ESL Writing Tips

ESL Writing Tips

Whether you’re a writer who loves to write in English, or a student in an English class who needs to write an assignment, there are so many things to think about when putting words on the page.

Firstly, always remember that a first draft is just a first draft. Some students don’t want to write, because they’re scared their writing won’t be perfect. ‘Hey, just write!’ I say. ‘It’s only a first draft – you can always improve it later.’

However, it can help to…

Have a plan
I asked a great teaching colleague for her ‘top tip’.

‘When my students’ writing is a muddle, I know it’s because they didn’t organise their ideas first,’ she said. ‘Start with the ideas, write out your dot point notes, THEN worry about the English.’

Her other piece of advice: keep it simple! ‘It’s better to write shorter sentences that you know are correct, than long complex sentences that aren’t.’

And on the subject of long sentences…

Create, don’t translate
It may seem like a good idea to translate word by word from your language, but this can be a disaster. Why? Different languages have different sentence structure. (Think of what happens when speakers of English try to write in your language.)
Check and double-check your writing
I often highlight the errors in a piece of ESL writing, like this:
      She was excellent artist, but not enjoy talk about his work. ✗      
     (She was an excellent artist, but did not enjoy talking about her work. ✔)

Most students can quickly correct up to 50% of their own errors. Yes, 50%.
‘Oh, no! I forgot. I knew that really!’ they say.

There are plenty of tips on how to proofread your own work. For example, reading backwards, printing out on paper, reading aloud… and, of course, don’t trust your computer’s grammar and spelling checker to fix everything.

Find a friend – but don’t pretend
Should you ask your helpful English-speaking friend to correct everything you write? 

Yes, if you’re about to publish online or in print. 
No, if you’re writing for your English teacher, who wants to see the true level of your English.

Embrace your errors
Some people hate looking at their errors – they just click ‘accept all changes’. Others make the decision to look and learn: ‘OK. I used the wrong tense there, and here I forgot to use ‘the’, and this mistake was a spelling error… I’ll remember that for next time.’

Don’t rely 100% on listening
Do you learn English by watching English language movies or TV? That’s great, but you may miss word endings or small words. Try watching TV with captions to test yourself.
For example, you hear: They a world class company. I check the figure.✗
She really said: They’re a world class company. I checked the figures. ✔

Watch out for mix-ups
As your English gets better, watch out for ‘mix-ups’ – where you know two correct ways to write something, but get them confused.
For example: I’m looking forward to see you. ✗ Oh, no, that’s wrong!
Perhaps you knew I'm looking forward to seeing you and I hope to see you ­­– and mixed them up?

Write it right
Even English speakers can sometimes write the wrong word. When we think of a homophone (when two words sound the same), our brain tricks us…

Right/write, their/there/they’re, it’s/its, allowed/aloud, to/too/two, bare/bear… these are a few of the words that trip us up. Words that look similar, like were/where or then/than, can be a problem too.

Sorry! That’s English!

This article was kindly written by Clare Harris, an ESL teacher and writer who lives in Western Australia. 


She is also the founder of The Book Next Door, a business created specifically to provide Australian ESL resources for adults and young adults. Her many ESL books and e-books are also ideal resources for migrants, teachers, volunteer tutors, writers and would-be writers.
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