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Writing Training: Composition Tricks for Writing in a Foreign Language
For many language learners, writing is one of the most important ways that they connect with the outside world. You start the day updating your status on Facebook, maybe you sit in an office typing emails or you have to produce reports and essays for your studies. Recently, I had the pleasure of running a special writing-focused German class with one of my students. We looked how written language changes depending on the situation, how pronunciation and spelling are related and where to put all those pesky commas.
Let's think about writing skills today. Writing is so much as a part of language learning. It can be your daily practice or preparation for a core exam, for example.
On a practical scale, writing will serve the foreign language learner extremely well because it really shows up every part of your grammatical and stylistic weaknesses, and gives you a chance to improve on exactly where you are weak. But there is more to this act than just improving grammar or spelling: When you write, you are able to share your thoughts and make them last.
Like most big and intimidating projects, things get so much easier when you break them down into smaller tasks, and that is exactly what the composition process will do for you.
Today let's have a detailed look at writing great texts. It can be broken down into three stages: Before Writing, During Writing and After Writing.
When you are planning to write something in a foreign language, the planning stage is even more important than it already is. Writing something of more than 50 words requires structure, writing 200 words requires structure and research, and if you are working on something even longer, which is an inevitability for language stages above B2 (here is a very detailed official explanation of the stages), your writing will improve 200% from just putting 10 minutes into planning.
As a language learner, here are the questions to consider and answer before starting to write:
- What is the writing style you’re working on? Letters, formal and informal language, journalist reports and creative writing all have their own style set of suitable vocabulary and phrases. The best trick here is to read and analyse the type of text that you are planning to write. Underline words and phrases that you can use in your own writing.
- Is there a set of relevant vocabulary to prepare? You should have the most important words on hand without looking each up in a dictionary. Before you start, build a word cloud or mind map of relevant words and phrases. Research set lines that you can use over and over again, like greeting formulas in letters and classic story structures.
- What is the structure of your project going to be? Sketching out a very rough draft of your letter or article is so useful here. It will help you make sure all the important points are covered, in a logical order and that you know how to end your piece of writing. At this stage, work with bullet points and notes. Right now, I am working off a scribbled note from a piece of paper — not surprising!
- Check if you have covered the 5 core questions journalists work with when writing anything: Who? Where? When? Why? How? Answering those five tells a complete story, no matter if you are sending a postcard or analysing Shakespeare.
- Note why you are writing your piece and what you want the reader to do. For a letter to a friend (an exercise you can find in any language exam!), the reader’s questions are going to be about how you are feeling, what happened to you recently and what you want them to write in return. But if you are writing to book accommodation on your next trip, the questions are a lot more practical: When do you want to come, who are you bringing, what do you need, how are you getting here? You should always include a part in your writing that tells the reader what to do next, if you are expecting a reply or if you want them to think about something. Even when you are putting a creative story to paper, the things you are describing are designed to make the reader feel or think certain things.
Once the planning stage is done, you can start writing successfully. Connect the notes and bullet points you made before you started, and always keep in mind who your readers are going to be and what they need to know and hear. Don’t forget to think about your reader, and the kinds of expectations that they will have.
The structure of a good writing process is to draft, revise, edit and expand.
- Draft a few sentences, some lines or the whole text based on the notes you made before.
- Revise what you have written, read through it first time, check if all the important points are covered. * Edit your text, pay attention to words and verb endings and grammar, weed out mistakes. At this stage, reading the text out loud is one of my favourite tricks for finding little mistakes that are just too easy to overlook otherwise. Reading aloud and printing text that you typed on screen are going to make you a better writer, guaranteed.
- Expand what you have written, see if there are extra points, descriptions and polite notes to be added if they suit the style of what you are writing.
For productivity and concentration during the writing process, my own advice for you is to: * Eliminate all distractions: Turn off music, go somewhere quiet, sit down comfortably. * Focus on your writing: Turn of the screen or close your eyes while typing if you are a good touch typist. * Turn off the internet: Do not allow yourself to do anything but write until the chapter, page or point is done. * Expect that it won’t be any good: It is more important to put something down that you can fix, than to produce nothing at all because you aren’t perfect yet.
For me, it’s usually almost impossible to resist the urge to publish and “tick off” that piece of writing after I am done with typing it up. But having learnt more techniques for the short post-writing process, I admit that they are valuable too. Resist that temptation to publish or hand in your piece straight after completing it, and instead allow a little time to Revise and Publish. After writing, you are able to get feedback and this is part of the publishing process. It is perfectly acceptable to share the writing in various places, and here are a few ideas for what can be made of that story in future:
- If you are keen to show your writing to native speakers, the journaling sections of Lang-8 and italki are great. I have also seen learners get decent feedback from Reddit and Facebook Groups, and a trusted teacher, friend, colleague or family member should also be available to help.
- If you are seeking community, publish in a blog or newsletter.
- Contribute to a Wiki, especially if you have produced a report or summary rather than an opinion piece.
- Record or produce a film, radio play or podcast based on your writing. This is going to be particularly great if you produced something creative and plan to use it as a regular outlet.
Foreign language writing is like every other aspect of foreign language learning: The easier it is for you to do what you are trying to do in your native language, the easier it will be to make this happen in a foreign language.
Writing is more than just part of our everyday lives. It is a part of culture, creativity and self-improvement for millions of people.
To me, this is what makes the process worthwhile. It has encouraged me to find my own editors for my English, even though I write hundreds of words in this language every day. I will always count writing as an important part of who I am and how I communicate with people, and can’t wait to see what you produce!
If you want to find out more about what breaking down language into its core language skills can do for you, you have got to take a look at Fluency Made Achievable, my smart guide about them. The techniques above are so awesome that I will make sure you have easy access to them as a bonus chapter in my book, meaning you’ll be able to read them on the go!
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