Writing in English problems and solutions

Writing in English problems and solutions

Tips for solving the most common ESL writing problems.

This article gives advice on how to solve common issues with writing in a foreign language like writing too slowly and making the same errors again and again.


I take too long to write

There is another whole article on this site on writing quickly, including tips like planning before writing, leaving it until later to correct your mistakes, and using models before and after (but not during) writing. 


I make the same mistakes each time that I write

If you often make errors such as missing third person -s (“He go” X) and/ or missing out articles (“It is same as…” X), it is worth making a checklist of such points to double-check for. The use that checklist during the editing stage. If that isn’t enough, you can do specific study of those points and/ or add example sentences to your vocabulary lists to memorise in the same way.


I make many mistakes in my writing

In timed writing exams, the secret is to write more quickly so that you have more time left for editing at the end. In your own writing, the checklist idea above could also work with a bigger list of the mistakes which you could make. If you keep copies of unedited writing, perhaps the most useful practice is to go back and edit the same piece of writing again to make sure that you catch everything that was pointed out by your teacher last time.


There are many missing words in my writing

This is most common with articles/ determiners, for which you should remember the pattern that “Almost all singular countable nouns need something before them, so ‘Cat’ is always wrong on its own”. A similar tip for the next most common problem is “Every subject needs a verb, and almost every verb needs a subject”.


I use the wrong level of formality in my writing

It can be really useful to write down the level of formality that you are aiming for, e.g. writing “medium-formality email” before you start writing. When you finish, check that the whole piece of writing seems to match that level of formality, then google for model writing and lists of language that match that level of politeness or friendliness (searching for “formal business email”, etc).


I write too formally

If the level of formality problem is almost always writing too formally (and so perhaps being unfriendly), you should be able to find or make a checklist of things to include and not include like “Includes idioms, abbreviations, and other informal vocabulary” and “Avoids long words where collocations of shorter words would be possible/ suitable”. 


I write too casually/ too informally

A checklist for this opposite problem could include “Functional language for requests etc is suitably long, polite and indirect” and “Avoids abbreviations such as contractions”.


My English writing is too influenced by my own language/ my own culture

This is most common in emailing, where an email translated from almost any another language will seem very strange in English. However, there can also be cultural issues in other genres such as academic writing. The most important tip is to plan and write only in English, avoiding any translation. You should also look for model answers etc that are clearly not influenced by your own culture, for example because they were written for a more international audience (and so don’t include any translation).


My writing is too short

This is most commonly a problem in writing exams that have a minimum word limit like IELTS, but not writing enough can also produce essays that don’t support the opinions in them, emails which are not friendly enough, etc. The easiest way to add more words is to use a standard opening and closing, e.g. a standard essay introduction or a standard business email closing (closing line, closing greeting and then name at the end). If you still need more words, these should be added to the body. For example, you could add another reason for what you said, or split long sentences into two sentences linked by linking words.


My writing is too long

Although there can be strict upper word limits in situations like academic papers, the most common problem is the finished writing being so long that it is unlikely to be read. For instance, long emails are often saved for later after shorter ones have been dealt with, perhaps meaning saved forever! Typical opening and closing can help with this, as original alternatives to “I am writing to you concerning…” etc tend to be wordier and less to the point. There are also often sentences that could be shorter and easier to understand if they follow a more standard SVO/ SVC structure. Some English language norms like not needing to introduce yourself at the beginning of emails also help with shortening writing.


My writing is not split well into paragraphs

By far the best solution is to plan before writing, preferably with a very simple plan like “1: apology and reason, 2: future action”. After you finish writing, check that you stuck to your plan, then check for other points like “doesn’t start a new line just because it’s a new sentence/ doesn’t start new lines within paragraphs”, “divided by a blank line or indent from the next paragraph”, “clearly different topic from the other paragraphs”, “between two and five or six sentences” and “readable on its own without needing to refer back or forward to other paragraphs”.


I only use short and simple sentences in my writing

This is rarely a bad thing in real life. However, only using basic sentences can make it seem like you don’t have a high language level, make your ideas also seem unsophisticated, and/ or be boring to read. Many ways of trying to deal with this lead to long and/ or confusing sentences, but you could combine sentences to make sure that paragraphs have no more than five sentences, stop repeating linking words (so that you have to use “while” to make a longer sentence if you have already used “However”), and try to add some variety if two sentences in a row are very similar.


There are long confusing sentences in my writing

Suitable tips include making sure that all paragraphs have at least two sentences (splitting long sentences into two if they don’t), not repeating linking words and so having to split some sentences to use conjunctions which link two sentences, making sure that you know what the subject and object of each clause is, and reading long sentences out loud to make sure that they make sense.


I get stuck at the start of writing

This is easily solved by starting with very common starters like “Thank you for your email about…” and “In the modern world, it is more and more common to…”. If they then turn out not to be the best starters for that writing, you can replace them with something more suitable, original or tied to the rest of the writing when you edit the writing after you finish.


I get stuck at the end of writing

The best thing to do is usually to stop writing and to start editing everything from the top, as this will mean that you’ve just read everything and so should have a better idea of how to finish it when you get to that point again.

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