How to Improve Your Writing Skill

Peter T. Lam

Two students came to me hoping that I would help them find a job. They graduated from English secondary schools in Hong Kong, and then came to Canada for university. Although they can listen, read and write English, their cover letters and resumes lacked fluency and were apparently written by people whose English is their second language. Several sentences were especially confusing to native English speakers.

I told them that when you apply for a job, the employer gets first impression of you from your letter. If he thinks that your English is substandard, he will not give you an interview. The two students replied immediately: “Let us buy some grammar books and study intensively”. But I said, “This is useless because grammar books are boring and difficult to read. Even if you cram for it, it is impossible to remember all the rules”.

The two students can work in English, but there are still minor problems. If they want to improve, the first thing is to diagnose their problems. I asked them to write two short essays and a long one, and hand over to me.  After I read them, I made revisions and summarized the “problems” into a few points. The most common problems with Chinese people when they learn English are plurals and the positions of auxiliary verbs and subordinate clauses. It seems that an article written by a Chinese is full of errors, but in fact, they only have two or three minor problems.

After I “diagnosed” their grammatical mistakes, I asked them to buy some grammar practice books from the university bookstore. This kind of book is entirely comprised of grammar exercises with answers provided. They do not need to do all the exercises, but only work on the difficult parts. After finishing two to three exercise books, their English would have improved significantly.

In addition, there is a type of English books that specifically helps people with writing. They can be used to check grammar and difficult-to-use words and phrases. They are a bit like a dictionary. Those who often need to write in English should have it. They can refer to it immediately whenever they have questions. The Department of the Secretary of the State of Canada has published a well-compiled reference book for civil servants called “The Canadian Style”. It is available in major bookstores.

Professionals often have to write reports. They cannot rely on inspiration because such are unpredictable. A well-written report relies on revision. Every report has a theme and there are several arguments under it. The most important thing is to write the first draft, then revise until it is acceptable: For the first time, read the whole report once to see if there are any loopholes in the materials. Clarity is vital to a report. If readers do not understand the content after reading the report, there must be problems with the writing. Loopholes make it difficult to understand the whole report. So the first thing to look at is whether there are loopholes in the report.

For the second time, delete redundant information. It distracts reader, making them unable to grasp the full-meaning of the text.

For the third time, check whether the main arguments are arranged in a logical order.

For the fourth time, paragraphing. Every paragraph needs to have a theme and it is most suitable for each paragraph to be around seven lines. If one paragraph extends over 15 lines, it must be separated into two. A paragraph that is either too long or too short distracts the reader.

For the fifth time, check whether it is too abrupt when transferring from one paragraph to the next. If so, insert a transition sentence between paragraphs.

For the sixth time, check repetitions in sentences and delete as appropriate. Also, check whether the sentences follow a logical order: whether some sentences need to be moved forward or backward, and whether there are smooth connections between sentences and add transition words when appropriate.

For the seventh time, check sentence structure. Chinese people would often use Chinese syntax inadvertently in their English writing.

For the eighth time, modify grammar, spelling and punctuation.

For the ninth time, add subtitles. They must be able to indicate the content of the corresponding part of the report.

After nine times of revision, and another nine times of revision from beginning to end, bad-written English will transform into well-written English!

Some of my friends from mainland China and Taiwan are good at English reading and writing but poor in speaking. I encountered the same problem when studying French. The principal of a language school asked me to watch a French movie every night for three consecutive months. I followed his advice and my French improved so fast that it even surprised my teacher. You might follow the same method as well. Or, you can go to the local pubs every night to talk to other people over a drink or two. But be careful not to become alcoholic. If you want to get rid of an accent, you can find speech recordings from native English speakers and read along with them.