Help with English

10 ways to improve your written English

by Ginessa Lawson Payne, Instructor of English as a Second Language, English Language Institute at George Mason University

If English is not your first language, writing it can be a challenge. As an expert working with college students for whom English is their second language, Ginessa Payne knows the pitfalls and offers useful advice.

1 Use an editor every time.

  • It’s best if another person reads your writing to catch mistakes.

  • Take advantage of spell check to avoid spelling mistakes. Grammar check software is not as reliable or helpful.

  • You can be your own editor. Let some time pass before picking up your writing and checking for errors. Be aware of differences between your first language’s structure and English’s structure. For example, some languages don’t have articles (a, an, and the), but English does. Writers from those language backgrounds should re-read their writing, checking to make sure that there is an article before every singular noun that can be counted.

2 Study models of good writing in your field.

Notice the sequence of words in a sentence. Practice by mimicking: put your own words in the same sequence.

3 Learn vocabulary in chunks.

When learning a new word, pay attention to the words found before and after it. For example, don’t simply learn the word “connect,” but learn the phrase “connect [the noun] to [another noun].” If you don’t know what comes before and after a new word, or if you wonder how it’s used in a sentence, look it up in an outstanding free searchable database of modern American English: For example, type in “connect” and click “Search”; you’ll see thousands of examples of “connect” used in many contexts.

4 Learn the functions of each punctuation mark.

( - . ? ! , ‘ “” ; : -- ) A good resource is Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference.

5 Use connectors to help your reader follow your train of thought.

These words and phrases help smooth written communication.

Connector's purpose At the beginning of a sentence In the middle of a sentence
To show the effect of a cause As a result, 
, so 
To show a contrast  However, 
On the other hand, 
In contrast, 
Compared with [a noun], 
Although ... 
Even though 
, but 
, yet 
To continue a list  Also 
In addition, 
What is more, 
, and 
To show options  Alternatively,  , or 
To give an example  For example,  For instance, 
To illustrate, 
As an example, 
, such as 

Limit each paragraph to one and only one topic.6

When moving to another topic, start a new paragraph. The white space on the page is a signal to the reader that one topic has ended and another will begin.

7 Format your writing according to the standards the reader expects.

Appearance means a lot. Your ideas may not be regarded seriously if they are presented in a sloppy way. For the same reason, a person showing up for a job interview wearing pajamas instead of a suit might not be hired, even if he is the most qualified.

8 Remember to respect intellectual property.

If you borrow the unique words or ideas of others, you must mention the source of those words or ideas. Otherwise, you commit plagiarism.

Recognize that writing is a craft9

It takes time to do it right. Even native speakers need to revise their own writing. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Invest in an advanced ESL grammar course or tutoring.

10 Be proud of your ability to write in more than one language.

Bilinguals and multilinguals are a valuable resource!

Check out these resources and get more help

  • The database of modern American English

  • Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference

  • William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style”.

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