• Eight ways to improve your English writing for university

All international students have the unique opportunity to study in a totally different environment. This is an exciting prospect for the adventurous; it can also be very stressful for others. Although most international students will agree that the experience is rewarding.


The most common source of stress for international students can be the need to constantly communicate in English. This includes submitting written work in English for university.


I have learned that every language learner is different through my experience as an English teacher and as a proof-reader. Some non native speakers have high speaking and listening skills compared to lower reading and writing skills, while others are the opposite. This reflects their individual learning preference. However, universities generally demand an equal balance of all four language skills.


This article offers eight ways to improve the clarity of your English writing and should help to increase the writing confidence and ability of non native speakers.


1. Try to develop your use of English from “inauthentic” to “authentic”

Although effective, classroom language learning often provides an “inauthentic” learning environment (this is an ongoing argument amongst language teachers worldwide).


In general classroom activities use fake materials which aren’t from the real world. The classroom is also populated by learners who are at a similar level of ability. A combination of these two points limit the way language is used, and makes a classroom “inauthentic.” Outside the classroom language is dynamic; it’s used by millions of people every day and is constantly evolving. This wide range of influence and creative style of use make it much more “authentic.”


Try to increase your use of English and reduce the use of your native language in everyday life. Watch TV and movies in English with subtitles, practice conversation with friends and read as much as possible! Mix with the local people, they will show you around the area and help you develop your English in a dynamic way. However, be careful of slang and dialects; do not put them in your written work!


2. Extend the range of things that you read

Extend your reading in English. Try to use the internet in English instead of your native language. Read books, magazines, blogs and high quality newspapers in English. In agreement with point 1; the more you read the more you will develop!


3. Work on your spelling

Bad spelling and bad grammar can send the wrong message to your readers. If your writing is full of spelling and grammatical errors your readers may lose their trust in you. Do not rely on the spell check function in your word processor, it will let you down! See my blog entry about the damage that spell checkers can do to your work.


Using a spell checker is good because it allows you to identify bad spelling by placing a red line under every spelling error. Try to correct spelling errors manually without using the spell check function. This should help you to remember which words you consistently spell wrong. It will also help you to break your bad spelling habits.


4. Learn to reference properly

Generally plagiarism is seen as something to avoid when writing for a university. Therefore it’s important to be clear which referencing style you should be using and how to use it. Ideas which aren’t your own should always be cited and referenced in your bibliography. It’s plagiarism if you don’t. I have written an article on how to add many extra referencing styles including Harvard referencing to Microsoft Word.


5. Beware of articles (a, an & the)

Many people have problems with the use of articles in English. Articles aren’t absolutely important to communicate a basic point, but they are there to add information to a noun. It’s important to try to understand how to use articles in your writing. A general rule is:


1. use “an”: If there is only one (singular). If it’s not a specific thing. If its noun begins with a vowel. Example: There was an elephant.

2. use “a”: If there is only one (singular). If it’s not a specific thing. If its noun begins with a consonant. Example: There was a horse.

3. use “the”: If you already introduced it in your writing (this makes it specific). If you are talking about a thing your readers already know about. Example: There was an elephant and a horse. The elephant and the horse went to a watering hole.


6. Choose your English language and stick to it

American English is different from British English and this distinction should be maintained in your writing. Remember who you are writing for, focus on the language they use and stick to it. Try to beware of the Americanisation of other versions of English.


7. The use of “it’s” and “its”

This is a common problem in writing for both native and non native writers.


1. "Its" is used when "it" owns something. In regular grammatical rule there should be an apostrophe, however in this case "its" is irregular. 2. "It's" is a contraction from "it is” or ‘it has.’


Once you have finished writing, search for “it’s” or “its” and check the grammatical context.


8. Check the spelling of your file names

We send more digital documents now than we have ever done before. The file name of your document gives the first impression of the quality of its contents to your readers. If the file name isn’t spelt correctly the reader’s first impression might be negative. Take the time to check the accuracy of your file names to avoid being judged before your document has even been opened!


About the writer

Mark Cochrane is a trained and experienced English teacher who moved his career into the proofreading and editing world after several years of teaching English at all levels.

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