as you will mostly know what you are writing about. While the task appears less daunting, you will also enjoy yourself as you research and read up on the subject.
- Take risks, and be imaginative. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You’ll never know until you try it out. Don’t be scared of using sentence structures you’ve never used before or even trying out a little humor.
- Use as many words and phrases and sentence structures as you can. This will make your work look more experienced.
- Set up a foreign language blog. Write about anything that interests you. You can observe your progress and also ask your foreign friends to visit your blog and give you feedback. This gives you a lot of motivation as well as an opportunity to learn from the best.
- Find yourself a pen pal or an online buddy you can chat with or write to in the language.
If you want to truly improve your writing ability at an amazing rate, you will have to make the effort to go beyond relying on your own writing.
Instead, you’ll have to tap into the knowledge base of people more experienced than you are. In other words, people who are on a higher level altogether and who can provide you with the shortcuts.
Initially, you’d be corrected in every other sentence or every ten seconds. This can be terribly frustrating.
Don’t get hung up on this feeling and don’t curse yourself for making silly mistakes. Instead, focus on the corrections you receive… Consider them stepping stones to your language mastery. And trust me, this is the fastest way to speedy improvement on writing and very few people realize it.
What you need to do is simply write your own text in the target language with the help of a dictionary and some grammar books. You’ll make many, many mistakes. I can guarantee that. But that’s only the first step. The more important thing (apart from being thick-skinned) is to study the correct text and to learn from your initial mistakes.
Unbelievable as it may sound, you will find yourself remembering the corrected text with more ease and you will be better equipped to express your ideas in words. If they were your original ideas, you now own them. Doesn’t that give you a bigger sense of accomplishment then merely memorizing other people’s lines and thoughts?
Now here is an experience I’m sure most of you have encountered. Even after much practice, you might have the odd feeling that your writing doesn’t feel quite right. That it is not as authentic as compared to that of a native speaker.
And if you have read any text written by an inexperienced learner of your mother tongue, you’d sometimes feel that although the text is correct as far as grammar and usage of words are concerned, you’re saying to yourself “Nobody speaks that way!” The writing stands out because it is stylistically awkward and you can tell it is written by a non-native.
How do you then resolve this problem?
I’m going to share with you a very powerful technique. It might take more effort and time, but it’ll put you on the right track. This method makes you reformulate your writing after comparing it with others.
- Write a text within the range of 200 to 300 words
- Revise and perfect it until it reflects your thoughts accurately
- Pass the paper to a teacher or native writer (competent writer) and ask them to comment on it
- After receiving the comments, revise the writing accordingly (if there are many helpful comments, consider rewriting)
- Ask a second competent writer to rewrite the piece or at least a portion of it. This should not be a simple modification of some sentences. The second writer should do his/her best to rephrase the text to reflect a personal style.
Compare the new version with your original version very closely and go through it several times. This will give you a chance to view your thoughts written from a native perspective.
Here is a list of topics that I strongly encourage you to get your hands on. (You can get more such topics by going back to your old composition assignments.)
- My view on work
- The influence of computer and the Internet
- The perfect mate for me
- My best friend
- The smartest/silliest thing I have ever done
- The weather I like
- My hobbies
- What kind of books I like
This will be a lot of hard work, and you will have to correspond a lot with your language partners. But you must remember what I told you in the beginning of the book. You have to commit yourself to the language. You won’t learn much if you merely make a half-hearted effort to follow the given techniques.
Like they say, “Experience is just another name everyone gives to their mistakes”.
If you’re afraid of making mistakes, then you’ll have to start changing your ways, because it’s one of the most helpful ways of learning anything. In fact, you can dedicate an entire course in language learning to what people learn from their mistakes.
When you first start out, having every single mistake in your writing pointed out can be demoralizing. But imagine if someone didn’t point out those errors, you would end up learning the wrong thing. So don’t fret over making mistakes and looking like a fool. Try to laugh at your own mistakes and work towards making less of them.
Honestly it’s not a bad thing to commit as many mistakes as possible when you start off! That way, you will start off on the right foot, by knowing what ought not to be done.
Identify patterns in the mistakes you make and try to fix it by looking at the corrected version.
This way you will stop yourself from making mistakes that you have a tendency for. Repeat the writing task with the corrections as soon and often as possible so as to effectively learn from them.