Best Way to Improve Writing

Posted on | January 19, 2011 | 12 Comments

The best way to improve writing is … to read more.

This morning someone from Taiwan pinged me in Skype. I could not remember why she was on my contact list. I probably added her a few years ago when I was trying to improve my Mandarin.

She told me she wanted to improve her English writing skill, and asked if I knew any native English speakers who would like to be her Chinese/English language exchange penpal. I simply told her to read more, and I guaranteed her that by doing so her writing would improve tremendously.

I used to have a few penpals some years ago when I tried to work on my French writing. My writing was so poor at that time that I struggled a lot. I would basically write the text in English, let Google Translate to do the initial translation (back then it was still using the old translation engine). Then I would make corrections and polish it up before sending it out.

Personally, I am not a fan of language penpal. It is not an effective method to improve your writing. Regardless of your writing skill, there are fundamental problems with language penpal.

We cannot improve writing by writing
No matter how much you write, you cannot write better than your existing knowledge of the language. This is true for both your native and non-native languages. If you are poor in the language, you just cannot write more to improve it. You first need to read more to build your vocabulary and gain better proficiency in the language.

The alternative way is to read more. Stephen Krashen in his book “The Power of Reading” quoted scientific studies which prove that writing more does not improve writing. Instead, writing style comes from reading. Reading can also help building vocabulary.

Correcting mistakes is no fun
With language penpal, you are supposed to correct mistakes made by the other person so that he will learn from them. He is supposed to do the same for you. But correcting mistakes is not a fun thing to do, neither is reading broken sentences. You have already put in a lot of effort to write, now you have to spend time correcting. It is not a wise way to spend your language learning time. If you just want your writing to be corrected, why not try crowd-sourcing the task?

Artificial communication won’t last
If there is no genuine interest to communicate between the penpals except for language learning, you will soon run of of topics to discuss. One or both sides will drop very soon due to boredom.

Having said that, if any reader thinks that he has a “genuine interest” in becoming a penpal of my Taiwanese friend, let me know.


12 Responses to “Best Way to Improve Writing”

  1. WC
    January 20th, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    I definitely agree. I use Lang-8 a lot because I enjoy correcting others, but there is definitely a level of broken English that is not fun to correct. When I see a whole page of really broken English, I usually run away crying rather than correct it. Helping people refine their English is fun, though.

    But when it comes to penpal letters, it’s no fun to correct them, no matter what. At that point, it seems like you are being cruel to your friend by telling them how wrong they are. Lang-8 is different because every post is a specific call for corrections.

    I love reading, so more reading is always something I’ll vote for. But what do people do if they hate reading? The only thing I can think is to watch TV. At least then you’ll have an idea of how to string words together, even if it won’t help your spelling.

  2. edwin
    January 20th, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    Krashen talked about TV in his book. He said it could stimulate reading, but then it only provides low-quality linguistic input.

    He also said comics and teen romance are other light-readings that could promoting more serious reading.

  3. Tweets that mention Best Way to Improve Writing « Tower of Confusion --
    January 20th, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by N@0e , Seiko and Aaron @PhraseMix, Edwin on Languages. Edwin on Languages said: The best way to improve writing is not by writing. […]

  4. PhraseMix
    January 20th, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    I love the line “No matter how much you write, you cannot write better than your existing knowledge of the language.” It’s true; good writing come from years of accumulation of well-made language patterns.

    I do think that writing practice is important alongside reading. I compare it to learning your way around a neighborhood. As long as you’re riding in the passenger seat of a car, you’ll never really learn your way around, at least not within the first few dozen trips. You see the terrain, but you don’t synthesize it all into a clear mental map. If you drive through the same neighborhood, you start to learn your way around after a couple of trips.

    This is all to say that writing practice should happen alongside reading practice. Rather than spend 3 years only reading in your foreign language, then beginning to write, it’s better to spend maybe 5-10% of your language practice time on writing.

    I also agree with the point that “Artificial communication won’t last”. I also extend that to situations in which you artificially communicate with someone in the weaker of two available languages. For example, if I try to force my Japanese-speaking friend to speak with me in Japanese, even though his English is much better than my Japanese, it’s likely to fail.

  5. edwin
    January 20th, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    Yes, 5-10% in writing is about right in my opinion too.

    Krashen also mentioned in his book that writing has one benefit: it helps to organize your thoughts. This is quite true to me from my experience as a blogger.

  6. chris(thai_student)
    January 21st, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    Yes that kind of summarizes my “pen pal” experiences to date.
    However I have feeling it should work better if you actually exchange mostly writing in your mother language, so you spend more time reading authentic writing in the target language about the topics you are discussing. Still need to address some writing the target language but it should be possible to work something out.

    I would be more than happy to be contacted by your Skype contact, with a bit of luck it could help us both, I will send you a contact email to use on Twitter.


  7. chris(thai_student)
    January 22nd, 2011 @ 4:10 am

    Sorry not sure if I actually posted the comment I wrote yesterday.
    Yes my experience so far matches your article, however I thing they may be betters ways to work with a penpal, I would be happy to contact your Taiwan contact, I sent my email in Twitter message yesterday.

  8. edwin
    January 24th, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry, for some reason both your comments went into my spam basket, but I have revived them. I will let my friend know.

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  9. Aaron Myers
    April 30th, 2011 @ 1:34 am

    I agree and disagree. Reading is by far one of the most important factors in helping us increase our knowledge of words and writing style. But saying that writing does not help you improve your writing is like saying speaking isn’t important to speak better. My writing improved significantly through college because I was forced to write so much. I guess I would advocate a balanced approach of lots of reading and writing. Just my two cents.

  10. edwin
    May 2nd, 2011 @ 6:27 am

    Hi Aaron,
    Thanks for your comment.

    I guess when I say, “We cannot improve writing by writing”, I actually meant “We cannot improve writing by ONLY writing”.

  11. Christina Chang
    February 1st, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    I’ve read many acclaimed writers , when asked to give advice on how to write, would simply say with conviction: ‘read. read. read.’ In my experience, I think it’s because if I don’t read, I simply do not have any sense about what’s ‘good’ vs. ‘poor’ writing.

    And if I don’t have that sense, how would I know whether I’m improving or not when I write? I refuse to trust a ‘teacher’ to tell me that. I don’t give away that power -I want to decide for myself. That’s why I read, read, read and enjoy reading more and more and more.

    An avid reader
    From Taiwan

  12. Petra
    December 11th, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    Very good article!

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