“How can I improve my English writing skills?”
This is one of the most popular questions I get from English learners.
What is writing? It’s putting the right words, in the the right order, with the right spelling and punctuation.
Writing is so important. It’s how you communicate your thoughts and ideas for someone to read. The way you write says a lot about you. I want you to be the best English writer you can possibly be!
There are basic standards that are common to all types of writing.
Here are 11 things you can do immediately to improve your English writing.
1. Remember your reader!
Always think about your reader, or the person who is going to read your writing. Make it easy for your reader to understand your thoughts and ideas.
This is an example of many, many messages I receive from English learners asking for help.
hi teacher I have qn 4u i wanna improve my writing english how i can do this thanks
My head hurts trying to understand this sentence.
Use capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling to guide your reader through your thoughts. Writing without capital letters or punctuation is difficult to read and it will take your reader longer to understand you.
Hi, teacher! I have a question for you. I want to improve my writing. How can I do this? Thanks.
This is much easier to read and understand!
Yes, there are native speakers who write with poor spelling and punctuation. I see this all the time on social media! This is embarrassing and it does not mean that this is acceptable.
Keep it simple.
Simple: easy to understand, not hard, not complex or fancy
In Canada and America, we like things that are easy to understand! You don’t need write complicated sentences. Simple and correct is better than complex and incomprehensible.
Wait. What does the second S in K.I.S.S. mean?
Well, there are different words that will fit:
- Keep it simple and short!
- Keep it simple and straightforward!
- Keep it simple and small!
However, the K.I.S.S. principle is actually “Keep it simple, stupid!” (Wikipedia) It is a well-known principle in North America. It doesn’t mean that you are stupid! It’s just an expression that means don’t make things too complicated or difficult to understand.
The next time you are about to start writing something, remember to KISS your reader! Make it simple and easy for your reader to understand your writing.
You can instantly improve your writing by trying to improve your writing and making an effort.
Sometimes I get emails from English learners asking for help with their writing and I wonder if they even tried to help themselves!
Let’s go back to the example sentence from #1.
hi teacher I have qn 4u i wanna improve my writing english how i can do this thanks
Try. Make an effort to use proper punctuation. Use a dictionary to check your spelling if you are not sure. Read your writing before you show it to anyone.
Small things are just as important as big things. A period at the end of a sentence is just as important as the order of the words in a sentence.
When you are writing in English, slow down. Take extra time to make sure your sentences are correct.
4. Use a dictionary to check spelling
Yes, English spelling is weird. It doesn’t match pronunciation.
Yes, even native speakers have trouble spelling some words in English. For years I spelled embarrassing wrong.
It was always a shock in school when the teacher told my class that there is actually a D in Wednesday and an R in February!
Don’t guess how to spell a word. You can’t always rely on your computer or your phone to correct your spelling!
Here are 4 dictionaries that all English learners should be using:
Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary (American)
Macmillan Online Dictionary (British, but you can change it to American)
Cambridge Dictionary (British, but you can choose the Essential American Dictionary)
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary (British)
5. Pay attention to capitalization
Words that always start with a capital letter:
- the pronoun I
- the first word of a new sentence
- names of languages: English, Russian, Japanese
- names of people: Melanie, Barack Obama, Dr. Smith, Mrs. Anderson
- continents, regions, countries, states, and cities: Toronto, California, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa
- adjectives that describe people and things from a country: Canadian, British, American, Irish
- names of mountains, lakes, rivers, parks: the Rocky Mountains, Central Park, Lake Ontario, the Rio Grande
- names of days, months, public holidays: Monday, August, Christmas
- planets: Mars, Earth
- proper names for places or things: the New York Times (newspaper), Time (magazine), Oxford University
- titles of songs, books, plays, and movies
Words that don’t need a capital letter:
- the seasons: fall, spring, summer, winter
- directions: north, east, south, west (unless it’s part of a name: North Carolina, South Africa, the Middle East, North America)
- directions: northern, eastern, southern, western (unless it’s part of a name: Western Australia)
6. Learn how to use punctuation
Don’t make up your own rules for punctuation.
Think of punctuation as a traffic light. A traffic light tells you when to go (green light), slow down (orange light), or stop (red light).
That’s what punctuation does!
A period tells you when to stop. One sentence is one thought. A period tells your reader where one thought ends and another begins.
A comma tells you went to pause.
A space after a period or a comma tells you when to go again.
Punctuation marks have a specific job, and there are specific rules for using them. When you use them incorrectly, it confuses your reader.
What are all those symbols?
This is not a complete list of punctuation rules. These are guidelines to get you started.
One sentence is one thought. Every sentence ends with a period. Leave a space after a period.
Even native speakers don’t know all the rules for using a comma! Use a comma when two sentence are joined together with the conjunctions and, or, but, while, and yet. The comma goes before the conjunction. Leave a space after a comma.
! exclamation point
Use an exclamation point when you want to show excitement, happiness, or surprise. Leave a space after an exclamation point.
? question mark
Use a question mark at the end of a question. Leave a space after a question mark.
“ “ quotation marks
Use quotation marks when you want to quote direct speech, or write the exact words that someone said. Use quotation marks to emphasize certain words, for example when you want to ask about a certain word. What does “emphasize” mean?
Use an apostrophe in a contraction, like I’m and don’t. Don’t make up your own contractions, however. There are standard contractions in English. Use an apostrophe to show possession, like Amy’s hat or Mike’s house.
Add a space after , . ! ? Don’t leave a space after an apostrophe in contractions.
Hi! I’m Melanie. How are you? I’m good, thanks.
Hi !I ‘m Melanie .How are you ?I ‘m good ,thanks.
Here are the names for more punctuation marks. You don’t not need to use these symbols very often in writing.
; semicolon (Don’t worry, even native speakers don’t know how to use this symbol properly)
( ) parentheses (or brackets)
> greater than
< less than < > angle brackets
[ ] square brackets
7. Don’t use internet shorthand
Shorthand is writing symbols or abbreviations instead of full words, like writing 4 instead of for.
It’s fine to use internet shorthand in text messages, instant messages, or online chats. You are writing quickly and want to make your messages short and easy to read. You don’t have to, though. I never use internet shorthand. I always type out my full message. I’m just that kind of person!
Don’t use internet shorthand in an email, even an email sent from your phone. Don’t use internet shorthand in a professional environment, for example when you’re applying for a job, sending an email to coworkers, or writing an essay for school. It makes you look lazy and like you don’t care about your reader or your writing.
Also, you should never use internet shorthand when you write to your English teacher asking for help with your writing. Seriously.
8. Don’t write “gonna,” “wanna,” “gotta,” or similar sounds.
These are not words. They are sounds.
English learners LOVE to write these sounds. LOVE! I have seen “wanna” written more by English learners than by native speakers.
However, as much as possible, avoid writing these sounds. Write the proper words “going to,” “want to,” etc.
“But I saw someone use it!”
Have you ever seen me use “wanna” in a sentence? No. The only time I have ever written “wanna” is right now and in the pronunciation tip in episode 25 where I taught you how to say the sound. I’m a university-educated professional teacher and it would be embarrassing for me to write “wanna” or “gonna.” It would tell people that I’m uneducated and I don’t care about my writing.
Native speakers know when to use these words for fun.
You are not a native speaker and people will judge your English level on the way you speak and write. Whether it’s fair or not, people will also judge your intelligence.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary has to say:
9. Learn the North American writing style
If you want to attend a North American university, or if you need to take the TOEFL, you need to know how to write an essay in the North American style.
This is the first paragraph and it introduces your topic or thesis. It’s where you tell your reader what your opinion is and what you are going to talk about in your essay.
The rest of your essay is paragraphs that support your opinion. A paragraph is one subject. The first sentence of the paragraph explains what it’s about, and the rest of the paragraph contains clear examples that explain your opinion.
The last paragraph summarizes your essay.
This is the basic form of an essay in North America.
Tips for writing in North American Colleges: The Basics at the Purdue Online Writing Lab
Style, Genre & Writing at the Purdue Online Writing Lab
You can improve your writing by reading things at your level.
When you read, you see the same words, groups of words, and sentence patterns again and again. Your brain remembers these things. You learn proper spelling, grammar, and sentences with proper punctuation. You learn without even realizing that you are learning! Isn’t that how you learned your native language?
You don’t learn when you read books or other materials that are above your level or too difficult for you. You just become confused and discouraged.
If you have to stop after every sentence and look up a word in the dictionary, you are not going to learn or remember anything. Your brain can only handle 7 new things at one time. If you have to look up too many words in the dictionary, you will not remember them all, or worse, you will confuse all the words and meanings.
How do you find materials at your level? That’s the hard part.
Each episode of the English Teacher Melanie podcast includes a story written with core vocabulary. These are short stories written using the most common words in English.
You can also try the five-finger reading test. Open a book to any page. Read the page. Put one finger on every word you do not know. If you use all 5 fingers, the book is too difficult for you. You will spend too much time trying to understand each word and sentence. If you use less than 5 fingers, the book is right for you.
Learn more: Read children’s book series
11. Think in English
Don’t think and write in your language and then translate it into English.
When you try to translate from your language into English, the result is a mess of words or groups of words that don’t make sense. Sentences or idioms in your language may not translate into English.
When I was studying French in Paris, I lived with a French family. I told my teacher that I met the father of my host family. I translated the English word for “met” into French. That was wrong. My teacher corrected me. I should have said I “made the acquaintance of” or “faire la connaissance de” my host father. In English, “make the acquaintance of someone” is very formal, but in French it is normal. I have never forgotten that!
That’s what it means to think in English. Think of the English word, collocation, phrase, or sentence first.
How do you do that? It takes practice. You need to listen and read a lot, and pay attention to groups of words.
Learn more: What are collocations?