Being an ESL (English as a Second Language) writer who writes for American or English audiences can be tough.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had clients who welcomed diversity in their writing team. I owe a huge part of my freelance writing career to these wonderful human beings. However, I quickly learned that my writing did have to run through a few edits before it was ready for publication.
While most of the revisions involved basic grammar errors, some of them were awkward and ‘weird’ phrases that needed to be changed entirely. This is when I learned that my writing needed to have native English-level quality.
Although I can say I’ve improved, I’m still learning. My writing is far from 100% native English-level, but I did learn a lot and I want to share that with you today.
Here are some things I did to adapt to a near-native English writing style.
Know the rules first
You know how they say, “You can’t break the rules if you don’t know them?” That’s sadly true.
English, just like any other language, has its own rules. Even native English speakers have to learn these rules in school. Not all of them abide by these rules, especially in writing — and that is where we ESL writers should find leverage.
I remember a line from the movie Selena, where Selena’s dad explained how hard it is to be a Mexican living in the U.S. “You have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans, and you have to be more American than the Americans!” he whined.
That is the cross you bear when you’re bilingual. You have to know the rules better than the people they were made for. Do this and only then can you ‘experiment’ and write out of the box. Know English grammar better than the average American, and then you can break them.
Most language learning gurus will tell you that the fastest way to learn a new language is through immersion. You have to think, speak, hear your target language 24/7 for a long time.
It may not be possible for you to live in an English-speaking country. I love where I am, so immersion is not an option for me at this point.
Immersion, for me, came in the form of working as a technical support agent in a call center. I answered phones and talked to customers from all over the U.S. They sensed my accent, but they never guessed what country I was from.
I asked customers to open their computer chassis, connect and disconnect wires, put them back together and see if their computer problem is fixed. It didn’t work all the time, but I’m confident they wouldn’t have done so well following my instructions if they didn’t understand a word I said.
I also started reading English books as early as grade school. I read Archie and Betty & Veronica comic books. Eventually I turned to fiction in my early 20’s, reading novels from Dean Koontz, Sidney Sheldon, John Grisham and Stephen King.
I also remember watching lots of English cartoons as a kid. Sesame Street taught me English better than any teacher. As a young adult, I remember being addicted to the American TV series Friends. This and other shows introduced me not only to spoken English, but to American culture, slang, idioms and why something is funny (in America).
This constant presence of the English language throughout my life prepared me for my calling as a freelance writer. I was not aware of it then, but these experiences all helped me find success as an ESL writer.
You may have a similar background. If not, it’s not too late to start your own immersion. You don’t have to leave your country. You just have to surround yourself with the language as much as you can. It’s not that hard to do with the internet. You can watch free English tutorials in YouTube, binge-watch a great show in Netflix or even hire an English tutor and chat on Skype.
Read and learn
When you’re just learning to do something, you’re not that confident to do it on your own.
You don’t want people to laugh at you, so you look at what others are doing and do the same.
It’s the same concept when you’re an ESL writer.
Let’s say you want to write for the fitness niche. If you’re a fitness buff yourself, you might already be reading blogs or books about this topic. Pick a writer or author you know is a native English writer and observe his or her writing style.
Which words does he use to describe something? How are sentences formed? Are there any words or phrases you don’t understand? How is humor and personality injected in the blog post? Take note of how he structures his content so that it’s easy to follow.
You do need to find your own writing style, but if that hasn’t happened yet, there’s no harm in borrowing writing techniques from others. You can still add your own spunk and personality in your writing while combining it with what you’ve learned from native English writers.
Think in English
Writing in English is one thing, thinking in English is another.
Thinking in English means you have to pretend you don’t know your own native language. Form a sentence in English in your mind then write it down. Rinse and repeat.
This will stop you from making typical errors non-native English writers make. Some of them include literal translation, which means simply translating a phrase or word into the other language without thinking about the context.
You’re better than Google Translate.
If you know the rules, you can think in English. You can even speak the words out loud to hear if it sounds right. You’ll do yourself (and your audience) a huge favor every time you do this.
Get a mentor
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to have worked with U.S.-based editors who took time to read my work and tell me what needs to be improved or changed. It not only taught me a lot about writing for a U.S. audience, but it motivated me to become a better writer in general.
If you are not working with editors at this point, fear not. It’s not the only way to get feedback on your writing.
You can get a mentor who is a native English speaker. It can be an English teacher or writer who works in your country. I know most of these folks work in international schools, so look them up in your location and see if they’re available for mentoring.
Work with your mentor and listen to what he has to say. Be open to criticisms — you need it to improve. Ask as many questions as you have during your sessions and always apply what you’ve learned.
If you live in a country where this might not be possible, there are lots of courses online that can help you improve your writing skills. These courses won’t come close to talking with someone in person, but it should teach you enough to be a better, more confident writer.
Write a lot
You can’t expect to improve without practice. Follow a frequent writing schedule and stick to the routine.
As Stephen King said on his book On Writing, “ If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Before I became a full-time freelance writer, I wrote about random stuff and published them online. I would watch a new TV series and write a review. I would write about a profound life lesson I had while on my daily commute. Sometimes I published poetry.
It’s not the most ideal way to be a consistent blogger, but it helped me practice the act of writing — actually sitting down and writing content from start to finish. It helped me inspect my work and become my own critic.
If you’re not confident to write on a blog, you can start a journal. Some of your best work usually comes from honest stories about your life. This emotional aspect will help you push your writing to be clear and authentic.
While it’s not private at all, a blog can be a great tool for building an audience and learning from them. Again, you have to be open to all comments — especially negative ones. Use these to become a better writer and come back with a killer blog post to redeem yourself.
Writing for native English speakers when you’re an ESL writer can be hard, but it’s definitely possible. I am living proof of that. Work on yourself, invest in things that will make you a better writer, get a mentor and never stop learning. Good luck!