6 strategies for better writing when English is your second language

6 strategies for better writing when English is your second language

University involves lots of writing. If English isn’t your first language, writing essays, laboratory reports or case studies can seem daunting. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to build your English writing skills while you study.

Dr Katherine Firth, a lecturer in La Trobe’s Graduate Research School, has put together a list of tips for writing a thesis in English. Many of Katherine’s tips are relevant to all writing assignments, regardless of your level of study. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Read as much as possible

Most great writers love to read. By reading in English as much as you can, you’ll become more familiar with sentence structure, get to know commonly used metaphors and widen your vocabulary. Put simply, the more you read, the more you will learn about the English language.

Tip: Read all kinds of writing, not just your textbooks. Good-quality fiction, biographies and even magazine articles will help you improve your understanding of English, so make the most of your campus library.

2. Don’t let one word slow down your draft

Don’t be a perfectionist when you’re writing your first draft. This advice applies to all people and all types of writing. If you aren’t sure which English word to use, just write the closest word in your native language and continue with your draft. Once you have finished your draft, go back through your work and replace those words with their English equivalents.

Tip: It may be helpful to highlight or underline any words you write in your native language – this will help you make sure you don’t forget to replace them later.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.

3. Keep it simple

Good writing is simple, clear and easy to read. Some people think that using long words and very formal language will make them sound more academic, but this is not true. Use terms related to your field of study where appropriate, but keep the rest of your language simple. Long sentences make it difficult for the reader to keep track of what you’re saying.

Tip: Keep your sentences under 25 words wherever possible. When you are editing your work, look out for very long sentences and see if you can split them into two sentences instead.

4. Practise!

Writing is like playing an instrument – the more you practise, the more you will improve. Many people say that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, so take every opportunity you get. Every time you take notes, write an email or even send a text message you have a chance to practise your English writing skills. Do you keep a diary? Writing a brief paragraph each evening about the day you’ve had is a great way to incorporate practise into your daily schedule.

Tip: Do you have a relative or friend who is fluent in English? Ask them if they would like to exchange letters or emails to help you improve your writing.

5. Remember, you’re not alone

At university, you are surrounded by people who can support and help you. Thousands of international students attend university in Australia, and many of them probably feel the same way you do. When you are facing a stressful situation such as writing an essay in your second language, reach out to fellow students, lecturers and tutors for advice and support. Sharing your work with friends and teachers and asking for their feedback can also help you build your skills.

Tip: Check our international student blog, La Trobe Times. Here, you’ll find information about workshops as well as upcoming events where you can meet other students.  

6. Use the tools available

You’ll have plenty of English writing resources available to you at university. Here are some of the tools you can access as a La Trobe student to improve your writing skills:

Check out the Student Learning page for an overview of the support services on offer.

Ultimately, the best piece of advice for writing in your second language is to stop stressing about it. Dr Firth says that most international students worry far more about their writing than they need to. In fact, when she reads her students’ work, she finds that it is generally well-written.

 ‘You’re doing great. In fact, international students pass at the same rate as local students and often complete more swiftly. So the data says you will do absolutely fine,’ she says.

Want to get the most out of student life? Visit La Trobe University’s international students page to find out more about support services, social events and life in Australia.