Ten Practical Tips for Writing in English
Online opportunities are not created equal. Although access to the Internet is open to everyone, and the cost of publishing your thoughts are minimal, language gives a huge advantage to those who have learned English as their first language. They can reach the whole world by writing in their own language. For the rest of us, it requires a bit more work.
I’m from Finland, a country of 5,2 million inhabitants at the northern end of Europe, right between Sweden and Russia, so when I started blogging, my decision was easy: if I wanted to reach more than a handful of people, I had to go with English. If you speak French, Spanish or Chinese, there is a bit more incentive for writing in your own language, but even then, the only way to reach the whole population of our planet is to write in English.
It’s not always easy, so that’s why today I am sharing with you the ten most useful and practical tips for writing in a foreign language that I have learnt during my blogging career.
1. Read in English
When you want to master a language, you can never read enough.
Every new book, short story or article you read teaches you new words, new ways to formulate sentences, and more natural ideas on how to use the language. They go to your subconscious and slowly start becoming more natural to you, until one day you notice that you start to think in English and know that you’re on the right track.
The easiest way to get started with reading in English rather than your own language is to pick up a non-fiction book on a familiar, interesting topic. Non-fiction tends to be easier to follow than fiction (fiction authors use tricky words to touch their readers’ feelings) and reading about a familiar topic makes it easier to guess what the author is trying to say to you when you don’t quite understand the words he’s using. Don’t use a dictionary unless you really have to – just skip the parts you don’t understand. If you make your reading feel too much like work, you’ll lose the fun in it, and the habit of reading won’t last for long.
Some great, free e-books to get you started:
- The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
- Make a Name for Yourself by Scott Ginsberg
- Why’s Poignant Guide To Ruby: This is a programming book, but also a reading experience like no other. I suggest you take a look even if you are not interested in learning to code in Ruby.
2. Listen to native speakers
Blogging is a form of public speaking, which is why one of the best tips for making your text come alive is to write as you speak.
But if you don’t speak English every day, this is a rather tricky advice to follow. So, one thing I have found useful in practicing conversational writing is to watch and listen natives speak.
The Internet comes to rescue here through podcasts and videos from speaking events. Pick your favorite speakers and listen to them deliver their message. You will learn not only about how they use the language, but also how to captivate the audience, and a bit about the topic at hand.
Check out these videos for a good start:
- Randy Pausch on Time Management
- Steve Jobs talks to Stanford students
- Scott Ginsberg, “that guy with the nametag”, tells you how to be more approachable at NametagTV
3. When writing in English, think in English
This is one of the most important tips that separate a decent foreign language writer from a lousy one. The lousy writer thinks in his own language and then tries to translate his thoughts to English. But that simply doesn’t work: the idioms, grammar rules, and cultural differences make text written in this manner sound clumsy and unnatural.
Finnish is probably one of the extreme cases when it comes to grammar. In Finnish we concatenate a big part of words together (for example a railway station would be called railwaystation in Finnish) whereas English is full of small words. We have no future tense. We don’t use prepositions but suffixes… The list of examples could go on forever.
That’s why every time I set out to write in English, I push all my Finnish thoughts far to the background and don’t even look back. Then I pretend to be English speaking until the work is done and I can move back to my Finnish self.
I suggest you do the same.
The best way to learn anything is by throwing yourself out there and practicing. With writing practice is even more important. In fact, I would give you the same advice even if you were considering writing in your native language. But of course, it’s even more important when writing in some other language.
When you are just starting out with your blogging, you should write something every day to really get your writing routine developed. After a while it’s OK to drop the pace a bit – although even then, if you want to become best at what you do, keeping up the habit of daily writing helps a lot.
Write in different styles: lists, humorous posts, serious posts, interviews, and if you have the time, even text that is completely unrelated to your blog. Just to get more practice.
5. Trust your gut
The human brain is an amazing machine.
You put in the source material by reading, listening to people talk, and speaking. Then you start writing your own blog posts and tune in the mind set of writing in English. And all of the sudden, words just start flowing from straight from your brain to the keyboard.
This can be a bit scary at first as you don’t know how you have learned the sayings and word plays you are using, and can’t be sure if they are correct or not. Uncertainty is the price you have to pay for trying to learn to use the language in a natural way. You just have to go with your gut and trust your brain when it keeps popping up words that you didn’t know you even knew.
I usually write freely on my first cycle, just trying to get the words and ideas out on paper. And then, on the second round of checking my text I drop sayings that sound too uncertain to me – or run them through a friend to see if they make sense or not. Usually they do.
When you have finished writing your article and it seems nearly perfect to you, the next thing to do is to check it for typos, grammar mistakes, and just some plain weird sounding sentences.
The easiest way for checking for typos is to use a spellchecker:
- If you have a word processor, you can use the spell checker that comes with it.
- If you are using Firefox as your web browser, you can use the built-in spell checker support.
- Another option for having a spellchecker in your browser is Google toolbar.
- And finally, if you are using WordPress as your blogging platform, you can use the spellchecking feature built in to WordPress ever since version 2.1.
Checking for grammar mistakes is a lot trickier. What I do is that I usually check the grammar first in Microsoft Word or in an online tool and then go through it manually. For manually checking your grammar you can use a checklist of the most common grammar mistakes (here’s another one) or just play it by the ear, depending on how much you trust your own English language skills.
And of course, if you want to play it safe, you can always ask one of your English speaking friends to double check your article once you have done all in your own powers.
7. Have English-speaking friends who are not afraid to correct your mistakes
The best way to learn to sound like a native is to hang out with them as much as you can. By paying a close attention to how they speak, you will learn the sayings they use, the slang, and even the jokes that they throw at you. All of this is important in making your English sound more natural and conversational rather than something learned from a book.
Instant messaging, e-mailing, or even chatting with them face to face, if possible, are all good ways to learn from friends. And the best part in all of this – you can do it while having a great time getting to know new, interesting people.
When you apply tip number five, having native friends to point out your mistakes gets even more important. Even my gut goes wrong every now and then, and at times like that I rely in my friends. When they notice something weird in my posts, they let me know and guide me to the right direction.
8. Study spelling and grammar
Yeah. I admit it, this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun at all. But to achieve greatness, you have to put in some effort. And in the end, the reward of learning and becoming more confident with your writing is really worth it. Go find the books you were using on your English courses back in school, or if you can’t find them, check if there are any good course books at the local library.
If you still want to go one step further, you can enroll to a language course. Just make sure to pick one that is mostly about creative writing, because that will get you moving faster towards your goal.
But you don’t have to go that far for good results. These days you can find pretty much everything on the web – also material for studying English. Check out these links to get started:
- Visual thesaurus: A fun way to improve your vocabulary by finding synonyms and related words. The page also contains word lists and a word of the day. For example, today I learned that Sesquipedalian is a fancy word that simply means long.
- 40+ Tips to Improve your Grammar and Punctuation: A sesquipedalian list of tips and tricks to improve your English from the Dumb Little Man blog.
- Dictionary.com: I use Dictionary.com mostly for checking up words that I have used when I’m not sure if they mean what I think they do. But that’s not all you can do with this brilliant web site. They have an interesting feature called reverse dictionary that looks up words when you write few words to describe their meaning, and a good list of further online resources for writers to check out.
- The Economist Style Guide: The guide book given to all journalists who write for The Economist. Most of the advice applies really well to blogging.
With online services like these you will soon notice that learning English is indeed a fun activity that fuels your curiosity and gets you even more excited on your writing.
9. Commas and hyphenation – the tricky buggers
Commas are hard. Hyphenation nearly impossible.
The good thing here is that not even the English speaking bloggers always get these things right. But does that mean you don’t have to worry about them? No. If you want to be a great writer, you have to try to practice the hard things as well.
Let’s tackle hyphenation first: Definitive rules for how to do this right don’t even exist, so the trick I have adopted is simply to never do it. When blogging, you can always keep words in one piece and thus never make hyphenation mistakes.
Unfortunately you can’t get past commas and punctuation that easily. All you can do is to learn about using them and then always double check your text to see if your punctuation is correct.
- Tips on Using Commas at Dumb Little Man.
- Top 4 Guidelines for Using Commas Effectively at About.com.
Last comes the most important tip of all: Relax, and enjoy your writing. To be a great writer, you have to put in a lot of effort, but it’s not going to happen overnight. So, while you are practicing, don’t panic. Just write the best content you can with the skill set you have right now. Put it online on your own blog and learn more as you go.
Also, when you think about it, blogging is quite a forgiving platform: many of your readers are not from the English speaking parts of the world and won’t notice the small mistakes you make with things like prepositions or commas. Plus, people these days are busy. They don’t have time to stop and read every word you write. While that can be annoying in the sense that you can’t get their full attention, it also means that they won’t notice all of your mistakes either.
Relax, have fun, and share your thoughts with the world!