So you want to improve your writing? Some suggestions for students
By Mark Hershey
Mark Hershey has an MA in TEFL and has been teaching in Asia for over a dozen years. He is especially interested in theories of learning and the discovery process.
I once went to a professional basketball game between the Seattle Supersonics and the Boston Celtics. I arrived a couple of hours early. After picking up my ticket and settling into my seat, I noticed that the court was completely empty, save for one basketball player from the Boston Celtics. The player was tall, but awkward looking. His legs were not very long compared to other players. He ran up and down the court, as though he was running in slow motion. He took a lot of shots at the basket, some of which went in. When he jumped for the ball when it bounced out of the hoop, it didn’t look like he could jump very high.
Something funny happened when the game eventually got going. That slow, awkward player scored about 30 points. He threw himself on the floor for loose balls. He passed the ball to other teammates so they could score. He played with an incredible energy that simply overwhelmed his opponents. This player’s name was Larry Bird and he went on to become one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. He did this despite being less talented than most of his fellow players. The difference between Bird and many of his contemporaries is that he played with an unrivaled passion for the game. He combined that passion with determination and hard work to be the best player he could be.
Bird’s story is not unlike the stories of some other very successful celebrities whose devotion to their craft, not their talent, is what set them apart from their peers. This is also true in language learning. Case studies of highly successful learners have demonstrated that some of the most successful learners have been those learners who have developed a passion for the language and culture under study. This passion has been so strong that they have even talked of developing a second self when speaking or writing in their second language. One learner described it as wearing two hats – one for his native language, another for his second language. One of my former students was a good example of this. Despite never having lived outside the country, and never having studied at an international school, he had developed very good pronunciation of English. His intonation, facial expressions, and gestures were especially strong features of his speaking ability. When I asked Dat what his secret was he said that he had just developed a passion for the movies. He immersed himself so much in the language and the characters that he could imagine himself as an actor in the movies he was watching. This doesn’t mean that he had lost his Vietnamese identity; when he spoke Vietnamese he was as Vietnamese as his neighbors. It is just that when he spoke English he had developed a second self, or another hat to wear.
So, the first question to ask yourselves when wondering how to write in a second language, is whether you can find something to be passionate about when learning the language. If you are not sure if you can bring that level of passion to the language then the next question to ask is how else you can be motivated to learn. Keeping a long term goal in mind – a goal for a good job, for example, can also be highly motivating. Once you have located your passion, then finding some strategies that work for you is the next step.
One key to improving is to closely examine models of good writing. You can go to the library and check out one of the books on writing, such as William R. Smalzer’s, Write to be Read. Look at the title of one of the essays and skim the introduction. What do you already know about this topic? Take a few notes on the ideas that come to mind. Read through the whole essay, looking for the major message or main idea the author is trying to convey. Locating a main idea is not always easy as sometimes the writer will have more than one important point he or she wants to convey. However, you can use several clues to help guide you towards that target. Begin by asking, “What does the writer most want me to remember when I finish reading this article?” Skim the introduction and the conclusion as one or the other or both could contain the main idea. Next you can look to see if there are ideas that repeat themselves in different forms (using synonyms for the same ideas). Thinking about the author’s purpose and who his or her audience is can also be clues to finding the message. At the very least find a point that is especially interesting to you.
After you have identified an important message of the essay you are reading, narrow your focus, and pick out just one paragraph that you liked. Write down the main points of that paragraph. Do not write in complete sentences, just choose a few interesting ideas. Then turn the book over, and try to write that paragraph yourself, keeping in mind the message and purpose of the author. After you have finished, go back and look at the original paragraph. Do you notice any differences between the model and what you wrote? Pick a language focus. Underline two or three things about the grammar or vocabulary that are different. Perhaps the author used the passive voice in places while you only used the active voice. Perhaps the author had two or three adjective/noun combinations that you didn’t use, combinations that seemed interesting to you. Afterwards, turn the book over and try to write that paragraph again (This does not mean trying to copy the whole paragraph of the writer; it just means trying to pick up some vocabulary and grammar choices of the author). You can do this two or three times before picking a new paragraph to work through the same process. A number of great writers learned to write by noting how other writers used their language choices to communicate their messages.
Following a noticing practice, or between cycles of noticing, an exploration of new ideas is greatly helpful. Do some google searches for articles on similar topics. Take notes of new ideas you can add to what you are writing. At some point you might want to then expand your paragraph practice into writing a whole essay on a similar topic.
A key to improving the grammar and vocabulary of your writing is to narrow your focus, instead of trying to fix all the mistakes on your paper all at once. One of the best students I ever had was a young Chinese boy who kept a writing diary. In his diary he would work on just two errors he made every week. He would work on writing good examples of these two errors. Sometimes he would look for grammar books, or for grammar guides online, that had practical exercises for him to work on. The next week, he would pick out two new writing problems he had and would do the same. This was not the only strategy he used, but by the end of the course, he had greatly improved his writing. The mistake that some students make who use a writing log, is to just write down an example or two of their mistakes, but then forget about them the rest of the week. If you are this kind of student, let me ask you this: have you ever gotten good at anything with this amount of practice?Also, if you do not think this approach would work for learning the piano, or playing tennis, then why would you think it would work for learning to write well?
The work of writing can be compared to having two wings on a bird. The exercises above are one wing, but the other wing is reading. Both wings are needed to get you off the ground. Many students assume that once they are studying in an academic program, they no longer should read novels or biographies or other books of interest. However, it is important to not only read your academic textbooks, but to also engage in some fluency reading on a regular basis. For fluency reading you need to find something you enjoy reading, that will be at your level of reading, ideally even below your level of reading, so that you do not have to look up many words in the dictionary. In this kind of reading, it is important that you can read for twenty minutes or so in unbroken concentration, where the language can flow easily through your mind.
Being a good reader also means having a conversation with what you are reading, to connect with the ideas of the author. Good readers do this naturally. One way you can practice this is to pick up a book of interest to you that is not too challenging for you to read. You can try some of the Penguin or Oxford Readers in the library. As you read, try to notice any ideas or actions of the story that connect to your own ideas or experiences. Allow yourself to pause for a moment to reflect on those ideas or memories that connect to the ideas in the story. Crease back the top corner of the book to come back to it later. After 20 minutes or longer of this kind of active reading, go back to those pages. Stop and take out a notebook. On one page of your notebook, draw a line down the middle. On the left hand side of the paper you can write down the words of the author, the quotes, from the pages from your book that you creased. On the other side, write down how you connected to the ideas in the quotes. Were there actions in the story that made you remember stories from your own experience? Were there ideas that you agreed with or gave you insights or inspiration? Were there ideas that you disagreed with or even made you feel angry, sad, or even romantic? Write those down on the right side of the paper. This practice is called the Double-Entry Diary Approach to reading and it is meant to help all readers do what good readers do naturally.
You might find that after some weeks or even days of this practice that it is no longer necessary or useful. But some people do some form of this practice all their lives. After my mother died, and I had the opportunity of going through her estate, I noticed that many of her books had notes on the pages: thoughts and arguments (followed by questions or even exclamations points!). She liked having a conversation with the writer no matter what she was reading. Therefore, you might also find that this practice is useful for you for the rest of your lives, and no matter what kind of reading you are doing. Or you might even find that it works better for other kinds of reading besides fluency reading. Feel free to experiment and reflect on what works best for you.
While fluency reading is a good idea, it is also important to read some texts that are challenging; not so challenging that you have to look up every single word in the dictionary, but challenging enough so that you are facing new ideas and vocabulary to bump up your skill a level. You can also try the double entry practice mentioned above or something similar. Keep notes of new vocabulary. Perhaps you can use flashcards to help you remember new words. Or you might want to record the new words on your phone, with the definitions, and play them back to yourself at various times during the day.
Good readers start with trying to just guess the gist of the article first on their first read through of the article. They also guess at vocabulary based on the context the words appear in. The second or third time you read through an article is the time to pull out your dictionaries and read with a focus on the new vocabulary or grammar you are encountering. When noticing vocabulary it is a good idea to pay attention to not only single words, but collocations, or word combinations. One main difference between an advanced learner and an intermediate learner is that the advanced learner has a rich store of collocations in his repertoire. He knows that “blond hair” collocates, but not “blond car.” He knows that a “common disease” works in English, but not a “popular disease” even though “common” and “popular” are synonyms. As mentioned previously, this habit of noticing word combinations of other writers, is also an important tool in improving one’s writing.
One final practice that connects good reading strategies to writing exercises mentioned earlier is to allow yourself to soak in the language and style of the author you are reading. One way to do this is to take a book or story that you really enjoy. Now imagine you are the author. What else could the author say? Try writing an extra chapter, or even just one extra page, in the author’s style. You could even create an extra character in his or her novel or story. Putting yourself in the authors’ shoes, if you allow yourself to fully immerse yourself in their style, is similar to the work of actors who imagine their characters breathing through them. You might find the words flowing more naturally, as though your favorite author is moving the pen for you. A cautionary word. This will only work if you love the work and style of the author. As mentioned earlier in this article, a key ingredient to success in language learning is passion, ideally a passion that allows you to wear two hats, to take on other identities as you write.
The ideas and tools mentioned here should not be taken as rules, but simply some points of departure, some train stops along your journey. Feel free to experiment with the suggestions, adapting them to suit your own style of learning. It is always a good idea to take a reflective attitude to your learning, to ask, “How well is this working for me?” “Are there other ways I can use the techniques or strategies I am learning?” Maybe you will come up with your own guidelines you can pass on to others. Developing into a good writer and reader is more of an art than a science, so not everything that works for one student will work for another. Most importantly, bring your motivation, your passion, and your reflective attitude to your learning. They will take you to some wonderful, unexpected places.