Writing Effectively When English is Your Second Language

I have a lot of regular clients for whom English is not their first language. They have something important to share, and they’re experts in their fields, but they struggle with writing English that sounds natural. When they speak, they’re brilliant. But people are more forgiving when you’re speaking because personal contact – gestures, inflections and accents – make it easier to follow and engage. When you’re writing, the words you put on the page are all that you have to represent yourself.

When you’re navigating a foreign city, you need a map.

I find myself giving the same advice often, so today I’m sharing it:

1. Keep your sentences short.

If you try to explain a complex idea in a long sentence, you may bite off more than you can chew. It’s better to have a series of simple, direct sentences that get your message across clearly than a long loop-the-loop that gets the better of you.

Think of writing like eating. If you take a huge bite, it’s harder to chew and more uncomfortable to swallow and digest. Small bites are manageable and less likely to make a mess.

2. Use direct structure.

Put your subject in the beginning of the sentence, and then say what you want to say about it. This will avoid a lot of indirect “of” or “by” phrases that are hard to read.

For example, this is a sentence structure I see a lot. Because it’s winter in New England, I’m going with a snow-related topic:

“The process of removing snow from your driveway by mechanically propelling it out of the way with a machine instead of shoveling is called snow-blowing.”

Technically, this sentence isn’t wrong, but it’s not exactly easy to read, and you don’t know what it’s about until the end. The sentence is about snow blowers, so that should be in the beginning. It grounds the reader. When I edit this sentence, it looks like this.

“A snow blower is a machine that propels snow. People use them to clear their driveways instead of shoveling.”

It may not be elegant, but it’s clear and concise, and that’s a great place to start. As you improve, you can start taking on more complex structures.

3. Read what you already know.

Even if you master grammar, every language still has its quirks, and you can only really learn them with practice and exposure. For example, in English we don’t “do” decisions, we “make” them.

Different languages operate on different frameworks. Like a round peg and a square hole, you can’t force one to fit another.

You can improve your vocabulary if you read English texts on your subject. If you’re a business professional, get some English books on business systems that have not been translated from other languages and read them. You’re not doing it to learn about your field of expertise, you’re doing it to learn the language of your expertise in English.

You can even take it a step further by copying out passages to help your brain learn the patterns.

If you’re not a writer, but you’re great at what you do, writing is a tool. You have to learn to use it properly and get comfortable with it before you can use it to its full potential.





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