This blog post is based on the presentation with the same title that I gave at the Write The Docs Europe 2016 conference on the 19th of September in Prague.
As a beginner content creator, I had hard times during my work.
Most of this because of my lack of confidence and practice. To grow faster, I had to build a process (rather a daily routine) that I could follow at work. I had to find the most effective supporting tools and maybe most importantly: I had to figure out how to keep myself motivated despite every failure.
This blog post is about my methods for becoming a better writer in English. It shows my tricks for self-improvement. I don’t want to pretend I have accomplished my goal: I’m still on the road and I have a lot to learn. But I hope this writing could be of help to others with the same challenges.
I’ll outline the main problem that most non-native speakers want to overcome, then I’ll present some of my ways to improve my skills.
The Limits of My Language
The most frustrating feature of writing as a non-native English speaker is that you can’t express yourself as clearly as you can when using your mother-tongue. You are thinking about something fairly complex, but you can’t explain it with that specific semantic nuance.
Ludwig Wittgenstein - who was one of the most important thinkers regarding the philosophy of language - wrote in his famous work Tractatus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (5.6)
That means - in this particular case - that the world we want to communicate is limited by the language that we use. You can’t name something that you have no expression for. Your expressions and the linguistic structures amongst the expressions define what you can state about the world via language.
The less words and structures one knows, the smaller world one can express. Broaden your language skills in order to stretch the borders.
There is another factor that we must take into account: entropy. This factor works against us during communication.
Entropy is a measure of the unpredictability of information content. In human communications there is also a natural passive tendency towards more entropy, it brings obscurity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. It is working against the focused transmission of information.
During communication, we strive to reduce this factor to the possible minimum which requires different strategies in writing and speech.
In speech, we reduce entropy with increasing redundancy: we repeat important names and places, rephrase the crucial point of our argument, we ask questions of our partner in communication.
In writing, however, we should do the opposite.
Repetition in writing is annoying and unnecessary as the reader can easily find the needed information with re-reading. In writing, we have to be as short and consistent as possible to reduce it. Reducing entropy is to work against the natural diffusion of energy: it takes time and effort to concentrate information. That’s why Blaise Pascal closed one of his letters in 1657 with the following sentence:
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
It takes more time to write a compact letter, because you have to cut off the confusing and unnecessary parts that naturally find their ways into a text.
(James Gleick’s Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood is a book about information theory. He dedicates a whole chapter to entropy with various examples. It’s a great book for both native and second language speakers, worth to check it out.)
We fight against this phenomenon in every situation of communication. Naturally, when we use a foreign language things become more complicated.
Examples of Entropy
The structures of the various languages are very different. There is a common set of structural mistakes that learners at the intermediate level tend to get stuck on.
Examples from Hungarian
*“Tudtok élni.” —> “You can live.” — “You know how to live.”
This is a very common mistake for many Hungarians using English. The reason is the Hungarian “tud” verb means both the English “can” and “know” verbs. The sentence “You can live.” makes total sense for the inexperienced Hungarian learner.
*“Mit gondolsz, hány kávét ittam?” -> “What do you think how many cups of coffee I had?” - “How many cups of coffee do you think I had?”
In Hungarian almost always the “what do you think…” (mit gondolsz…) part of the sentence comes first and so the beginner language users often translate the sentence into English using the same pattern of hierarchy. The beginner pupil translates the structure of the sentence instead of its meaning.
An example from Czech
*“Naučil jsem ho jezdit na kole.” —> “I learned him how to ride a bike.” — “I taught him how to ride a bike.”
It’s very similar to the first, Hungarian example. In the Czech language the same one verb expresses both the English “learn” and “teach” verbs. So, the inexperienced learner can’t differentiate them. I was told of a similar situation in Dutch: a language so very close to English yet mixing up “learn” and “teach” is a typical mistake for Dutch natives.
An example from Chinese
In his excellent TED talk, Could your language affect your ability to save money, Keith Chen talks about a situation where he wants to introduce his uncle: “This is my uncle.”
“You understood exactly what I just said in English. If we were speaking Mandarin Chinese with each other though, I wouldn’t have that luxury. I wouldn’t have been able to convey so little information. What my language would have forced me to do instead of just telling you “This is my uncle,” is to tell you a tremendous amount of additional information. My language would force me to tell you whether or not this was an uncle on my mother’s side or my father’s side, whether this was an uncle by marriage or by birth, and if this man was my father’s brother, whether he was older than or younger than my father. All of this information is obligatory.”
What I would like to emphasize with all of these examples is that dictionaries suggest languages are translatable without any deficit. But it is not the truth because every culture sees the world a bit differently, and so their language and the structure of that language will be different too.
Therefore, the structural differences are also a source of entropy.
Writing and Editing: Two Different States of Mind
"Write drunk, edit sober." - Ernest Hemingway.
Maybe we shouldn’t take Hemingway’s advice literally, but still there is some truth in this statement. Writing and editing require very different states of mind.
When I start to write a copy, I barely mind about the grammar. I create the structure of the copy and add an estimated word-count for each element. This number lets me know the approximate length of the text. Then I write the first draft. While I am writing my attention is concentrated on the content and the flow of the text. Sometimes I perceive my grammatical mistakes but I pay them no mind: otherwise I couldn’t maintain the pace.
When I have finished the first draft, I let it rest for a while and turn my attention to something else. This is an important phase because this pause lets me disconnect from the text and switch my mind to editing mode.
- As the first step of the editing process, I read the text and correct the mistakes I find. I don’t use grammar checkers in this phase because self-editing requires strong focus. It leads to improving language skills, and provides feedback about strengths and weaknesses.
- As a second step I use Grammarly, Hemingway and other grammar checkers to correct the text.
- I read the article out loud to check whether it is smooth enough. If it isn’t, I adjust the sentences a bit for a better rhythm. When I’m finished I send it to the editor and the real editing process begins.
This is my process in a nutshell.
How To Stretch The Borders
There are a lot of ways to improve language skills. I’d like to present a few that have worked for me and I hope they will prove effective for others. Some of these might seem obvious but I think we can’t overestimate the importance of them.
One of the best ways to adapt new structures and phrases is translation.
Translating a book is an extremely effective way to stretch the borders because a deep connection is building between the structures of the two languages in the translator’s mind.
I prefer to translate non-fiction books because the narration is rather simple. The pieces I have to write in my job are far more similar to this genre than to fiction .
Watching a tv series is not just a fun activity, it also helps me get acquainted with the language as is today: common patterns, expressions, rhythm, slang, vernacular, current events, etc.
For me one of the most significant benefits of watching a series was the English language environment that it created. Active language usage and learning are essential, but a foreign language environment during free time activities is equally important. Watching a series is a part of it. Besides that, the series set in our time show the most recent state of language.
There is another reason why it is important to follow some TV shows: they are essential parts of pop culture which tends to find its way into many different content, be that content about marketing, IT or education. If you catch such pop cultural references, you can gain a deeper understanding.
Familiarity with these trends is fruitful not only for the beginner content writers but for the more experienced ones as well.
Get a mentor
A more experienced person who is willing to advise you along your way can boost your language improvement. Ideally a mentor has had similar challenges in the past as those you face right now, so your mentor can share their own experiences, assist in avoiding some of the more common mistakes and - as a side-effect - keep you motivated.
A mentor is not a teacher or a helpful colleague, but rather a form of coach. Their advice is more strategic than tactical. They don’t micromanage the mentee’s work but maintain a general overview, this way the mentor can provide a kind of framework for the mentee’s development.
It is not easy to find a mentor and I don’t think there is a general rule to seek one out as the mentor-mentee relationship is a very personal one. This type of relationship comes from personal or professional networks and from very particular situations.
There are a couple of things to do if one hasn’t found a mentor yet.
- Get an Amazon account. There are many great books out there about personal development. They are worth to paying attention to.
- Read blogs that are related to your fields. Follow not only the biggest influencers on the social channels but people in a situation similar to yours. As they might have found methods or resources you are not aware of which can be very helpful as well.
- Attend real life events. Get a Meetup.com account and sign up to events you are interested in. Make connections, build your network. Doing so increases your chance of finding a mentor.
Read, listen and observe.
And practice. A lot.
There are tons of techniques to apply what you learned. These are my tools for practicing English:
- Keep a (quasi) daily journal in English. It helps to quickly and efficiently articulate your everyday thoughts in this foreign language. It helps to achieve greater focus and the best is that you can check your improvement over time. For example: I can read what I wrote a few weeks ago and say “oh, that’s terrible”. Then I turn back a few more pages beyond that and say “oh, right, this is actually even worse”. It’s a great way to feel good about yourself.
- Start a Medium account or a blog. It is a stricter medium than a personal journal. It’s open to the public so you have to be specific, cautious and accurate. Your post has a topic so you cannot be discursive, you have to follow the rules of writing (clarity and speed). You might build up an audience which only increase the pressure. And pressure stretches your borders.
- Create a strict workflow and keep it. It helps to stay on the path day after day and you can measure and compare your efficiency regularly. Your daily workflow should become a habit over time.
- Give a presentation at a Write The Docs conference. It is terrifying. But it is also a journey beyond your comfort zone.
This is what I’ve learned so far during my journey.
Your opinion is always welcomed. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
István Zoltán Szabó
Steve is involved in the work of the content team of Pronovix: writing and editing blog posts, articles, web copies and technical documents. He is responsible for social media campaigns and content strategy.
Besides this, he's translating books from English to Hungarian for a publishing company. Steve has a journalist/writer background, his works are frequently published in various online and printed journals.