I’ve been thinking a lot about writing recently. I’ve been talking about it, reading about it and mostly importantly listening to successful international students telling me about how they improved their ability in writing. It’s one of the most frequent questions I get asked. ‘Patrick, how can I improve my writing?’ and it is one of the hardest questions to answer. When a student asks me this I always pull a face and rub my chin thoughtfully. ‘Hmmm…yes, well… Gosh is that the time?”
Every student is different but all the successful students have one thing in common – and that is that they found a strategy which worked for them, and once they found a strategy that worked they stuck to it and this became their path through the jungle of learning. One thing is probably true – that your writing is improved by writing. Sounds obvious? In fact, many students are so worried about making mistakes that they don’t write at all! Think about learning other things in life – learning to speak your first language, learning to walk, your first English lessons. How good were you when you started? Not very! Think about learning to drive – you can read all about how the gears work, how you should use the pedals and so on but you can’t learn to drive until you get in the car, switch on the engine and start going. Why should it be any different with other skills? Like reading, listening and speaking, your writing will get better the more you write. There are times when you should write and concentrate on your accuracy because it is important to be correct. But other times you should write for language improvement when the content of what you write is important. Think about speaking – if you are giving a formal presentation in English you will think carefully about what you are going to say and prepare it. But other times you will speak casually in English and not worry about your mistakes. Of course your casual speaking will improve your English for when you give presentations. So it is with writing. If you can write ‘casually’ every day you will improve your writing so that when you need to perform an important and accurate writing task you will be much better at it.
Writing casually could mean:
- keeping a real personal diary about your everyday life (as people have done for centuries) only in English!
- writing a journal about something which is ongoing (about work, study, English studies)
- writing to a penpal (on paper or by e mail)
- forming a writing group with friends and swapping texts you have written for fun
- writing e mails to friends in English instead of your usual language (Friends are often embarrassed to speak English to each other – what about writing English to each other? You might find your friends think is a great idea.)
- starting your own blog so you can write online. There’s any number of free blogs out there which are ready made for you to use. If you don’t publicise it no one will ever know about it. Or do publicise it and have fun!
- write a message to the new forum at English for University. I have set up a ‘casual writing’ forum for this purpose.
Of course, there are times when you want serious feedback on your writing and there is nothing better than sitting down with a teacher who can point out mistakes to you. Unfortunately most students don’t have a private teacher who they can do this with!
Congratulations to Sarah who studies at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland for winning this month’s prize of a year’s access to Macmillan’s Advanced English and IELTS course. Same for next month – if you have already entered you don’t need to enter again because I will just keep your name in the hat. If you’re a new reader read about the monthly prize here.