Tips for non-native English speakers writing in English

Guest post by Kate Haigh from Kateproof

Writing in any language will always require the same skills across the board, such as knowing your audience and ensuring the text fulfils its purpose, so I won’t focus on those elements here, but will instead provide some hints more specific to non-native English writers.

Decide which English you want to use

Sometimes you might have to adhere to a style guide and that will dictate what English you use but if it’s your choice, make the decision before you start and stick to it. Contrary to some people’s understanding, it is absolutely fine to use -ize endings for UK English, though watch out for exceptions. If you feel more comfortable writing in US English, by all means do so, as long as your audience will be OK with that. It might sound simple but once you’ve decided on this, do make sure that your computer software is set to the relevant English: computer spelling and grammar checkers are not perfect but they can help you avoid basic typos. 

Keep your language simple

This is probably the key message I would give to anyone writing in English, regardless of whether they’re a native speaker or not. Verbose language, corporate jargon and “academic language” are often covers for a lack of content and should be avoided. This how-to guide from the Plain English Campaign has a lot of really helpful information for writing clear, concise text.

Know your blind spots

If you know you have particular difficulty with a certain element in English, for example prepositions or articles, take care to focus on these. If you are going to get the work professionally edited or proofread, mention to the editor/proofreader that this is something you struggle with and then hopefully they will make comments on the file to help you learn from any mistakes. You might even want to make your own dictionary of common words or phrases that you learn are definitely correct. It might also be worth making notes of errors that you realise you make on a regular basis so that you know to avoid them.

Read native speakers’ work in your field

If possible, try and find work by native speakers or non-native speakers in reputable journals and see how they write and what works (or doesn’t). Obviously don’t copy their work but take these ideas on board. This Purdue Owl website has a plethora of information on writing, especially academic writing. If your writing is more general, or particularly if it’s for a website or blog, then read similar sites online.

Practise, practise, practise

It sounds like the sort of thing you were probably taught when learning a foreign language at school, or certainly what I was taught when learning German, but the more you read and practise writing, the better you will get. Try and get your writing checked by someone proficient in English, perhaps on a reciprocal checking basis, and be open to the corrections. We all make errors in our native language, let alone a second (or third, fourth…) language, so don’t be disheartened by any feedback you receive.

Get your work professionally edited

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But seriously, if the written work is going to be read by anyone other than you (and even if it’s just for you but you want to improve), it’s best to get the work checked by a professional. As mentioned above, view it as a learning exercise as well and try to get the most out of the process. 

Kate Haigh is a native British English freelance proofreader and copy-editor with over 7 years’ experience working for academics, companies, publishers and authors. Find out more about Kate via her website or on social media where you can find her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn