10 Keys to Good Writing: Tips for non-native English writers


10 Keys to Good Writing : Tips for non-native English writers

Non-native English speakers are often intimidated about writing in English. They worry about their vocabulary and grammar, their word placement and use of articles. The more technical the writing, the higher the levels of anxiety they seem to experience. But no matter what the purpose is for your writing, there are a few fundamental rules for good writing in English that, if you follow them, you are bound to produce something great.

Here are the rules:

  1. KISS it.

This means “Keep. It. Short. And. Simple.” Have you ever heard the saying “brevity is the soul of wit”? It is true. The fewer words you use in your sentence to say what you want to say, the better.   The key is to make sure you convey the message you want. It is about being short and effective at the same time. A general rule of thumb is that shorter, simpler sentences are better than longer more complex sentences.

No more than 25 words per sentence unless absolutely necessary!


2. Practice simplicity

This means that it is better to use shorter sentences rather than longer sentences. Any sentence that requires conjunctions should raise red flags. Conjunctions come in two sizes: coordinating conjunctions such as “and” and “but”; and subordinating conjunctions such as “because” and “unless.” These types of words are used to join up sentences and clauses to other sentences and clauses. Coordinating conjunctions create “compound” sentences. And subordinating conjunctions create “complex” sentences. Don’t misunderstand. Conjunctions have their uses. It is just that sometimes it is better just to create independent sentences rather than join them up.


3.    Use active voice

This means that English is a dynamic language and prefers dynamic action and words. “Active voice” also allows you to create shorter sentences as compared to passive voice which forces you to create longer sentences. For example, consider the following sentences that use active voice and passive voice respectively: The NGO Waterworks handles water rights in Africa. Compare this to: Water rights in Africa is handled by the NGO Waterworks. The first sentence is better because it makes the “actor” the subject and not the object. English favors active voice. Use passive voice only when you do not know who the “actor” is.


4. Avoid turning your verbs into abstract nouns

This means that you should, again, avoid passive constructions. So for example: involve vs involvement; state vs statement; communicate vs communication; administer v administration; inform v information; imagine vs imagination. Where possible, use the active verb form and not the passive abstract noun version.


5. Keep the subject at the beginning of the sentence

Do not bury your subject under lengthy clauses or “fake” subjects. Just get to the point of what you are saying and put the subject right at the beginning. Consider this sentence: There is a tendency to put too much sugar in breakfast cereals. Ask yourself, “What is the subject of this sentence?” The use of “there is” creates a fake subject and hides the real subject in this sentence. A better way to write this sentence is to say: “The tendency is to put too much sugar in breakfast cereals. So the subject is the noun, “tendency.” Consider another situation: “ As if she needed any more headaches, Vaudlyn’s husband told her that he wanted a divorce.” The subject of this sentence is Vaudlyn but it is hidden under a long clause. Try to avoid this tendency when you are a non-native writer.


6. Understand the rules for using articles

This is a difficult topic for non-native speakers and native speakers alike. The rules of articles usage in English are convoluted. But there are some key things to remember. First, there are two types of articles in English. These are definite articles and indefinite articles. There are two indefinite articles. These are “a” and “an.” There is one definite article. It is “the.” Both definite articles and indefinite articles are types of “determiners.” All articles are determiners but not all determiners are articles. (Other determiners are “my,” “some,” “any” and  “all.”

You use “a” and “an” for singular nouns to indicate that the noun is being used in a general way. To choose between “a” or “an” simple listen for the consonant or vowel sound. Before a consonant sounding word, use “a.” Before a vowel sounding word use “an.” Examples: A girl. An hour.

The definite article is used when you are speaking about a specific noun. (remember a noun can be a person, place or thing.) Example: The Pope. The Moon. The teacher. The apple. The United States. The President.

But there are sub-rules for articles usage. For example, you say The United States but not The France. You say The Pacific Ocean but not The Mount Everest.

So you must acquaint yourself with the rules of using articles in English. This is one of the main things that will make a big difference in your spoken and written proficiency.


7. Word order is important

Try to follow the simple formula when constructing your sentences: Subject first, verb second, direct object third and indirect object last. Put the adverbs in the right places pursuant to the rules of English Grammar. And try to use the following word order: Who, What, Where, and How and when

Example: John walked down Market Street with a bucket on his head yesterday.


8. Choose simple vocabulary

You should write to impress but do not make the mistake of thinking that only big words are impressive. You can impress with the simplicity of your prose and your perfectly crafted sentences rather than with words that most people don’t know. Consider your audience when choosing your words. This is the key to good writing. Always consider your audience and your purpose.


9. Memorize certain adverbs and the rules for using them

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Key adverbs to remember are: already, yet, often, lately, today, yesterday, forever, never and ever. There others but these are some of the basics and they are often placed incorrectly in the sentence. Remember that adverbs have three different possible places. At the very beginning; at the very end; and before the verb (if the verb has an auxiliary the put it between the verb and the auxiliary). If you follow this general rule (there are always he exceptions) you should do okay.

LY Adverbs

Which adverbs come at the beginning? Adverbs that end in ly are usually very flexible and can come anywhere in the sentence consistent with the rule above.

Examples: Rarely do you ever see Joan eating ice cream. 2. I rarely see Joan eat ice-cream. 3) I have rarely seen Joan eating ice cream. 4) Joan eats ice cream but rarely.

Time Adverbs

Adverbs designating time such as “today” “yesterday” and “tomorrow” usually come at the very end or the very beginning.  Examples: 1. Today we will study Anthropology. 2. We were there yesterday. 3. See you tomorrow. 4. Tomorrow, we will work on the paper.

You do not typically see these adverbs before the verb. But they can come in weird places in the middle too,  like in noun clauses: I know that tomorrow will be a better day.

But if you follow the general rule of beginning of the sentence; end of the sentence and before the verb you will get it right 90% of the time.

Adverbs such as “already” “yet” and “still” are often used in questions and come at the end. Example: Are we there yet? Are we there already? Do you love me still?

10. Avoid unnecessary clauses

Often times, non-native speakers fall into the trap of thinking that adding clauses to the main sentence makes them seem like they have a better command of English. Sometimes, clauses can show a facility with the language. But often, it backfires because the clause is attached incorrectly or it makes the sentence too wordy. Refer back to rule number one and try to leave out unnecessary clauses from your writing.

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