In this post, I’m going to show you how to improve your English writing if you’re a non-native speaker. For this to happen, though, it is vital that you are familiar with the basic grammar rules, words, and expressions. At the very least, you need to understand what I’m saying.
As you can tell by my name, English is not my mother tongue. So, how am I going to give you a hand with such an intricate task when I’m not a native speaker myself?
Trust me, no one knows the struggles of this better than someone who has been through it already.
It’s fair to say I spent more than a decade learning the lingua franca of international relations, business, and travel.
Yet, when I landed my first job as a content writer, I realized my English wasn’t amazing. In fact, that’s a very humble way to put it.
It was hideous and execrable!
It screamed ignorance.
But most of all, it exposed me as a non-native…
That was eating me, I won’t deny it. I quickly realized I needed to shake things up a little. Not only did I aspire to polish my English, but I longed to convince people that I had spoken the language since earliest childhood. Change was underway.
The good thing is, I knew exactly what to do. And I’m positive it will help you, too.
Tip #1: Read stuff in English day in and day out
How to improve English, step one: just read. Articles on the Internet, books, catalogs, eBooks or manuals will all come in handy. But here is what, choose high quality over poorly written works. Something along the lines of novels, newspaper articles, encyclopedias, that kind of stuff.
And make a habit out of it. Pay attention to how the sentences are structured, what phrases are used, how the authors switch from one idea to another, and everything in between. In other words, don’t just skim through the text. Peruse each paragraph.
Tip #2: Put down collocations you like and try to implement them in your writing
Another important piece of advice on improving your English writing skills is to take notes while reading. Here is what I did a few years back. Before putting together an article, I usually researched the topic fully (I still do that today.) I made it a point to pick a few blog posts, copy every phrase I like, and paste it into a text document.
What I also did was to highlight the most essential parts of the sentences so I could easily find what I need. As well as that I’d bold, underline or italicize text whenever I felt like it was necessary.
Adding sentence after sentence, the file soon became a massive building block of my writing expertise. I put in there synonyms of words that I didn’t know about, idioms that were relevant to the topics I scribbled about, popular collocations, and whatnot. But they didn’t just sit in that document. I often went through the list to memorize the constructions so I could apply the new information to my writing assignments. And I referred to it when in need.
For instance, at some point, I was writing about cleaning. It was then that I expanded my cleaning vocabulary with handy synonyms and also consolidated previous knowledge. I started using words like immaculate, impeccable, spic-and-span, germ-free, sparkling, spotless, and pristine to refer to a place that was deprived of stains, gunk, and bacteria.
And when I wasn’t sure how to say something in English, I always googled my suggestion to find out the correct way to construct the phrase/sentence. Bear with me and I will tell you more about it in the next paragraphs.
Apparently, the best way to learn to write in a foreign language is to use it. All the time.
Now, if you are a pen-and-paper note taker rather than a tech addict, then go with a pocketbook of some sort. Or you can simply print out the digital text document where you’ve amassed all the vocabulary, writing style notes, and jargon. Both work. The choice is all yours. I’m not here to tell you which one will work for you. You will be the judge of that. I’m here to give you tips and ideas that you can embed in your learning sessions for optimal results.
Oh, and by the way, this will be a good time to start using a spell checker. People make mistakes, native speakers included. You are not save from them either.
One thing I want to stress is the fact that no matter whether you take notes or not, it can never work unless you open a blank document and type in word after word.
This brings me to my next point.
Tip #3 Write a lot, times and times again
Another way to improve your writing skills is to actually sit down and put your thoughts on paper. Practice makes perfect, they say. Or at least it helps you get better. If you don’t get into the habit of scribbling down a story or two on the daily, you can hardly expect to develop good writing skills over time. Don’t worry if you can’t get it right the first time. Or the second time. Slowly but surely, it will begin to come naturally.
Moreover, you want to write fast so as not to forget what you have to say. Don’t try to make it perfect yet. Once you get the job done, read the text through, correcting any mistakes and filling out any blanks you left along the way. (I often wonder which word would be best to use, so when this happens, I usually leave a “…”, then when I’m done, I just go back to it and fix it.)
At the end of the day, your goal is to produce a coherent, understandable and easy to read text. The keyword here is readable. As long as your sentences are succinct and meaningful, you will be all right. You don’t need to use fancy words at all times.
And if your topic of interest involves specific terms, I recommend finding out those upfront. For example, when I have to compose a text about a field/industry I’m not familiar with, the first thing I do is read heaps of articles about it to acquaint myself with the relevant terminology. See, even if you are exposed to a foreign language on a daily basis, you only know so much about it. It depends on who you surround yourself with, your interests, profession, and hobbies.
Isn’t it the same with your mother tongue? There will always be words you’ve never heard of or terms you don’t fully comprehend. And new ones are coined on the regular, with technological developments and younger generations stepping in. That is, you can’t know everything. It’s unlikely that you are familiar with the hundreds of thousands of words a language has even if your job requires that you do.
Tip #4 Communicate with native speakers and ask them to correct your mistakes
And here is how to improve English faster. When I was in high school, that’s the strategy I went for. I exchanged emails with Americans, Canadians, and British people. Back then, Facebook was still in the works, so emails were the norm when it boiled down to online communication. It’s fair to say I absorbed every new word these strangers tossed at me. In addition to teaching me a slew of things, this was a great way of getting my prepositions right.
P.S. Don’t forget to keep your conversational skills in check as well.
Tip #5 Make Good Use of Google
Let’s admit it, Google is that one thing we can barely live without these days. It makes our lives so much easier. Are you on the lookout for an expert web designer? Google it. Willing to know how lasagna is made? Google it. Want to learn more about bitcoin? Not sure where Costa Rica is situated? Interested in finding good but dirt-cheap hotel options for your summer vacation? You know what to do.
Whether we like it or not, the search engine has become an indispensable part of our lives. Of course, it has its downsides, but I would like to focus on the perks here. For instance, the company created lots of jobs that wouldn’t exist today if it hadn’t taken the world by storm. Think SEO specialists, bloggers, YouTube content creators, etc. Along with that, it has turned into the largest encyclopedia on the web where everyone can find anything as long as they know how to look it up.
And while you can still use paper manuals, textbooks, and other printed works, none of them possess this one thing: a search button.
That’s right. When googling queries, the results come up in a fraction of a second. It takes just a couple of clicks and – voila! – you are done. In comparison, manually searching stuff in dictionaries and books may take hours, based on what you are looking for.
So, how do you boost your English by putting Google to some good use?
If you are unsure about a phrase, consult the search engine. You will be bombarded with suggestions. The good news is that if you get the phrase wrong, perhaps Google will be able to understand what you meant anyway. It’s super intuitive.
Word of advice:
- If the results don’t show the word or phrase in the desired context, try putting double quotes around it.
- Many people advise that if you cannot decide between two prepositions, you should start an individual search for each and compare the results. Then you opt for the one that has more hits. However, this isn’t always a good indication that the more widely used preposition is really the right one. For instance, let’s scrutinize “go to the dogs” (18,800,000 results) vs “go with the dogs” (47,700,000 results). Apparently, the latter is used more often, but does that make it correct? Not really. In this example, I already know that the actual collocation is go to the dogs/go to pot (meaning be in decline, deteriorate), but the results clearly show that the incorrect phrase has more hits. Why is that so? I check to see what people meant by that and it turns out they used the collocation in sentences like: “places to go with the dogs,” which is clearly not a phrase. So, be careful.
- And more on that. Don’t overtrust the results. When you are in doubt about the right preposition, consult with a dictionary or a grammar book. See, people make mistakes in their writing. The more fellows use a collocation the wrong way, the bigger the chances of it appearing in the results. Still, that doesn’t make the phrase correct.
- If you stumble across an unknown word during your reading sessions, type it on Google and add “definition” or “meaning” next to it. Hit enter and check it out. Of course, you can also look it up in an online thesaurus.
Tip #6 Engage in forums
Leave comments under articles, videos, forums, Facebook posts, and just about anything you feel like, to practice saying different things in English. Another wise idea is to use chats. An online chat provides a dynamic environment for users where one has to answer questions fast. This will train your brain to think quickly under stressful circumstances. If it doesn’t, the person on the other side of the chat will get bored and move to something else.
Tip #7 Edit and rewrite, rewrite and edit
Start writing and re-writing your texts with different words. It will not only help expand your vocabulary but also train your brain. There is more than one way to convey the same idea and knowing how to do so will improve your written English immensely.
So, how many different versions of one and the same sentence can you come up with? Let’s take a look at this one:
e.g. Martha doesn’t involve herself with overly nice people.
How can we say the same thing but with different words? Let me give it a try.
For instance, you can say that Martha doesn’t like hanging out with people who appear too kind/people with questionable intentions. Although the word “involve” isn’t normally synonymous with “hang out with,” in this case, it is used to imply that meaning.
Additionally, you might say that Martha doesn’t surround herself with such people.
But let’s jump onto another example:
Greg and Pamela have been married for five years.
We can say that:
Greg and Pamela
tied the knot
or... became husband and wife
or… walked down the aisle
or… got hitched
or... entered into marriage
five years ago.
See what I did there? There are so many ways to express the same idea but you need to strain your brain a little to get the job done.
No more wondering how to hone your English skills, okay. The only way to do this is to get down to work.
Word of advice:
- Always keep a dictionary at hand so you can look up for synonyms. Google Translate is a great tool when it comes to this. Every time you type a word in English into the designated box, it displays a list of definitions and synonyms. Make use of it. Another way to go is to type “YOURWORDHERE synonym” directly in the search bar and see where it takes you.
- Opt for idioms whenever possible. But be careful. If your text is more formal and/or technical, they may not be the best option. You need to mind your language.
- Go with verbs instead of nouns, and vice versa. E.g. They divorced in October. vs They got a divorce in October.
Tip #8 Remember it isn’t all about grammar
Don’t get me wrong. You do need to know the basic rules. But even if you are a grammar Nazi (kudos to you), that won’t necessarily make your writing appear native. Most of the time, it is about possessing that cultural background everyone has by default. It goes without saying, it is different for different nations and places of birth. In this case, you’ll want to surround yourself with a group of native speakers and absorb their vocabulary, and distinct identity, until you can finally ‘fit in.’
Apparently, if you can’t hang out with such people where you live, you’ll have to make do with books and online resources.
One last thing before I go: There are no shortcuts to this. It doesn’t take a magic wand to get things done. You have to roll up your sleeves and get busy. Read a lot, write every chance you get.
Did you like my tips on how to improve English writing? I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts on this. Jump down to the comments section to leave a note.
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