Improve your writing skills with Oliver Pritchard’s handy tips
According to official IELTS data on test takers, the written section of that exam is where Colombians struggle most. This fits with my experiences of teaching students here in Bogota.
As teachers, we usually separate the two receptive disciplines (reading and listening) from the productive disciplines (speaking and writing).
First, let’s compare the differences between writing and speaking. In writing, you have the opportunity to edit, to check and to change. On the other hand, any mistakes you have made when the writing is finished are permanent. In speaking, listeners might miss mistakes, however in writing, they are much more noticeable. In speaking it is much easier to explain and clarify misunderstandings.
With this in mind, this edition we are looking at some basic tips and tricks to improve your writing.
Be clear about what you want to say. Many students seem to change their language completely when writing, and produce very strange scripts where nothing is clear. Remember to make the subject of your writing nice and clear. For letters, make sure the reason for the letter is explained at the start. If you want to write an article for us, start with your opinion or an outline of an issue, before giving the reader more information. If you have an opinion, make it clear and don’t change it. It’s very frustrating to read scripts that simply say “well, some people think X and others Y so in conclusion it depends on the person”. That is no good to any reader.
It’s also important to note the difference in academic writing in the format of Spanish and English essays. It does depend a bit on the institution and topic, but most English language essays start with a position and then develop the argument right from the start. Many Spanish essays, by contrast, outline the issue and give their opinion right at the end. So make sure that you a) give a new opinion and b) follow it logically.
Write what you can in English, not what you want to in Spanish. I have noticed that students often become obsessed with trying to show their Spanish language vocabulary in their essays. This will not create a good impression for your readers, in fact it will simply highlight what you do not know. It is much better to use the English you know and can use.
When speaking, you are able to check that your listener understands words as you go, and clarify where necessary, however that is of course not possible in written scripts. Don’t use words you want (but do not know) from Spanish, and make sure you check those you are not sure about.
Although it is good to use as much vocabulary as possible, the key is to only use the vocabulary you have. You might be surprised to find out how many words and structures you know, and it’s better to practise those and be clear rather than test new words in a place where errors are so noticeable.
Also, do try and use lots of the words that you know, it’s much better to read different words rather than ‘nice’ repeated a hundred times. See our previous article on using colourful language.
Connectors and coherence
This is extremely important for writing. The first thing to think about is punctuation. Spanish punctuation has almost exactly the same rules as English punctuation, so you shouldn’t make too many mistakes. However, I often find many commas and full stops (periods) missing, which creates paragraph-sentences. Try reading your scripts out loud and see if you have trouble breathing. If you do, then try and add some punctuation. It’s not only there for making emoticons! 😉
Revise the basic connectors (and then; so; however; etc.), and use them correctly. If you’re not sure, check, as you can completely change the meaning of your writing if you are not careful. When you are using the basics well, start to add in some more advanced connectors (on the other hand; despite; ipso facto; etc), but again, make sure you are clear on their use! Finally, a good idea with connectors is to not always use them at the start of sentences. This can seem very brutal and like someone is shouting at you.
There are plenty of lists online detailing different connectors and systems of writing specific texts, so use them if needed.
Follow a logical order to your argument or script and keep the same tone. As mentioned before, although long sentences are a sign of sophisticated language use, it’s sometimes better to have more, shorter, sentences to make things clear.
Note that this is only a basic guide. Connectors don’t follow clear rules and there are many exceptions and additional rules to take into account. Note that many of the alternatives listed follow different rules for word order, etc. and cannot be used as simple synonyms. It’s always worth confirming with a dictionary or a teacher.
|So; therefore; thus||Expresses cause and effect: He hasn’t arrived yet, so we will go without him.|
|But; however; yet; nevertheless||Expresses a contrast: Bogota is tropical but it is high (so it is not hot).|
|And; also; as well; in addition to; along with||Gives further information: Maria, Diego and Carlos were late, Diego had also forgotten his book|
|Either…or; neither…nor||Presents options: Neither Nacional nor Neiva are good enough to win.|
|Because; as; since||Expresses a reason. Action>Reason: We took umbrellas because it was raining.|
|Unless; excepting; except that||States an intention with an exception: Nairo will win unless he has an accident.|
|Although; even though; though; despite; in spite of||States an apparently contradictory situation: although she hates football, she follows the World Cup. He went to the salsa club despite not being able to dance.|
I have problems at times with the editors here, as they cut large parts of my beautiful prose. However, it’s a useful skill to learn! While I am a native speaker, I still need two further editors to check and revise what I have written. There may be typos; some parts might have sounded better in my head; and sometimes you lose your thoughts when writing fast.
Try to follow a system like this: first plan the writing, and think about what you want to say. Next, write a first draft and then read it. Does it make sense? Does it feel like Spanish, and are you translating word by word? If so, many of the connectors may not make sense. Is there enough punctation? Could you change a few words like ‘nice’ for stronger ones like ‘wonderful’? Finally, change any words you are not sure about, simplify any parts that are not clear and read it for a last time. If you are still happy, hit ‘send’!
So, hopefully, with these ideas you can make your writing a little clearer and really show your readers just how high your level of English actually is. Why not test out some of these principles by writing in to the paper to complain about me being overly pedantic? We’re always looking for more contributors, and the more Colombians the better!