Written By: Marta Pelrine-Bacon (ESL Instructor & Author, HOFT Institute ESL Program)
Imagine your writing teacher standing over you while you write in English. And imagine that teacher frowns, sighs, and keeps asking you if you’re sure about the last word you just wrote. How would you feel?
I never do this. I don’t need to. Students do this to themselves. With every word, students doubt and criticize their writing.
So I instruct students to punch their inner critic. Shove the critic in a box and lock it away. You can’t create and correct at the same time. This is true whether you’re an ESL learner or a native English speaker. The writing part of your brain isn’t the same as the editing part of your brain. Write first. Edit later.
What else do writing students need to remember? Here are a few words of wisdom:
Experiment with the writing process and find the method that works best for you. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. The idiom means there’s more than one way to accomplish your goal. What works for one writing student may not work for you. You don’t have to start with the first word and write your way to the last word. Write the conclusion first. Or write the middle first. Jump around and rearrange your paragraphs later. “Cut and paste” makes this easy to do.
Avoid the passive voice. Don’t write: “The story was believed by many people.” Write: “Many people believed the story.” That’s the active voice. That’s action. That’s what readers want.
Trust your voice. Don’t write: “I think the movie is great.” Write: “The movie is great.” That’s confidence. Readers want to believe in you. Show them you believe in yourself.
Use strong words. Don’t write: “My father is a hard worker.” Sure he is, and he deserves a better sentence. Write: “My father works hard.” Don’t write: “She spoke loudly.” Write: “She shouted.” Wonderful verbs abound in the English language. Use them!
Don’t compare yourself to your classmates. You see fewer red marks on your classmate’s paper and your heart sinks. Why do you make so many mistakes? Who knows? But maybe your classmate took no chances, tried no new words, kept to easy grammar, or had many years more practice. It doesn’t matter. Aim to write better tomorrow than you did today. Don’t worry about your classmate.
Practice. If you’ve never played a piano, could you play Mozart? If you’ve never jogged a mile, could you run a marathon? Every person who writes well practices. They learn from mistakes. They rewrite. You may read a finished product and conclude the writer possesses magical talent. You don’t see the failed drafts, the trashed pages, or the marks with a red pen. To play piano, practice scales. To run a marathon, stretch, and train. To write well, write often.
Here’s the bad news: No magic pill exists that will transform you into a great writer overnight. The good news? You don’t need magic to become a better writer. Use this advice in writing class and you’ll see. You can write well!