Help My English! Tips for an ESL Writer


Expressing oneself clearly in writing is difficult in any language. Getting the ideas that seem so clear and self-evident in your head onto paper, with no feedback or interaction to let you know what you may need to clarify or back up, can be like running a maze blindfolded. It is often a trial-and-error process where you seem to move two steps forward then three steps back. These problems are obviously greatly magnified when you are working in a language that is not your mother tongue. Having someone with a fresh perspective and no preconceptions look over your writing can help enormously. The following tips for an ESL writer will help.

Tips for an ESL Writer

An editor, not being as intimately involved with your writing as you inevitably are, will be able to tell you where arguments need to be more fully substantiated; where connections between thoughts, paragraphs, and chapters need to be made more clear; where words and phrases are vague, ambiguous, or repetitive; and many other subtle stylistic matters. A fresh set of eyes will also be useful in helping you know whether the structure of the piece you are working on is appropriate and balanced. An editor can also give general advice on tone and word choice.

Issues unique to ESL writers are grammatical and idiomatic in nature. Many people, when speaking or writing in a foreign language, automatically transpose words into the grammatical patterns they are familiar with. It can lead to quite radically incorrect expressions, as can the use of idioms. The idiomatic density of English and the difficulty of becoming familiar with it means that a proofread by a first-language speaker is indispensable when one is preparing something for publication.

Microsoft spell and grammar check functions are also very helpful, as is the thesaurus. These will sometimes let you know when you have made a mistake, and will more often than not suggest how to correct it. More recent versions of Microsoft Word have also incorporated a very useful referencing function, whereby one chooses which format to use, enters the different author and publication information, then lets the program do the rest. The Purdue OWL website also provides a thorough and accessible guide to APA, MLA, and Chicago referencing formats.

Originally posted 2/23/2011 and happily updated 10/25/2017. Thanks for reading!

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