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:

  1. The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
  2. Make a Name for Yourself by Scott Ginsberg
  3. 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:

  1. Randy Pausch on Time Management
  2. Steve Jobs talks to Stanford students
  3. 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.

4. Write

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.

6. Proofread

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:

  1. If you have a word processor, you can use the spell checker that comes with it.
  2. If you are using Firefox as your web browser, you can use the built-in spell checker support.
  3. Another option for having a spellchecker in your browser is Google toolbar.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. Tips on Using Commas at Dumb Little Man.
  2. Top 4 Guidelines for Using Commas Effectively at About.com.

10. Relax

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!

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55 Responses to Ten Practical Tips for Writing in English

  1. Skellie says:

    Jarkko — I’m a native English speaker and very much mono-lingual and I still read this post from top to bottom. Great work! Some fantastic tips for the thousands of non-native speaking bloggers doing it tough.Will be linking to it in the coming Web Worker Digest :)

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  3. Xue says:

    Thank you for this post. Nice to read something from fellow citizen. Kiitokset, Suomeen ja suomalaisiin törmääminen maailmalla ja internetissä on aina mukava kokemus.

  4. Bitten says:

    Nice article and its like suited for me: I’ve considered starting an English blog.My tip: When you’re not sure how a word is written (“consciousness or conciousness?”), use Google. The more results you get, the better chance its right. I sometimes use this method because its fast. Though, in some cases it doesn’t apply (“youre or you’re?”).

  5. Geert says:

    Thanks, Jarkko. Some good tips in there. Especially the reverse dictionary, I like.

  6. Nice article. From my own experience: the ‘Write’ point is the one you should pay the most attention to. You’ll learn from your own mistakes.

  7. Jorge says:

    I wrote a blog in Portuguese for a year because I wasn’t sure about my English skills (and I though Portugal+Brazil was large enough for a niche blog – how wrong I was…).I decided four months ago to start writing in English. I still don’t feel comfortable and each post takes me a painfully long time to write, but it this is a completely different world. For the exact same niche (information visualization), I have a much higher number of comments, relevant authors actually read the blog and email me and I even got a writing gig (they will proofread the posts…).So, if you are unsure that your writing skills are good enough they probably are. Start writing, keep reading and do your best to avoid stupid errors. With time you’ll improve. From time to time take a look at your archives and you’ll notice it.

  8. M says:

    I am not a native speaker although I have been speaking English since 3 and I have a strange British accent that no one can figure out is fake. Anywho, my tip for non-native speakers.Listen to lots of radio, podcasts etc. EMULATE the way they speak. You may sound silly, but by emulating, your tone and pronunciation gets closer and closer to the real thing, and eventually you’ll get it.Music help a lot – not hip hop, but with properly sung words. This has helped me learn Mandarain and Japanese. Read the lyrics as you go along and sing it by heart in the shower, in the car, etc.I know many people who cant speak in a certain language, but can sing in that language very well.More importantly, if you want to learn it, you have to want to speak it. BE BRAVE. You cant learn if you are meek. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, even native speakers go wrong sometimes. Unless you meet an @$$hole, no one would laugh at you for making a mistake when they know full well that you are not a native speaker.In conclusion:Listen, Emulate, Be brave, Speak. Repeat.

  9. I’m with Skellie on this. I’m a native English-speaker and I read the entire post. It’s fascinating to hear what it’s like for people that didn’t grow up with English as their first language.Maybe these tips can help me learn a bit of Italian or German at some point, though. :-) Great job, Jarkko!

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  11. Jarkko Laine says:

    @Skellie: Thanks! I was a bit scared that this post would be uninteresting to the English speaking audience, so it’s great to hear that you liked it.Also, if you have any tips to add, that would be great!@Xue, @Bitten: Likewise! It’s great to see that I’m not the only Finn hanging on these blogs :) @Bitten: That’s a quick and handy tip. I do it often using http://www.googlefight.com.But then again, you have to be really careful with it because even if most people wrote cafe with a “k”, that still wouldn’t mean that it’s correct ;)

  12. I’m going to second Skellie on this one… I would have come to read the article no matter what, just because I like you. But I actually read it, which is pretty awesome considering my only language is English and I’m paid to write in it.Awesome job, Jarkko. Some of this stuff never would have even crossed my mind.

  13. This is really nice. Coming from a French community, I’m always aware of how hard it could be to communicate with others on the Internet. Nicely done.

  14. Soccer Rag says:

    Great tips – I’ve mainly used three of these to improve my language skills and that is to read, write and speak more. Really the most basic and useful.

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  16. Jarkko Laine says:

    @Geert: Good to hear that you found something useful from this post!@Stefan: Absolutely! One more thing I might still add would be to read your own writing after some time has passed. I don’t do it often enough myself, but when I do, I always learn something new about the mistakes I make. It’s funny how to notice some of your mistakes you need to get away from the text for a week or so and then come back to it like it was completely new…@Jorge: I’m so glad you switched to English, because your blog seems great. Great job, keep it up!@M: Great tip! All it requires is a bit of courage and willingness to make a fool out of yourself.@Joshua: Why not Finnish? ;) @Naomi: Thanks!@James: Good point! I guess in Canada you have some of the these problematics even if it wasn’t for the Internet? Do you study English in the French speaking parts and French in the English speaking? Or are the two communities completely separated language wise?@Soccer Rag: Yep. Using the language is what gets you the furthest. The rest is about fine tuning.

  17. Jarkko: Why not Finnish? Well, I’ve got personal interests in Italian and German. I’d like to spend a fair bit of time in Italy in the next few years, and there are several German authors whose works I want to read in the original language.My first language project, though, is to learn Latin. Hello Virgil!

  18. Jarkko Laine says:

    Fair enough :) Italian would be a cool language to learn someday. German on the other hand… I studied it in high school and found it quite tricky (not quite as tricky as Finnish though, from what I’ve heard).Anyway, learning a new language is always fun!

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  20. Hello,Really good article. I made a summary (in french) of the key points and I hope it will link more people back to your article. And It is so true that simple actions may result in great accomplishment.

  21. Matt says:

    11 – watch a lot of series in english, you’ll get those earlier and at the same time you’ll learn something :)

  22. Jarkko Laine says:

    @Mohamed: Thanks! I checked out your translation, and think you did a great job in summarizing my key points.@Matt: Good point! I’ve learned some very simple japanese that way, by watching Japanese drama series with English subtitles. By no means would I be able to speak japanese with anyone, but I think watching the series has made me more ready to learn the language if I ever decide to do so.

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  24. @Jarkko: I agree, I should read my own posts, but well, I just never think of it!The most important thing: Trow yourself in the deep and just write. As you pointed out at #10; many people just scan the text and won’t even notice a comma or typo!By the way, other people should read this article too, so I posted it at my blog.

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  26. mac says:

    I always teach my children to watch English movie without looking at the subtitle. I teach them to get use to the English language environment and that way they can improve their English and the pronunciation.

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  28. chris says:

    A fantastic post Jarkko,I have been teaching English in Spain for 15 years and have been giving this kind of advice to my students. I’m going to put a link to this on my “blog” for students and also give it as homework.I think learners will pay more attention as it is written by a “non-native” speaker and it will also serve as an example as to what can be achieved.Cheers

  29. Jarkko Laine says:

    @Stefan: Thanks for linking! I hope your readers will find it helpful.@mac: I like that. And actually even the subtitled version can be really helpful – compared to the dubbed versions. Even if you read the texts, you still hear the language, and that keeps the brain active.@Chris: Thanks, man! It feels great to know that this post can help your students as well!

  30. Coming from a German speaking background myself I can attest that you hit the nail on the head.Great post that will those who currently struggle with English.What helped me most was reading a lot of books and writing in English every day.

  31. Jarkko Laine says:

    Thanks, Monika! I always assumed you have English as your first language – I guess that just shows how good your writing is!Reading and writing are my favorite tips as well. There’s just no substitute for practice.

  32. Thank You for this post.I’m yet to master the usage of punctuations, the links you provided were really helpful.I wrote a post on MakeUseOf listing some online resources to improve English. You can find it here:http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/40-online-resources-to-expand-your-english-vocabulary/Let me know if you found the post useful :)

  33. Jarkko Laine says:

    Hey Shankar! That’s a great list and will definitely be useful to me in the future. Thanks for sharing it.

  34. Reading books is right to be number one. Growing up, I was surrounded with a lot of books. Mostly fiction. I enjoyed reading them over and over again. I suppose that is where I acquired the natural ability to think in English. Some of my friends have a hard time expressing themselves in English because they have been trained to think in our local tongue and so are bothered to translate the ideas in their minds.

  35. Goldy says:

    Great and useful tips up there.I also run a blog in English and guess what! English is not my native language :) It was kinda hard at the beginning, but as people say: “Every beginning is hard”, so I kept going and improving my English…

  36. Great post!Like Skellie, I’m also a native English speaker – however I’ve hired a lot of article writers from a variety of different countries over the years.Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to tell articles written by non-native English speakers from those written by native English speakers, so I’ve stopped hiring outside of English-speaking countries.Having said that, if non-native English writers would follow your tips, I’m sure they would fair much better.Brent

  37. Graham says:

    If you follow these steps you will write a good article. Do you need to BrainStorm?

  38. Fight Videos says:

    Ok, these are exactly the steps that I followed years ago when I was learning English in school. Now, I find that these tips really work.

  39. space code says:

    I think reading it a really good way to learn a language. Because then you can build up your vocabulary.And getting friends who speak the language is essential also.

  40. rake says:

    Nice step for learning English! i should follow it at the first during learning English! Nice tips you are giving!

  41. Domenico says:

    Great post, it’s really good. I also have blog in English, but it’s not my native language. Writing and reading are certainly the best ways to learn a language.

  42. Sanja says:

    i blog in german and english. and i can say that all your tips and hints are really helpful. thanks for sharing!

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  44. Shafeeq says:

    Really, all these are very useful tips to learn English.Thanks a ton for such help

  45. Raynold says:

    Thanx so much for all the tips. I use English as a second language. My English is not really good but I aspire to be a published writer writing in English. I think my level is just intermediate. Do you think my dream is worth pursuing? Thank you.

  46. MD. Arifur Rahman says:

    its really goods things. actually English is my second language. i am abale to talk to english eassly with people. but when i writing in english i am faceing some word making problems .I hope your tips will helpe me lots of.Arif //BD

  47. Ches says:

    Great i’ll link this writing…

  48. Camille says:

    Thank you for all the tips!I love the English language and have finished my studies in England. I have started writing little texts in English and I’m amazed to see that I start doubting about things that I thought I mastered.Writing is completely different from speaking. When you make mistakes while speaking you’ve got the impression that they go unnoticed. It is also rare that native speakers correct you: as long as they understand, usually they don’t think that it’s a problem to you. Writing yet is completely different, because mistakes are here to remain and that’s a bit embarrassing. I personnally don’t want native speakers to think that I’m not showing respect to their language.It’s good to see that I’m not ther only one in that case!

  49. ejaz says:

    good ticks has been givin to that people wwhich are intrested in english-improment. but some tips about improment of pronanciation must be mention.and also about speling correction

  50. septian says:

    That’s a great post, since my English isn’t really good, it makes me more confident to write in English. I’ll create my practice blog ASAP.

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  52. sagar porlekar says:

    this very good.

  53. ricardo says:

    gracias!… perdon.Thank!

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  55. Navin Kumar says:

    Thanks a lot for giving more and easy steps to develop the english knowledge.

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