Writing Well When English Is Not Your First Language

Photo by Thought Catalog from Unsplash

Writing well is difficult in any event. Writing well in another language is an even greater challenge. I salute the people who do this in English.

My purpose here is to help those who struggle with the language and strive for a better performance in English.

The Trend in Business Is English Only

The need for better performance in English is growing. Many international companies and organizations have changed to English only. All communications within the company or organization must be in English  For non-native speakers of English this is a special challenge. 

For the past thirteen years, I have been coaching managers in business and government who need to perform in English even though that is not their first language. In the course of their duties, they write reports, make presentations, and participate in meetings. All in English. Performance at a high level is expected. 

Performance Is the Key

Let me give you an example. 

Someone I know worked for the World Bank and her monthly reports were routinely rejected. She was the Country Director in a South American country and her reports were too wordy. She was thinking in Spanish and writing in English, a more direct and succinct language. Her supervisor, who had to read many reports, wanted something short and sweet. My friend resisted making the  change and eventually lost her job. 

 What Is the Path to Improving Performance?

I recommend two strategies: One is long term and the other is a checklist for review when submitting a document.

There are three things that you need to do over a long period:

Read extensively in English. 

It can be fiction or nonfiction. Try to get a feel for the language. Observe how adept writers perform. Take note of how the writer treats the subject. How it grabs your attention. Is it smooth and well connected? 

     Get in the mental frame of written English. An excellent     book for this is On Writing Well by  William Zinsser. Read also in your field and use the best writers as models. It is OK to copy the style of someone you admire. 

Write Every Day

Practice every day. I know that it is stressful to write in another language. That is why many don’t do it. 

To improve, though,  you must practice. Make it a daily routine. It doesn’t have to be much, a few short paragraphs will do. Write quickly and do not stop to edit or look for vocabulary. Do that later.

Avoid constant interruptions to make corrections. These make writing much slower. Get the thought down and, at another time, edit and look for words in the dictionary.

Work to expand your vocabulary. 

Along with reading, make a big effort to add to your vocabulary. The more words you have in your frontal brain, the better. This is also important for general knowledge. 5 tips for efficient vocabulary learning by Fluent up gives you some useful ideas on how to increase your vocabulary.  Also, update your technical vocabulary in your field.  

The Effort is Big as is the Reward  

I know that these steps take discipline. The reward is to have an important skill added to your arsenal. If you want to move up in your organization, writing well may be important. Be patient. Accept it as a challenge. It is worth it. To write well in any language is an asset. To write well in another language such as English sets you apart. In this globalized world of business and science, English is the official language. A strong competence will be a great career asset.

Now for the checklist before submitting your document, an excellent article to review before submitting is by Stephanie Thurnott How to Take Your Writing From Okay to Awesome.

I suggest you review these items before submitting:

  1. Is it succinct?

Sentences in English tend to be short, 12 to 16 words. Following along, select short words rather than long ones.

Eliminate complicated sentences. Break them up. Review your document on Hemmingway, a free app for editing. It will tell you if your sentences are too complicated. 

  1. Is it direct? 

Is the message of your writing clear? Don’t make the reader guess. Come out with it right away. I repeat. Hit them with the main point between the eyes. 

  1. Does it have a hook?

Do you grab the reader’s attention right from the first?

  1. Do you back up what you say with some evidence– an example or some information?

The ideal is to have a well educated, tough-minded native speaker review your work. It is pure luck if you have someone like this available to you. In this regard, I am willing to work with a few highly motivated individuals. You can contact me through Linkedin. 

Be patient and persistent.It is worth the effort. You have something valuable to communicate. Share that with your readers.

Published by pitman

I am a Business English Coach who works with managers and other professionals helping them to perform at their best when it is most important: such as a presentation, meeting with an important client, or a job interview. I am also a resource person for teachers of Business English.

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