Years ago, I was teaching an advanced writing class in San Francisco. My students were foreign learners who hoped to enter an American university. They had just finished writing an essay about why they wanted to study in the USA.
Each student handed me their paper and then walked out of class. I sat down, grabbed the first one, and began to read. I read the first paragraph and was completely confused. The introduction was a mess. The sentences were extremely long and complex and were written in the passive voice. The vocabulary was complex and was used incorrectly.
As I continued to read, I was horrified. The student's essay was unintelligible. I couldn't even understand his main idea. Frustrated, I put the paper aside and grabbed another. I began to read the second essay and encountered the exact same problems. Once again there were long complex sentences that were impossible to follow or understand. Once again the student used complex vocabulary that was inappropriate and used incorrectly. Once again I had no idea what she was trying to say.
Bewildered, I went through every essay and found the same problems in each of them: convoluted sentences, overly complex vocabulary, overuse of the passive voice, and no clear message or point. The essays were unreadable.
"What a mess," I said to myself as I put down the last paper.
Why were these essays so bad, and why were they bad in such similar ways? The answer lies, again, with the hidden curriculum of schools. Each of my students had learned English writing in school. In their classes, they had been taught an academic style of writing that emphasized complex sentences, complex vocabulary, and the passive voice.
Both teachers and students use this style of writing in an attempt to sound intellectual. The truth is, however, that most academic writing is terrible. Academic journals, for example, are filled with convoluted sentences that seem designed to be as confusing as possible. Students, influenced by their professors, attempt to model this kind of writing. As my San Francisco class showed, the results are typically disastrous.
In contrast to academics, Nobel prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway was famous for his simple, direct style of writing. Hemingway typically used short sentences, simple phrases, and common vocabulary to create beautiful and powerful stories.
Though you are unlikely to write as well as Hemingway, his general style of writing is the best one to use. Most English learners write badly because they make their writing overly complex. They are trying to sound "intellectual" but instead end up sounding unintelligible. The solution is to write more conversationally. In other words, write like you speak.
Conversational writing is similar to (though not exactly the same) as speaking. When you speak English, you likely use clear, simple, direct sentences. You express your ideas as simply as possible.
Short, direct sentences are best. Break long sentences into a series of short, simple sentences. In most cases, use the active voice rather than the passive. Model your writing on journalists and Hemingway rather than on professors, journal articles, or other academic material.
Good writing is a process of cutting and simplifying. Your goal, therefore, is to communicate your ideas using as few words as possible. The simpler you make your writing, the more clear and powerful it will be.
So how do you develop a simple, conversational, and direct writing style? It turns out you already know the answer! In the last chapter, we discussed the importance of pleasure reading. The research shows that this kind of reading is not only a great way to improve your reading speed, reading comprehension, and vocabulary — it's also the best way to improve your writing.
Just as listening is the key to speaking, reading is the key to writing. The same principle applies: Understandable, compelling input is the foundation for effective output. In other words, listening is the foundation for speaking and reading is the foundation for writing.
Just as you focused on fairly easy listening to improve your speaking, you'll focus on fairly easy reading to improve your writing. Just as you focused on listening to real stories and authentic audios to master English speaking, you'll read stories and authentic books to master English writing. You needed a lot of listening to speak effortlessly and you'll now need a lot of reading in order to write effortlessly.
This is why your number one activity for writing is reading. Nothing beats high- volume pleasure reading for improving written grammar, written vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling, and clarity. The more you read for pleasure, the more you intuitively absorb English sentence structures. In other words, you learn to write best by modeling your writing after good writers. The best way to imitate good writers is to read their books.
Remember, when it comes to pleasure reading, the amount is what is most important. Your goal is to constantly increase the number of pages you read in English every week. Read novels that you love. Read non-fiction books that fascinate you. Read comic books. Read simple articles. It's the amount you read that is most important, not how difficult it is. In fact, easier material is usually best, especially for the purpose of improving your writing.
Too many English learners focus themselves on writing academic essays. As noted previously, these kinds of essays are often overly complex. Even when well written, academic writing is challenging and is one of the most advanced levels of writing.
This is why most learners benefit by first focusing on simpler forms of writing. One of the best ways to do this is to write a daily journal. Daily journal writing helps you to improve sentence structure, write faster, and write more clearly.
The key to journal writing is to keep it short and simple. Each day, choose one clear topic to write about. You might write about something you did the day before. You might write about one of your goals. You could write about something you recently read, communicating your thoughts or feelings about it.
The next step is to set a timer, with an alarm, for ten minutes. When you are ready to begin, press "start" on the timer and write as quickly as possible. The most important point is to never take a break. You must write during the entire ten minutes without pausing. Do not pause to think of what to write next. Do not pause to correct mistakes. Do not pause to think of a better phrase. Do not let your hand stop moving — continue writing anything that comes into your head for the entire ten minutes.
This technique is called "timed writing" and is commonly used by professional authors. By writing quickly, without pausing, you bypass your critical brain and learn to let the words flow out. When you first try this you will probably feel frustrated. You'll struggle to think of what to write. Your writing will be disorganized. You'll make a lot of mistakes. Don't worry.
As you continue doing timed writings each day, you will improve. Your writing speed and fluency will get faster. You'll find yourself naturally using phrases that you read in a book or article. Because you are writing fast, you'll be forced to write more simply. You won't have time to think about grammar rules.
Week by week, your sentence structure will improve. Perhaps more importantly, your confidence with English writing will improve. If you feel confident enough, you could post your journal publicly online by writing it as a blog. Each day, publish a new post of your timed writing.
Reading for pleasure and daily timed writing are the foundation of your English writing practice. However, you will not become a great writer by only using these two methods. In fact, your timed writings will probably never be great. They'll always have mistakes and problems, and that's fine.
In fact, your imperfect journal writing will be in good company. This is a secret that few writers discuss, but all know: almost all first drafts are bad! In other words, even professional native speakers, who get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their books, can write badly. All writers make grammar mistakes. All writers make spelling mistakes.
Great writers know that the secret to good writing is rewriting. You see, with writing we have a great advantage compared to speaking. We have time. You have time to read what you wrote. You have time to identify your mistakes. You have time to correct those mistakes. You have time to completely rewrite everything. You even have time to show your writing to other people and get their help!
For casual writing, such as a blog post or email, it's not usually necessary to rewrite. However, for important communication such as business proposals, school essays, important emails, professional articles, etc., rewriting is absolutely essential.
The good news is that you don't need to write perfectly. It is acceptable to make mistakes in your first draft. We all do. It's even acceptable for your first draft to be terrible. With writing, only the final draft is essential and it must be mistake-free.
You create your great final draft through the editing process. First, use timed writing to quickly write your first draft. Get your ideas on paper. Make mistakes. Just write quickly.
Once you have the first draft, you have something to work with. Think of yourself as a sculptor and the first draft is your clay. Read the draft, imagining yourself as the final reader (your audience). Are the ideas clear? Is everything stated as directly as possible? What's confusing? Are the ideas well organized?
Undoubtedly, you will find many problems. That's when you rewrite. Correct the problems. Cut the mistakes. Rewrite whole sections, or the whole thing, if necessary. Your focus is to make the second draft simpler, clearer, and more direct.
When you finish your second draft, save it, and put it aside. If possible, wait a day and then reread it. Again imagine you are the final reader. Look for overly complex sentences. Look for unclear ideas. Fix the problems again and rewrite for the second time.
For many kinds of writing, two rewrites will be enough. However, if the writing is particularly important, you'll need to do more. For this kind of writing, it's best to get outside help from an editor. Your editor might be a friend, or a tutor, or even a paid professional. This person will read your third draft and offer advice. Ask them to quickly rewrite any sections that are problematic.
Working with an editor will help you create the best writing possible. It's not always necessary, but do it whenever you can, and carefully notice their rewrite suggestions.
After a few rewrites with your editor, you'll be ready to publish what you have written. Before you do so, be sure to use spell check to catch spelling mistakes you may have missed.
Do a ten minute timed writing exercise every day. During this time, write as quickly as possible without stopping.
The next day, reread the previous day's journal entry. Quickly identify problems and mistakes. Rewrite your journal entry to make it clearer. Cut out anything that is unnecessary.
On day three, you'll go back to step one and do another timed writing. Continue following this pattern, alternating timed writing with rewrites.
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