A Self-Interview about Becoming a Non-Native English Writer
A chat with myself to help non-native English speakers improve their writing
English is not my first language. I had to learn it. Once I mastered it, I then qualified to teach it.
Today I identify myself as a non-native English writer too. Not because I’ve written a book in English (is one book enough to make you a writer? Not sure), but because I write in English every day.
I’m more confident writing in my second language than in Italian — my mother tongue. I only use Italian to write text messages on WhatsApp while I write blogs, articles, social media posts, emails, journal entries, academic papers, podcast show notes, and Master’s dissertations in English.
How did I get to this level?
How did I manage to become a confident non-native English writer in my adulthood?
I decided to interview myself to let you know. If you’d like to become a confident English as a second language writer, I hope the following chat will somehow help you.
Interviewer (me — I): Fabio! Thanks for agreeing to the interview about your journey as a non-native English writer.
Fabio (also me — F): Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
I: First of all, Fabio, tell us briefly how you mastered English. What’s your secret?
F: No secret. I “just” spoke, read, wrote, studied, and listened to English for many years. This helped me become a highly qualified teacher of the language too.
I: Cool. So how did you begin your journey as a non-native English writer?
F: It all began in my 20s when I started writing the most boring texts you could ever imagine. I took several English language exams so I would write stuff just to show examiners and teachers that I was able to put words and sentences together.
I wrote complaint letters to hotel managers that didn’t exist. I wrote emails to friends I didn’t have, and formal reports for mayors of imaginary cities. I also wrote academic essays, fiction stories and articles that no one but my teachers would read.
I did tons of writing. I mean, look at this photo:
That’s all the writing I did in preparation for the IELTS exam, the International English Language Testing System. All those texts are full of mistakes, of course.
I: Wow, that’s a lot. So what did you learn from that experience?
F: It was useful for two reasons: number 1, I improved my writing fluency. The more I wrote, the easier it became for me to write; number 2, I improved my vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure.
F: Writing is all about turning the invisible content of your mind into words that people can read. If you’re writing in a language that isn’t your own, though, you have fewer words at your disposal than you have in your first language, right?
F: So while writing, I would often have questions in my mind like How can I express this concept in English? Is this word spelt with an S or a C? Do I need this or that structure? I used this term five times already. I need a synonym! And stuff like that, y’know. I would then try to fill my linguistic gaps using translators, dictionaries and grammar books.
I: What about now? Do you still have doubts about how English works?
F: Of course I do. But it’s good to have doubts that you want to clarify. In fact, I became a better writer thanks to my doubts. The process I went through to clear them up helped me discover new things about the language.
You’ll never get to a point when you’re like, “Aaah finally I know English.” It doesn’t work like that as there’s always something to learn about the language and the art of writing too. I mean, I learned how to use semicolons only a week ago!
I: Love that. Okay Fabio, let’s take a quick break. Coffee?
I: You talked about grammar and vocabulary. How important are these for becoming a confident writer?
F: Extremely important. Essential. Crucial. BUT…! There’s a big ‘but’ here.
I: Go on.
F: I find that non-native English writers are obsessed with grammar and vocabulary. I, too, was concerned about the technicalities of the language. But with time I learned that structures and words are just two of the things that could make or break your text. So you can have perfect grammar but still write sentences that are confusing for the reader.
Let me show you what I mean. Look at these sentences:
I love my friends and their cats. They’re just beautiful! Sammy’s eyes are brown.
Perfect grammar. Who’s beautiful though? The friends, the cats or both? And who the hell is Sammy? A cat? A friend? And why are you telling me his eyes are brown? Is that what makes him beautiful? I don’t understand.
See what I mean?
F: Non-native English writers, in my experience, are offered way more support with grammar and vocabulary than with other important aspects of writing.
Connecting sentences and paragraphs is another issue I’ve noticed. I wrote a full article on how non-native English writers tend to overuse linking words such as ‘however,’ ‘in addition,’ ‘moreover,’ ‘therefore’ and so on.
I: Oh I saw that. It was boosted on Medium, wasn’t it?
F: I’m glad it was!
I: What else have you noticed?
F: Sentence length is another thing. In Italian, I find, it’s easier to write a long sentence without losing the reader. But in English that requires great writing abilities. I’ve seen students write texts full of endless disorganised sentences that do nothing but give me a headache.
I: I agree with you that becoming a confident writer involves more than mastering grammar and vocabulary. Other aspects need attention too: coherence, cohesion, register, tone, voice, punctuation, stylistic conventions.
Learning how to write well isn’t easy. Actually, writing is indeed the hardest skill to master for learners of English. There’s plenty of evidence of that in the English teaching literature.
So what did you do to improve these other aspects?
F: I read a lot.
I: Read what?
F: I read about what I’m interested in. Most importantly, I read the genres that I want to write in. Reading academic books and papers helped me write academic assignments. Reading nonfiction helped me write nonfiction. I would be hopeless at writing fiction stories. Do you know why?
I: Let me guess, you don’t read fiction?
F: Bravo Fabio.
I: Grazie. Okay, I have two more questions to ask you. One is about Medium and writing online and the last one is about your top tip for non-native English writers. Shall we have another coffee first?
F: Man, I’m Italian. I’ll never say no to coffee.
I: Aaah…nice! So, Medium. Many non-native English writers are afraid of posting online because they think their English isn’t ‘up to standard’ yet — whatever that means. They may be afraid of making mistakes or sounding stupid. What would you say to these writers?
F: I understand that. If publishing stuff is scary for English native speakers, imagine how terrifying this could be for someone who’s not one.
That said, here’s my advice. Removing mistakes from your writing takes time. It personally took me over a decade. No one in the history of the world has ever gone from crap English to excellent English in a couple of days. Not even a couple of years. So be patient.
But keep writing.
You can still publish your imperfect articles online. At the beginning or end of an article, say something like this:
English isn’t my first language but I’m trying to improve it. If you spot any mistakes or have any other suggestions on how to improve my writing, please let me know in the comments.
You’ll be amazed by how many people are willing to help you.
This is an example of a writer who did this. So use writing platforms to your advantage. Use them to practice in front of an audience and get useful feedback from other writers. But, please, never apologise for your ‘bad English’. You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.
I: Great advice. Okay, last question. What’s your top tip for non-native English speakers who want to improve their writing skills? What’s the secret?
F: Again with this ‘secret’. Man, there are no secrets!
I: All right, all right!
F: So my top tip is this: look at writing the way you would look at music. Say you wanted to learn how to play the guitar. What would you do?
I: Me? Erm…I would spend time playing it. I’d listen to the music I wish to play, I’d practice, try out new things, and get feedback from a teacher and other guitarists. I would also read books on how to improve my guitar skills, take guitar classes, study my favourite guitarists to improve my sounds and technique, and play alone in my room as well as on stage. Most of all, I would try to have as much fun as I can.
F: Yes. Do the same with your writing skills.
I: Thanks for your time, Fabio. I hope this interview will help the non-native English writer who’s reading us.
F: Thank you. I really hope so too. And if the reader has any questions for me, please tell them to drop them in the comments.
I reply to everyone.