How to Write Better English If You’re Not an Expert
I’m writing this not to show off, sneer, or be sarcastic with anybody.
I’m writing this because Jobstreet.com (in Malaysia) once did a survey: The number two reason why employers can’t hire fresh graduates is because their English sucks. And it’s not just 10 or 20 percent of elitist Western employers who say this; 64 percent of the companies surveyed said the same thing.
Things have gotten so bad that the National Graduate Employability Blueprint 2012–2017 (published by the Ministry of Higher Education) even mentions the above survey. Even the government is freaking out.
The tips I’m gonna share aren’t for aspiring New York Times bestselling authors. They’re for normal people who do practical things every day. Simple but important things; like writing formal letters, emails to your boss, and work reports.
I’m not including long term tips like asking you to read more English books and listen to BFM. These are great strategies, but require time. I’ll talk about them next time. But the tips that I’m about to share will help you immediately.
If you’re not an expert, but want to improve your English writing skills, here are five tips that will help you today.
1. Write Short Sentences
I used to have an engineer reporting to me who loved to write long sentences. Whenever he emailed me, I would get frustrated.
The problem with long sentences is this: if you’re not an expert, you’re bound to make grammatical mistakes. And I can guarantee your boss doesn’t like to see mistakes.
It’s better for you to break your long sentence into shorter, simpler sentences. It’ll be easier to write, easier to read, and minimize mistakes. Remember, we’re not writing a novel here. Your objective is to send a message effectively, not bring your readers on a ride through fantasy.
As in your work resume — only include the most important things. Employers don’t care if you were the assistant treasurer of your high school Mathematics club. Your resume should be two pages at max. Even better — just one page.
People nowadays are busy — they don’t have time to read much.
2. Space Out Your Writing — Make it Easy to Read
Here’s an example of poor spacing, if I write a paragraph like this: which doesn’t have comfortable spacing and the sentences are written with multiple statements, phrases and idioms that aren’t properly structured like a school classroom that’s been struck by a tornado. The words that I’m utilizing are also extremely formal, are exactly not what a normal person sounds like and do not make use of punctuation marks like commas and semicolons effectively, thus causing my readers to have to read multiple times to try and understand the message I’m trying to carry across.
That sucks, right?
For examples of great spacing, look at Facebook status messages that go viral.
The best thing to do: keep your writing short and effective. The more concise, the better.
But if you need to write something that’s long and detailed, space out your paragraphs and sentences — so it’s easier for people to read.
3. Don’t Try to Impress People With Big Words
Stop using big words which you think will impress other people. Stop using overused terms like basically, actually and obviously.
Because actually, nobody is getting impressed.
But these overused phrases (that have no practical use) will make your writing messy and turn people off.
Your boss will be more impressed if you can tell a complex story in simple language.
4. Get Help From Your Friends
Every person who writes has blind spots.
Because you’re the writer, you’ll rarely be able to see 100% of the mistakes that you’ve made. This is when you need to get help from your colleagues. Don’t worry — if you ask humbly and sincerely — I’m sure your friends will help.
Your colleague will feel happy, because you’ve given her a compliment — that her English rocks. If she makes any corrections, try asking her what you did wrong, and how you can further improve.
What if you don’t have friends who are good at English to help you? Well then, it’s time for you to become best friends with Microsoft Word and Google.
(I initially wrote this post in Bahasa Melayu. It was Google who helped me out too.)
5. Write a First Draft. Then Check and Improve it.
Before I was a writer online, I thought that great writers needed to only write once — and it’d be perfect.
But after I studied the art of writing, I realized that all writers write and re-write multiple times. Their first drafts usually suck. (Mine too.) The only difference is, they edit, revise and re-write their material until it becomes as perfect as possible.
It’s not easy to create good writing. It takes a lot of effort. Likewise, your email to your boss needs your effort too. Even if it’s not beautiful, it at least needs to be effective and error-free.
If bestselling authors need to edit and re-write multiple times, what more normal people like you and me?
Your biggest problem isn’t that you don’t have the ability to write good English. Your biggest problem is you’re lazy.
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My final tip is this: ignore those people around you who say you don’t need to learn English. Ignore your friends who make fun of you for “speaking” a foreign language. This has nothing to do with national pride.
Who says if you master another language you can’t be excellent in your mother tongue? Who says if you expand your mind, you’ll forget yourself. Look at our Sports Minister KJ who studied at Oxford, United Kingdom — he’s still a Malaysian leader right?
Because if you want to improve your career; if you want to be better at communicating with your boss and customers; and if you want to make more money — improving your English will really help.
Besides, the better you get at writing any language — the better your thinking, logic and communication skills become — and the better you get at your own language too.