When I was teaching in a language school, writing was usually my students' least favourite part of learning English. Here I will explain why it's a useful skill to practise and I will give you some tips which I hope will make it a more positive experience! As with all the skills, remember that the more you do it, the easier it will become.
1. Why write?
Don’t ignore this skill. A lot of students enjoy speaking, practise reading and listening, they study grammar and vocabulary but they neglect writing. Maybe you need to be able to write for an exam or for work so then the need to practise is obvious, but even if you don’t have such a clear need, writing will still help you with your English. One reason for this is that writing gives you time to think about how to express yourself, and to find the right words and grammar. When you speak, you don’t have as much time to think. Also, writing can show you where you have gaps in your knowledge and what mistakes you often make.
2. Don't just translate
Try not to just translate from your language but think in English. There are many phrases which cannot be translated directly. A lot of mistakes I see are because students try to translate word for word and it doesn’t always work. Also, of course, don’t just put your sentences into Google Translate! That won’t help you learn anything! It’s much better to work out how to say what you want to say by yourself.
3. Don't be afraid
If you can say it, you can write it. Some students think that writing has to be a different style from speaking but this isn’t always true. Informal writing, like emails to friends or messages on social media, is very similar to spoken English. So don’t be afraid of writing - just write what you would say. You can learn about how to make your writing more formal later.
4. Free writing
One thing you could try is “free writing”. This means you just pick a topic (e.g. your weekend, how you are feeling, a film you just watched) and write what comes into your head. You don’t have to plan or worry about the end result but just try to express yourself in English. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling mistakes either. This writing is just for you and nobody else has to read it so it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. This is just to develop your fluency and confidence. You can always go through it again at the end to check for mistakes.
If you need to write a work email, an essay or some homework for your teacher, then it is important to make a plan before you start. Your writing should be organised into paragraphs and each paragraph should contain one topic so think about what you want to put in each paragraph before you start. For example, an essay for an exam typically has an introduction, two or three paragraphs which explain your ideas, one idea per paragraph, and then a conclusion.
Always, always, always check your work for mistakes. When you have finished, read through your work and check your spelling and grammar. Some examples of things to check for are tenses, verb endings, prepositions and articles. Did you remember to use the past tense in your story? Did you remember -s, -ed and -ing? Did you use the right prepositions? Did you use “the” and “a” correctly? If you can, leave your work until the next day and check it again. You might see silly mistakes that you can’t believe you missed the first time!
7. Accuracy vs complexity
You have to find the right balance between accuracy and complexity. If you write in very simple sentences, you won’t make so many mistakes but your work might sound childish and you won’t get good marks in an exam. If you try to use too many complex sentences, you might be able to show what you know about the language but you might make more mistakes. Too many mistakes make your writing difficult to read and understand. You have to get the right balance and this will depend on your level and why you are writing. For example, if you are writing for an exam, you have to show what you know so try to use some more complex grammar structures that you are comfortable with. If you’re chatting to other learners on social media, simpler sentences might be better.
Try a dictation. Find a short text to listen to and try to write it down. If you search for “English dictation” on YouTube, you can find some exercises for your level. Alternatively, search for “learn English” and find a short video at your level. You don’t have to do the whole video if it’s long. It’s best to find something with a transcript or subtitles so you can check your writing afterwards. Alternatively, you could listen to a song and write down the lyrics. Dictation helps you with your writing because you get model sentences and it forces you to think about your spelling. It can help you with your grammar too. As well as listening, you think about your knowledge of the language as you write.
9. Learn from your mistakes
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes can help you to learn. If you do some writing for a teacher, make sure you look at the corrections that the teacher makes and maybe you won’t make the same mistakes next time. If you don’t have a teacher, ask a friend to check your writing for you. There are also websites where you can post your work and get feedback from native speakers. Two of these are italki.com and hinative.com.
10. Language in - language out
You can't write if you don't know enough words and if you have no idea about grammar so you have to learn some basic grammar and vocabulary before you can start. You should also read. Reading will help you with your writing because it shows you what your writing should look like. Also, you can see how grammar is used in real contexts and build on your knowledge of vocabulary. The more language you put into your brain, the better you will become at getting it out onto paper!
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