Students who make the ambitious decision to study in a language that they did not grow up speaking face a unique set of challenges in their coursework. One of the biggest of them is writing in English. As a lecturer here at Suffolk and as a professional tutor at the CLAS, I’ve seen these challenges firsthand, and to help you overcome them, I have devised a few tips based on my experience working with many nonnative English speakers and on some of the academic literature on second-language writing.
1. Plan before you write.
While crafting grammatical sentences may be the most challenging aspect of writing in English for you, you shouldn’t let sentence level issues impede the free flow of your ideas. Plan your essay before you actually start drafting it. Writing instructors call this pre-writing. Before you even create your document in your word processor, generate ideas, consider your structure, and build your argument using pen and paper. This process can really take whatever form comes comfortably to you: you can create a list of bullet points, you could write a more formal outline, or you could use thought bubbles or idea trees. Use whatever method works for you, but you should eventually arrive at a working thesis and a basic outline of your paragraph structure before you actually begin drafting your essay.
2. Draft in stages.
If you follow my first tip about pre-writing, you’re already beginning to draft in stages; however, non-native speakers of English can especially benefit from separating the entire writing process into distinct phases.
→ After you’ve planned your essay, draft it. When you’re in the initial drafting stage, don’t worry about grammatical correctness or proper vocabulary; let the ideas flow and write whatever comes out. Then, take a break. Eat a meal, go to class, or hang out with your friends, and come back to your draft later.
→ When you return to your project, revise, but don’t edit yet. The distinction between these two activities is important. When you revise, you should be working on the level of your ideas—or what writing instructors call “global” issues. Does your thesis precisely state the argument of your essay? Do your topic sentences relate to the thesis and accurately reflect the arguments of their respective paragraphs? Is your pattern of organization perceivable and logical? Have you remembered to include all of the points of your argument? Revision is all about getting the content where you want it to be. Then take another break.
→ When you return to your project (ideally on another day), begin editing. While you certainly can still make changes to your content when you edit, editing is more about form than content. This is the stage of the writing process in which you should be correcting grammatical errors, tweaking word choices, and making sure your sentence structures are effective. By separating the writing process into distinct stages, you’ll be able to express your ideas more effectively because you won’t be getting hung up on the challenges of writing in perfectly grammatical English until the very last phase.
3. Be aware of cultural differences in rhetorical values.
When people mention “rhetoric,” they’re essentially talking about the way a writer or speaker makes an argument. However, different cultures have different preferences for how to express arguments. In her essay “Cultural Conflicts in the Writing Center,” Former Purdue University writing center director Muriel Harris notes that “while Americans value conciseness, directness, and clarity, work in contrastive rhetoric has shown us that these qualities are not necessarily valued in the discourse of other languages.” Because of culturally different rhetorical values, you may find that you need to adapt to the more linear American style of argumentation that your professors are mostly likely to expect. Thus, while you may be more used to a centrifugal structure, an argument-counterargument structure, or a structure that allows for tangential breaks, you should generally hold yourself to a strict linear style of argumentation in which you thoroughly state your entire argument in a thesis that appears near the beginning of the essay and proceed by sequentially supporting or proving all the parts of that thesis in your body paragraphs. This certainly isn’t the only good way of making an argument, but if your audience is American professors, you’ll benefit from using a rhetorical structure that they’ve come to expect.
4. Thesaurus Wrecks!
You may have been taught that using complex vocabulary makes your writing stronger. However, that’s true only if you’re using complex terms correctly and if your language is accessible to your readers. Many students (both native and nonnative English speakers) inflate their vocabulary by clicking on the “thesaurus” or “synonyms” option in their word processors. However, this is an extremely dangerous practice because words have more than simple denotations (simply put, their literal definitions); they also have connotations (more subtle associations that words carry). A computer or printed thesaurus will generally not give you enough information about the connotations of words or about the contexts in which they are appropriate to use. Therefore, you quite possibly will use a word inaccurately if you’re inflating your vocabulary using a thesaurus.
To be magnanimous means to be very generous or forgiving. This causes a logical problem in the sentence because if the crowd is protesting a verdict, they're probably not feeling very generous or forgiving. This type of error usually results from the following train of thought: in the first draft, the writer produces the sentence as, “A big crowd assembled to protest the jury's verdict.” This sentence accurately articulates the writer's meaning, but the writer is not satisfied with her use of “big” and uses her word processor’s thesaurus, where among the suggestions she finds “magnanimous.” It's not crazy that either the thesaurus suggested magnanimous or that the writer chose it since one of the term's Latin root words is magnus, which means big or great. However, the term's other root is animus, meaning soul or heart. Thus, as a substitute for “big,” the writer has now opted for “big-hearted,” breaking the logical consistency of her sentence.
I understand that you may have been taught that good writing employs varied and complex vocabulary; however, on a more fundamental level good writing minimizes the possibility of misreading and expresses the ideas of a writer in such a way that readers can understand them. Developing a complex vocabulary is a great goal, but you should aim to achieve this over a long period of time through reading, conversation, and general immersion in English—not with the quick path of a thesaurus. As more complex terms become a natural part of your speaking vocabulary, feel free to use them in your writing. If a term is so unfamiliar to you that you had to use a thesaurus to find it, don't use it.
5. Make regular appointments at your writing center.
The key word here is regular. Some students simply make appointments at their tutoring center a day or two (or less!) before their papers are due, having the expectation that one tutoring session will produce a rhetorically brilliant and error-free final draft. However, this expectation is not realistic given the time constraints of the typical one-hour tutoring session. Furthermore, a wealth of scholarly literature on tutoring center best practices suggests that tutors should focus on only two to three issues in a given tutoring session. This practice is best summed up by writing scholar Stephen North's now famous axiom that the job of a writing tutor is “to produce better writers, not better writing.” If you make regular appointments at your tutoring center—not just when you have a paper due—you will have the opportunity to work consistently with a tutor who can get to know you as a writer and who will be able to build on your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses. As a result, you'll improve as a writer—a lifelong benefit—rather than simply improve the grade of one transient assignment.
Jamie P. Bondar,
Senior Lecturer in English
Professional Tutor @ CLAS
You know the feeling: you have to write an essay, and you’re stuck. You stare at the assignment sheet, which seems impossibly long and confusing and full of strange demands. You stare at your blank screen. You look back at the assignment sheet. You look at the blank screen. Inspiration strikes! You write your name, the date, and “Essay Title.” Now you’re stuck again—a little voice suggests it’s time to look at Facebook…
All writers feel these “blank-screen blues” sometimes. Today, let’s talk about ways to fight them. They won’t necessarily make writing feel simple or easy, but they are guaranteed to banish that blank screen and get you on your way to revising and finishing your assignment.
Step #1—Understand the prompt
This one might seem obvious, but it can also be tricky. Prompts, like professors, come in many shapes and sizes. As such, they can pose a variety of challenges—some overwhelm with details, others seem vague about what the professor really wants. Here are a few rules to follow, regardless of the prompt:
1) Read, and re-read, every word carefully. Chances are, your professor has tried to state his or her expectations as clearly as possible. Highlight main points, number or order the instructions. Make it into a list of smaller tasks.
2) Put the assignment in your own words. “My paper should first do this, and then this,” “I must avoid this,” etc. This is an important step in mastering an assignment. Make sure you study the prompt closely before you paraphrase it, so that you don’t misunderstand it and head in the wrong direction.
3) If there are still things you don’t understand, ask your professor for clarification.
Step #2—Consider your topic
Almost all essays have two key parts: a question and a claim. Questions can be interpretive or research-based (or both), but they are always the “unknown” that your thesis will answer. Sometimes the specific question is built into the assignment for you—all you have to do is answer it. But quite often, you will be required to narrow the question, to define it in your own terms, or even to discover your question for yourself. Maybe it’s one of cause and effect--Why did something happen? What caused it?—or maybe you have to decide how something happened, or what something means. Whatever the assignment, take time before you write to carefully consider the question your essay will answer. Then you can start thinking about your thesis.
Here is where we set caution aside. A lot of the time we don’t know what we think until put some words on paper! It can help to gather your class notes, readings, professor’s comments, etc. Look them over to refresh your memory about your subject. Then start writing down thoughts. I like to use a separate bullet-point for each idea, and then decide later how they fit together. Don’t worry whether your ideas are good, or grammatically correct—just get as many thoughts as you can on paper. List things you could discuss, claims you might make, questions you have, related ideas—the more the merrier.
Step #4—Organize your ideas
Once you’ve broken down the assignment and have some ideas on paper, start reviewing what you’ve written. Underline, highlight, or put stars next to ideas you can use. Put an X next to stuff that looks like fluff. Pay particular attention to patterns or recurring ideas in your brainstorming. What points fit together? What ideas come up in different ways? These things can be “clues” pointing you towards a more specific, focused idea than you knew you had.
You’re almost ready to draft! The final step of preparation is to gather up your useful brainstorming ideas and organize them. There are different ways to do this:
1) An outline. The best way to organize is often to number your ideas in an order that makes sense. It’s good to experiment with different orderings, so that you can find a sequence of ideas that forms a clear argument. You can organize from strongest point to weakest, or from “most general” to “most specific,” or chronologically from “first” to “last.” The important thing is that you have a reason for your organization.
2) A storyboard. Some people prefer to draft from storyboards, because they allow more flexibility than an outline. In a storyboard, you put one main idea atop a blank page, and then fill that page with related points, evidence, quotes, etc. You can even leave some pages blank apart from the heading, if there are parts you know you are missing. As you develop your storyboard, you can move the pages around into whatever order makes the most sense. Because it doesn’t lock you into a specific order, a storyboard can be especially good for research papers.
Whatever form of organization you choose, the important thing is to think about how your points fit together to make an argument. Try writing a sentence explaining how two ideas are related to each other (i.e., how they are similar, different, connected, etc). That’s a transition! See which transitions make sense, and which feel forced. This way, you can start to consider the “big picture.” Your paper is already taking shape!
-Iain Bernhoft, Tutor