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Words of Encouragement for Non-Native English Writers Like Me

On doubting your writing, imitating writers, English grammar, and publishing with mistakes

I’ve recently interviewed a few English as a second language writers as part of my MA in Language Education. They said they aren’t fully confident about their English writing skills. 

“Why?” I asked them. 

They replied:

  • “I have trouble with English grammar.”
  • “I can’t understand the logic behind the use of punctuation.”
  • “I struggle with register (formal/informal/neutral).”
  • “I don’t know if what I write sounds natural or not.”
  • “I’m unsure about the words I use.”

I’m a non-native English speaker myself and, not long ago, those problems used to be mine. But today, I teach English for a living and get paid to write (in English) for language learning websites and magazines.

If you feel like those writers I’ve interviewed, I’ve got something to tell you that might be helpful. 

Doubting Your Writing

Being unsure about how you express your ideas on paper helps you improve your writing. I’ll prove it to you.

Look at this photo.

Those are complaint letters to hotel managers that didn’t exist, emails to friends I didn’t have, and essays about topics I wasn’t interested in. It’s meaningless, grammatically incorrect writing that I did in preparation for English language exams over ten years ago. I wanted to get certificates to prove to myself and the world that my English was good, so I had to display my writing abilities by producing the most uninteresting texts you could ever imagine.

It was boring, but it was worth it.

While completing those assignments, many language questions would often pop into my mind. 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. What synonyms could I use? This is the most terrible sentence I’ve ever seen in my life!

I would often try to solve those language mysteries using translators, dictionaries, and grammar books. I’m glad I did that. The process of investigating and clearing up my doubts helped me discover new things about the English language and made me a better writer by a tiny fraction.

Writing generates doubts. Doubts generate curiosity. Curiosity generates learning.

Today, I still find myself scratching my head while writing. I’m sure native English writers get stuck on linguistic problems too. So, relax. I promise you’ll never get to a point when you’re like, “Aaah finally I know everything about how English works.” It doesn’t work like that. 

Take Ryan Holiday as an example. He’s an American bestselling author who’s written a dozen books on Stoicism. You’d think he’s done with learning English. He’s not. In an article, he says that when he comes across a new word, he records it on a notecard to remember it. This should tell you that improving your English is an endless process. And so is improving your writing. 

Want to improve? Then write. If you’re not doing it, you’re not allowing doubts to arise. 

You won’t learn if you don’t have doubts. 

Imitating

“Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. […] Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.” — William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”

I agree. 

Proficient writers give you a model, an example, a pattern to follow. You need those, especially if you’re writing in a foreign language. Once you find a writer whose style intrigues you, you’ve found your best writing teacher. Study his or her style. Then reproduce it in your own way. 

My favourite writers are my favourite writers for a reason: I love how their writing makes me think. Derek Sivers is one of those writers. I’ve read all his books and then wrote one myself imitating his style. It made everything so much easier.

No, the aim is not to become them; it’s too late to be them. The aim, as Zinsser says, is to “become who you are supposed to become.”

By the way, imitating English speakers is also how I learned to speak English. 

Shamelessly and purposely do that too.

Beyond Grammar

There’s more to writing than correct grammar.

As an English teacher, I find that many non-native English writers are too obsessed with grammar and other technical aspects of the language such as spelling and punctuation. This often happens at the expense of other important aspects of writing like:

  • Guiding the reader through the text
  • Including only relevant information
  • Coming up with good quality ideas
  • Organising ideas coherently
  • Being aware of the audience
  • Removing redundant words
  • Varying sentence length
  • Planning what to write
  • Using paragraphs
  • Researching
  • Layout

As a teacher and former student of English, I know why this might happen.

“Conventional feedback approaches in contexts of English as a foreign language see teachers play a dominant role in the entire process, responding almost exclusively to written errors and filling student papers with red ink.” — Icy Lee (2016), Teacher Education on Feedback in EFL Writing: Issues, Challenges, and Future Directions, Tesol Quarterly, 50(2), 518–527.

Worse, many teachers aren’t writers themselves or haven’t been trained on how to teach writing (I know many). So, for some, it’s easier to point out mistakes than teach how to tell a story that people want to read. 

Am I giving you an excuse not to study grammar? 

I am not. To write well, you must have good grammar and a reasonably large vocabulary. Work on these — but not exclusively on these. As a learner, I too believed that writing well in English involved the mere production of grammatically correct sentences. But years of reading, writing, and teaching showed me that grammar is only one of the things that can make or break your message.

Quick example.

Yesterday I loved my friends and their cats. One day she saw me but I wasn’t under the weather. They were just beautiful! Sammy’s eyes were brown. You hated it, didn’t you? 

Perfect grammar. But…did you understand me? If you did, Italian cappuccino is on me.

Cup of coffee

Publish Imperfect Articles

Harsh truth: Removing mistakes from your writing takes time. 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. It personally took me over a decade, so be patient.

But write and publish.

Post your imperfect articles online. At the beginning or end of an article, you could 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 stories, please let me know in the comments.”

This is an example of a writer who did this on Medium. Turi Coppola is another one I know who’s doing it. 

Use writing platforms to your advantage. Use them to practice in front of an audience and get useful feedback from other writers. But never, never apologise for your ‘bad English’. 

You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.

Let’s Rock

Say you have intermediate guitar skills and you want to improve them. What would you do? Spend a couple of minutes thinking about it. Then read on.

This is what I would do:

I’d spend time playing the guitar. I’d listen to the music I wish to play, I’d practice, try out new things, and get feedback from a teacher or other guitarists, or both. I would also read books on how to improve my guitar skills, take guitar classes, study and imitate 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.

Learning to write well in a second language and learning the guitar work in the same way.

I hope you’ll keep on rocking 🤘.

What you’ve read is an edited version of another article I wrote. Thanks for reading it. I hope you found it useful. If you did, let me know about it in the comments. And if you need personalised help, you might want to check out my 3-week writing program for non-native English writers.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.