“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?
First of all, I want to thank you so much for sharing your writing which contains really good advices for English learners. I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at least half an hour in these days. I believe that my reading and writing skills are improving because of that. Also I have found a pen pal from London and we generally write something about our life. She’s also an English learner like me and I have big chance because she also wants to enrich her writing skills. But there is only one thing that bother me I always use same words to explain my thought and I don’t use phrasal verbs as much as her. It’s very boring sometimes and I don’t want to writing anything to her because of that. I feel stuck at the same level for a long time.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a fun story but also interesting because of the language that Mark Twain uses. He doesn’t write in “proper” English. He writes the way that people spoke in the late 19th century. How do you find the language?
Your comment is exactly the kind of thing that I am looking for. This gives me more ideas for lessons! What kinds of things do you talk about in your emails? I want to write an e-book about phrasal verbs to use when you talk about everyday life.
I read a book called “Peak: How to Master Almost Anything” by K. Anders Ericsson. One of the things he talked about is practicing by doing things that are just outside of your comfort zone or just above your current skill level. That’s how you improve, and that’s where you are! Keep writing to your pen pal! Use wordreference.com to help you find the phrasal verbs, phrases, and idioms that you are looking for. You can type in the main word in your expression in your language, and it will give you the definition in English & a list of phrasal verbs & expressions in English.
Good luck to you!
Quick tip: Advice has no plural form. “…which contains really good advice for English learners.”
Hi Melanie Again!
Sorry for late answer, and thanks for your quick tip.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a fluent story to read and improve English reading and even writing skills for English learners. I bought this type of books maybe one year ago and I decided to finish all of them in three months. (7 different level books and each of them has at least 50 pages) When I started to read one of them, I’m underlining words which I don’t know.
I meet a girl named Katerina approximately one and a half years ago on the Internet. In those days my wife, Gizem and I were going to English class to learn English from scratch. Katerina has also wanted to improve her English skills because she wanted to move London like us. We corresponded for a while through Skype together. After that we have begun to send e-mail about our daily routine, family, favourite movie, place, music genre, about our best friends and something like that. I have used different words in every e-mail and underline every new words that I don’t know. I believe that my writing skills have improved faster than normal during that period. By the way, she moved to London three months ago but we haven’t yet. That’s my little story about how I develop my English skills.
Thank you so much for sharing your process, Thunder! I really appreciate it! I have learned a lot from this. It’s wonderful that you have found someone to practice with! You are very lucky!
Keep up the great work! : )
Excelent lesson. However, Melanie, after answering your email and reading your episode 31, I asked my self if I had not been stupid in my writing. The word STUPID in Spanish is an insult. It means something more than dumb, silly or ignorant.
Thank you for receiving my comment.
I am going to re-write the section with “stupid” in it because I don’t want to make anyone feel stupid! However, there is no way to talk about the KISS principle without mentioning the world!
In English, too, “stupid” is an insult when you call a person stupid. However, people can do stupid things, which is more like “foolish” or “not logical.”
You are not stupid in your writing! You always make an effort to write well in your emails & comments!
I have to confess that before writing this comment I went through my old comments just to see If I had ever been stupid or unintelligent, if I had used shorthands or even If I made your head hurts, haha. hope not.
Well, just curious. What was your spelling for the word ” embarrassing”.
Thank you so much, your explanations are giving us precious tips as always.
I used to spell it “embarassing” with one R. I never noticed that there were two Rs in “embarrassing”! Actually, I have to check the dictionary for a couple words with double letters! I can never remember how to spell “cigarette” or “graffiti”!
You always make an effort to write well, Gilson! You even correct your own comments! : )
Thanks a lot, to writing English tips.
I got it.
Yours online student
I am happy that this lesson is useful to you, Mazher! Thank you!
Advice hás a plural form ? I learned,No!
You are correct, Eni! Advice does not have a plural form.
You can say,
“I have some advice for you.”
“Can you give me some advice, please?”
“I took your advice and bought a new car.”
Adriana Santos says
Thank you so much for this lesson. I will never use wanna again (I was very embarassed to realize that it was constantly used in my speeches). Bye!
“Wanna” is OK to say! It’s part of fast, natural speech. Just make sure you don’t write “wanna”!
All the best to you with your speeches!
Helah Safi says
Hello, Dear teacher
I recently send you a mail about how to improve my writing skills, and now i get my answer. it was really useful.
You are one of the people who inspired me to write this post! Thank you!
Thank you so much for this lesson.
it was really useful.
Hi, my dear Melanie.You and your way of learning make me enough encouraged for continuing.Please take care yourself and God bless you my best on-line teacher.
Thank you so much for your lovely words, Susan! I am so thankful and grateful. I am happy to hear that my lessons are helping you!
I’ve been reading your blog since few months, but I’ve never even thought about writing a comment or answer any of your questions that you’ve been asking at the end of your post or in e-mails.
And now, I feel so ashamed of it! How couldn’t I see that it’s the best way to help me improve my writing?
I’m from Poland and in school, we don’t get many chances to express ourselves in writing. Teachers tend to focus more on grammar rules and words, but rarely on speaking and writing.
I don’t think I have a lot of problems with writing, nor I do with speaking. I used to have a few pen pals and because of them, I started learning English more and more, and then I finally found my dreams and future plans straightly connected with this language.
I really love writing stories in Polish so I thought it’d be good to write something in English. Back then, my favorite book was “Carry On” from Rainbow Rowell (Have you heard about it?) so I wrote few fanfics with her characters.
But now, because of lack of time, a lot of study and other things, I don’t focus that much on writing as I did earlier.
And I feel like it’s really bad so that’s why I decided to write comments on your site.
I already feel that it’s going to be a lot of fun!
So… thank you for everything, for this post and all helpful tips and of course I send greetings from so cold and windy Poland! And if I did some awful mistakes while writing this comment, please tell me about it! :3
Hi, Alicja! I am so thrilled that you finally wrote a comment for me! I am proud of you. You don’t need to feel ashamed. The way that you learned English in school is the same way that people around the world learn English! I have heard the same thing from people in Japan, Vietnam, Brazil, and many other countries! I understand how frustrating it is because it’s the same way that we learn French in school in Canada!
You did not make any awful mistakes in your comment! However, I know that you want to be the best you can be, so I have a couple quick tips for you:
“I’ve been reading your blog since few months, …” – for a few months (for a time period)
“I’ve never even thought about writing a comment or answer any of your questions”
– I have already started writing an advanced writing lesson, and this is one of the topics! Did you noticed that you changed verb forms? Writing a comment and then answer your question in the same sentence? Keep lists of things in the same form. This is called “parallel structure” or “parallelism.” The sentence should be: “…writing a comment or answering any of your questions. The collocation think about doing something means that you need to use the gerund form of the verb.
I have been to Poland! When I worked as a tour guide in Europe, I visited Warsaw and Krakow! They were both very interesting cities and I wish I could have spent more time there!
Thank you so much for your answer and tips Melanie :3 I didn’t notice I changed verb forms, but now I’ll remember about it. And, of course, that’s so nice to hear you have been to Poland and that you’ve liked it!
it was really very interesting lecon , thank you so mush .
Interesting lesson ! am grateful
Hi Melanie, honestly this is my first time writing to you, and I believe you are a good English teacher. I have been studying and practicing English for so long, however it has been so difficult to do (talking about the writing) because I always forget the rules, I have bad memory. What do you belive I can do? Greetings from Ecuador.
You are not alone! There is so much to remember! Many, many English learners feel the same way you do.
What do you have trouble remembering when you write? Grammar? Punctuation? Vocabulary?
Forget about “rules.” (Except punctuation “rules.” There are specific ways to use punctuation symbols.) No one can remember all the grammar rules. I can’t even remember all the grammar rules. When I write grammar lessons, I need to research them. One of the grammar books I use is 623 pages. No one can remember 623 pages of grammar!
How did you learn to write in your native language?
Focus on learning sentences, not rules. Read. When you read, you see the same words and sentences over and over again. When you see something over and over again, you remember it. You need to see a word or a sentence several times so you can remember it. You also need to practice. Do you have many opportunities to write in English?
The comment you wrote is good! Your writing is better than you think it is. :)
hi melanie! i’m from Guatemala and this is the firts time that i’m writting, I started to read your post this week and, I thing is very interesting because i want to improve my english, Im going to try to read every story of your web page to have a better english.
Welcome, Julio! I am happy that you are here!
eugenia zorzou says
Dear Teacher Melanie!
Thank you so much for your helpful lessons!!!
Eugenia from Greece
I´m in C1 EOI level so far. I´ve studiying English my whole life, and, believe me when I say to you, that forty eight years is a large process of learning. However, my skills at every field in English learning is getting not only taugh, but also stressful. That is to say, everyday I try listening to BBC radio programmes when driving during my job hours, and I feel good because it seems not to be as diffucult to understand as I think, but when I listen to C1 level listening exams, I realize how hard to swallow it will be to pass the exam.
Even when trying other skills such as reading and writing, I get frustrated and discouraged by the high level I find in them.
I get lost among several websites and different online sources, or even gathering lots of notes from previous years. It is no use spending hours in front of my desk.
What seems to be a useful organization for me, is to approach different days to each important skill, and to end them within a structured timetable. When I manage to go through this plan, I feel fine and trust myself.
Any advice will be lovely regarded.
Sorry for my mistakes such as “I´ve studiying”, “taugh” and “a useful”, instead of “I´ve been studying”, “tough” and “an useful”
Long time no see! Although it is the first time to read your contents about how to write in English, you know, I have ever look for a teacher to commuicate in English, Today I think I have found her, It is you who I have been searching but always not appeared.
Nice to meet you! My Teacher
Hi, teacher! Is it a mistake “I’m a university-educated professional teacher…” ? How is it correct “a” or “an”?
Thank you for your answer.
Good question, April!
It’s not a mistake.
Use an before a vowel sound, not a vowel letter. The word university starts with a vowel letter, but also with the consonant sound y. The u at the beginning of university is pronounced exactly like the word you.
That’s why I used a instead of an!