5 Tools for Improving Your Second-Language Writing Skills

5 Tools for Improving Your Second-Language Writing Skills

How do you start writing in a foreign language? Swear off writing in your own.

At least that’s what I did when a teacher — not the inspiring kind — decimated my love for both reading and writing in my last year of high school.

I grew up in USSR, the country best known in 1980s as both the “Evil Empire” and as the nation where Moscow’s subway often featured more readers than Lenin’s library.

I was no exception. By the age of 16 I read most of my parents’ 600-book strong library, I dabbled in poetry writing, and I had penned a few short stories. I didn’t think of writing as my profession, but I didn’t discount it either.

Until Svetlana Vassilievna, my Russian language and literature teacher, decided to embarrass me.

Who needs literature?

We called her Baba Yaga — after a Russian fairytale character who kidnapped children and threatened to eat them — for good reason. In class she tolerated no opposing arguments, discouraged creativity, and berated every mistake we made. During recess she preyed on us looking for transgressions of uniform, behavior, or both.

When one day she overheard me say that I wouldn’t need Russian literature in the university I was applying to, she decided to teach me a lesson. She began failing me.

After my mother, horrified at the prospect of an F on my school transcript, intervened, Svetlana Vassilievna offered a makeup opportunity. She had me stand up in front of the entire class, glared at me through her large, round glasses, and for fifteen minutes quizzed me about class struggle themes in Dostoevski, Tolstoi, and Mayakovski.

I wanted to die.

A change of perspective

When I came home that day I burned all my short stories, ripped up my poems, and decided there would be no more reading — or writing — for me.

Then I moved to the United States and had to include an elective in my pre-med curriculum. Creative writing was the only course I could fit into my schedule.

During the first few classes, I sat there perplexed: Not only did my fellow students engage in open discussions with the professor, speak their minds, and ask questions, but the teacher also gave actual instructions on the craft of writing. At the end of that semester I wrote a paper on Mrs. Dalloway and Taoism. I got a B+.

I was hooked.

Since then, writing — but only English writing — has accompanied me through my master’s degree and several careers in non-writing fields.

In my free time I translated Russian poetry into English and wrote short stories.

When I moved abroad and couldn’t find a job, I began writing full-time. The result? A debut novel, several personal essays in national outlets, a screenplay, and a finished pilot.

I never went back to writing in Russian and although I still make mistakes common to non-native English speakers — “a” and “the” continue to elude me — I now write in English full time.

The following have been, and continue to be, invaluable in my journey as a writer in a foreign language:

1. An active community of writers

Ever since I began writing I’ve made sure, wherever I’ve lived, to get together with people writing in English on a weekly basis.

Not only do these groups guarantee a constant creative atmosphere; they also offer a continuous stream of writing samples I can read, provide input on, and learn from.

There’s also the added bonus of making friendships, but you probably already knew that.

2. Writing workshops and retreats

If you can afford it, take one. Most likely it’ll be the best several days you’ll ever spend. You’ll learn from some great writers, have a chance to hear what they think of your work, and make new contacts in the writing world.

3. An aversion to cliches

If you hail from another country and have been speaking another language for most of your adult life, chances are you are not aware of cliches in English.

My first stories were littered with them. I couldn’t figure out how to recognize which phrase made a cliche and which one didn’t.

After struggling for a few years, I decided that the best way to avoid those pests would be to come up with a different turn of phrase for every potential cliche.

4. Active reading

I read my favorite essays and stories with a pen in hand. Whenever I see a word I don’t know or a sentence structure that mesmerizes me, I record it. Then, either while walking or waiting for a bus or exercising, I practice making sentences with it in my head. Next time I write something I often discover that word or that structure has somehow made it into my narrative.

5. A dictionary and a thesaurus

There are moments when I’d be writing and suddenly instead of an English word my brain would produce a Russian word.

If after a few minutes of concentration I still cannot remember the English word I want, I open a dictionary (or go to Google translate) and look up the translation of that Russian word.

Then I check the thesaurus for the synonym that feels right.

And finally? Don’t wait for something inspiring — or someone inspiring — in your life to give you a push. It may just be the opposite that does the trick.

Are you fluent in several languages? Which do you prefer for writing?

Filed Under: Craft
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28 comments

  • Ben Oliveira says:

    Amazing tips.
    I live in Brazil and to practice, I love reading books in English and translate.
    Thank you.

  • Thank you for sharing! It’s a challenge to write in another language. You prove that’s possible.

  • Robert says:

    These were some great tricks. I do not write in a second language but the advice here is great. I think someone who freelances should try and learn how to write in a different language.

  • Peter Rey says:

    Mastering a new language is also learning a new way to think. It takes time and it can be done only if one loves the language he or she is studying.
    However it’s also a deeply rewarding experience. In fact, when I switch language it’s like I change parts of my personality too. It can be refreshing, to say the least. =)

  • Claus Martin says:

    If one masters a foreign language to a degree, that one thinks in that language, then one profits from having 2 different thinking structures available.

    And then our thinking is much more flexible, which supports also our creativity and problem solving skills.

    In English for instance, more verbs are used than in German and also much more special words. For each tool there is a special word for instance.

    German uses more a hierarchical structure of substantives. One can combine a substantive of a top general level and then add substantives from lower levels.

    With that method it is possible, to construct real monsters of substantives, which bureaucrats love.

    But also the thinking is influenced, because it is very easy to organize projects for instance, because it is quite natural in German, to start with a general overview and then go down step by step into details.

    You can see that also, how philosophers think. The German Immanuel Kant starts with very general principles, the English philosopher David Hume starts with observations and examples.

    And therefore David Hume is much easier to understand.

    English probably supports detailed observations and avoids, to draw too early general conclusions.

    One can see that in the writings of Darwin; for instance, when he describes his observations of rain worms.

  • I write in Hindi language. ….

  • O says:

    I’m writting nowdays, am a narrative writer..big problem : I grew up in India and matured in Los Angeles. In school i learned everything in UK english. College in US made fun of me when I said ‘full stop’ instead’period’ at end of a sentence. I spoke 3 to 4 languages in India. Now I speak ok english but as you can tell English writing just not improving still echos foreignerrrrr.
    But my piece targeted for US crowd. Any suggestion any softwares, any websites where I check grammer & phrases….thank you….

    • Rebecca says:

      I think there are many websites that would allow you to check grammar, etc but the best thing I’d recommend is becoming a part of a writing group where your fellow group members are native English speakers. They can help you with grammar and you can help them with some other aspect of writing. Good luck!

  • Wendy says:

    Interesting. A while ago, I read “Polite Lies” by Kyoko Mori, who, like you, writes exclusively in English despite being raised in a non-English speaking country because she wasn’t taught creative writing in her native language. (Not to mention speaking Japanese automatically places the woman in an inferior position, even if she’s technically equal to the man she’s speaking to.) Perhaps that’s the true reason the English language dominates the world book market.

  • Lea says:

    Such an interesting story Rebecca, thanks for sharing your life experience. Sadly, teachers may not only awake your talent but also restrain it. I am happy to hear that creepy incident didn’t stop you on your way to writing success.
    Talking about ways to improve writing skills and avoid cliches, using online tools like https://unplag.com/ can be a great help to non-native writers, because they read different sources of information, hence, need to use a plagiarism detection software to avoid accidental plagiarism and similar constructions.
    Writing in a second language is complicated but your inspiring tips definitely make this process easier.

  • Dina says:

    Dear Rebecca! Thanks for sharing! I’d like to improve my knowledge of English. Would you advise me please where I can find any source of full English grammar and conversational English. Thanks a lot! Dina.

  • Miia-Tatjaana says:

    Amazing! Thank you for sharing! My first language is Finnish and I just love to write in English because most of the things just sound stupid in Finnish. It’s weird especially because I used to hate to study English so much that I would skip every class I could. Sometimes it still feels like my English is at the same level as it was while failing everything in elementary school and barely surviving through it in junior high. Now I am a starting writer and I am constantly told that I should rather write in Finnish because there’s no way I could market my work in the right way or speak in the right way for my audience. That is frustrating, it’s my second language but so what! These words were welcomed encouragement.

  • Andressa A. says:

    This is exactly the post I was looking for! I am Brazilian, so Portuguese is my first language, but I am fluent in English. And I want to start writing in English, because I think I will find more publishing opportunities that way (since publishing is not easy and is almost never profitable in my country, unfortunately). Thank you for your advice! I was not sure how to start, but your post gave me some very good ideas.

  • It really is fantastic. Good site
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    Thank you for publishing this article

  • Amin says:

    Thank you for the ideas Rebecca. I also use Google’s “speech to text” in order to write in a foreign language. It works amazingly well. There is also Lingista.com. It happens to me a lot that I recall specific words in other languages while writing. This tool helps me while writing because it allows me to write in a mixture of languages and it translates it on-the-go. All in all, nice advices and thanks again Rebecca.