Today’s post deals with the issue of developing one’s writing skills. whether it be in a foreign language or in your native tongue. Language skills are typically divided into four areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Because in reading and in listening the language user is passive, i.e. he does not have to generate his own grammatically correct language or have the right word at hand, these two skills are intrinsically less challenging than writing or speaking.
Speaking and writing make use of your productive (also called active) knowledge of vocabulary, whereas reading and listening make use of your receptive (also called passive) vocabulary. This is a topic that I will come back at in a later article, but for now, suffice to say that writing is something quite hard within the realm of foreign language acquisition, yet it is something many of us need to master, whether for writing an exam, writing for one’s own enjoyment or hobby (i.e. a blog, a book), or for work purposes.
In this post my aim is to give you a clear set of tools that you can use right from today to dramatically improve your writing. More specifically, I devised a method, which I call the “Lingholic Method,” to help you improve your writing, expand your active vocabulary at a faster rate, and improve your ability to memorize new words and unconsciously grasp complex grammatical structures. Sounds too good to be true? Keep on reading!
The Lingholic Method
The method I am introducing today is what I call the Lingholic Method. The Lingholic Method is a method I devised quite recently, and it was influenced by a few methods, most notably Luca Lampariello’s back-and-forth translation method, David James’ Goldlist Method, and Mike Campbell‘s (Glossika) Mass Sentence Method. In addition to these influences, I have drawn from my own experiences in learning several languages, from writing classes I took back at university, and from foreign language tests and exams I have taken and practiced for, to devise this method.
If you think about it, whether you’re a musician, a chess player, a professional golfer, a magician, an Olympic swimmer, or a New York Times bestselling author, chances are you have learned your trade by copying the greats. That is, you have carefully examined and copied people who are (or were) experts in their fields (people who have put the so-called “10,000 hours” necessary to become masters in their field). Thus, to get to where you are you have most likely been influenced by several experts in a given field, and mixed their styles to form your very own. If this is not what you have been doing until now, well… it’s not too late to change your way of doing things. 🙂
I should add that this is virtually how every single artist develops his/her craft. The word “copy” tends to have a negative connotation, because we associate “copying” with “plagiarism”. But there is nothing wrong with copying what others do in order to eventually develop our own style. In fact, there is no other way to become good at something. If I want to become a really good rock guitarist, for example, I’ll probably end up copying hundreds of solos and songs from Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Santana, David Gilmour, you name it. After years of copying what the greats have come up with, I’ll eventually come up with my own solos, my own riffs, and my own music.
In foreign language acquisition, we copy native speakers, people who, for all intent and purposes, have put many more than 10,000 hours of practice into developing fluency in their language. For this reason the only way to get better at speaking a language is by copying how native speakers speak, and by practicing this very skill as often as possible (by actually speaking the language, that is).
Thus, the basic proposition of the Lingholic Method is that if you want to become better at writing, you should copy texts in addition to getting as much writing practice as possible. In other words, armed with enough Comprehensible Input, you get the feel for what is “correct,” and by assimilating enough sentence patterns, vocabulary, and grammatical structures, you will able to eventually produce new, original content on your own without making tons of mistakes. Sounds simple? Of course it is simple, that’s what’s great about this method. However, blindly copying just about any text is not what I’m recommending. While the method is quite simple, I will spell it out for you point by point, making sure to underline the important details that will make the magic happen.
1) Copy texts that you have an interest in, and that are suitable to your level. With millions of websites at your fingertip, finding texts in a foreign language should definitely not be an issue if you have access to the internet. Look for blogs, the news, interesting articles, books, short stories, or copy texts from a language textbook.
This method works best when you have reached an intermediate level in a given language, since this is usually when you can truly start reading about topics that you have a deep interest in (rather than going through a beginner’s textbook). If you are still at a beginner’s stage though, things such as children stories and example texts from textbooks can certainly be useful.
The reason why copying texts with topics that really interest you is important is due to the fact that your memory naturally works much, much better when your emotions are involved. You also need to deal with material that you can understand for the most part, or else it will be hard for your brain to process the information and to naturally acquire vocabulary and grammatical structures along the way.
2) If you want to combine this exercise with polyglot Luca Lampariello’s back-and-forth translation method (the method he uses to remember words and sentence structures and quickly gain fluency in a foreign language), you can do the following: after having initially read and copied a text, try to translate it back to your native tongue and then check for mistakes with the help of a native speaker (the preferable way) or a dictionary. A few days later, go through your translation and try to translate it back to your target language. By doing so, you force yourself to convey a message. Your desire to say again what you previously translated will help you enormously to remember words. As Luca emphasizes (see our interview for more on that), the words “stick” as a consequence of wanting to say something, to convey a message.
3) As David James recommends in the context of his Goldlist Method (advice that is equally applicable to the Lingholic Method), when reading and writing you should be as relaxed as possible so that the unconscious memory works nicely. It’s important that you do not feel stressed nor distracted when copying texts in a foreign language. As David adds, this is the reason why good audio course such as Michel Thomas and Pimsleur emphasize the use of the pause button. “You have to have the feel that you are in control of the timing at which the language is coming at you and can repeat any part of the recording ad nauseam if necessary.”
4) Lastly, it is absolutely essential that you copy texts by hand, and preferably in a beautiful hard back book, as neatly as you can. I think having a nice book specifically dedicated to your writing exercises is important because first of all, you will be able to take pride in having this nice book and it will be easy to go through your writings for reviewing purposes. The reason you need to copy texts by hand and not by typing words on a computer is to make use of the natural memory that is linked to handwriting. As David James underlines, handwriting is a long-term memory function, which is why your signature always comes out the same, year in, year out, and you don’t even need to think about it consciously. Second, having a book only dedicated to practicing your writing will make it easier for you to develop a healthy routine, and your brain will associate the book with a specific set of skills that you will be focusing on in each session.
Developing Core Writing Skills
This is the first part of the Lingholic Method and the aim of this whole routine is to develop what I term “core writing skills.” Mike Campbell, Glossika’s founder and the deviser of the “Mass Sentence Method” (MSM), has said that beginning language learners simply make too many mistakes in the early stages to be able to make up their own sentences. Hence the idea of a Mass Sentence Method was born, where a teacher (or a textbook) reads out loud dozens/hundreds of sentences, after which the student is prompted to repeat.
The MSM of language learning is similar to an assimilation-based learning program—armed with enough Comprehensible Input, you get the feel for what is “correct.” In other words, if you say something correctly enough times, it’s going to intuitively feel wrong to say it incorrectly. Additionally, the student will assimilate enough sentence patterns and vocabulary to be able to produce new, original content on their own.
The second part of the Lingholic Method, then, is to actually end up producing new, original content on your own. This is the necessary path of progression that your language learning journey should follow, and ultimately if you really want to get good at writing (whether in a foreign language or in your native tongue), you will simply have to write, write, and write, and get feedback.
Getting feedback is crucial in order to improve your writing, and it is something you should not neglect. The best way is to either have a native speaker friend or a tutor look over your writing and tell you exactly what needs to be fixed. By having constant feedback and by focusing on the areas that you have difficulty with, you will see amazing results in a short amount of time.
That’s it for today’s post everyone. I hope you’ve found this introduction to the Lingholic Method to be useful to your studies, and if you think any of your friends or acquaintances might benefit from it, please share this article on your favorite social media website.
If you intend on trying it out, I would really love to get feedback from you and see what works and what doesn’t. Remember, though, that while you may see results in the short-term, improving your writing is not something that will happen overnight, nor is it something that you will actually suddenly notice. It’s a long-term, gradual process, but I hope that my method will make the process quicker and smoother for you.
As always, I really appreciate hearing from you guys, and I love to read your comments and your suggestions. Thanks for reading all the way through!
21 thoughts on “How to Dramatically Improve Your Writing – A Step-by-Step Guide”
Kids start writing by copying books that they love! You can also get feedback from natives on your texts by posting them on sites like lang-8 or italki.
Very good advice, Stephanie! I’ve used italki a few times to get natives to correct my writing or to answer questions about the language, and it has proven to be really useful. The best thing is that it’s free! Of course, you are encouraged to reciprocate and help others too with their questions~
I used to copy from my textbook to help me memorise tones! Writing them out helped ingrain them in my mind. I suppose I may have been picking up grammar structures and turns of phrase too. 🙂
A question on the production stage. How free do you envisage the writing be? Would you base it on the same topics as you’ve been reading about, try to use a particular language point (eg. structures for giving reasons) or something else entirely? I guess I’m asking whether the focus is on trying to consciously consolidate what you’ve been learning in the first stage or generally improve your writing.
It’s cool to see that you’ve used a similar method to help you memorize tones. I definitely think that actually writing things down help to ingrain them in the mind.
When it comes to the writing process itself, I think it really depends on the person. I would generally recommend people to write about a topic they are interested about (travel, hobby, cultures, food, etc.). This would, therefore, usually be similar to what the learner has practiced writing in the past, since I encourage to copy texts that you are interested in. Hope this makes sense!
One of the things I did, after fruitless years in high school studying French and Spanish, was to write out in clear and simple English who I am, where I was born, how old I am, what is my profession….in other words, all the common things about myself that I could then quickly recall in French. I then started reading magazine articles out loud to myself, and got some pen pals in France and Canada. But I also started to keep a diary in French, and that helped immensely. You can become very fluent quickly, and begin thinking in whatever language you are learning by writing down your thoughts. Having a verb book, dictionary and a book on idiomatic usage really helps, too.
Very interesting experience Mme Scherzo, and I think a lot of us can learn from that.
As you said, writing down your thoughts can also help you to begin thinking in a foreign language, which is great advice for people and relates well to my post on that very topic.
Your copying method. Is it similar to the scriptorium method of Alexander Arguelles? http://learnanylanguage.wikia.com/wiki/Scriptorium
I’ve been trying the translating back and forth method myself lately. But I’ve often already memorized the reading using Audacity first. So I’m not really sure that it is flexing my translation muscle.
Thanks for the link, I actually had never heard of the Scriptorium method. I guess every writing method is bound to have similarities, but I think my method differs a little bit in that I specifically combined ideas from the Luca Lampariello method (back-and-forth translation), the Goldlist Method, and Glossika’s method, and I added my own ideas on top of that.
I guess the lesson we can learn from all this is that pretty much every successful polyglot does see writing routines as quite important, so it’s definitely something the average language learner should try to practice!
(I ask for sorry, but I have doubts that my comment has been registered, so I send it again.)
Unfortunately I have no enough time and patience to write slowly. Since I learned touch typing I go only this way. And, of course, I use e-sheets, not paper sheets.
Yesterday I finished to read all the techniques suggested at the link signaled by Scott
The article “Word lists” remembered me some considerations appeared on “How to Remember Words When Learning a Language”.
I read many strategies about memorisation and word lists. I started to ask myself questions about what to do, what could work to me.
I don’t know exactly the answer, but few time ago I started to keep trace into a sheet of all new terms I am encountering, and also of well known vocables to which I learned new meanings.
Into a e-sheet I continue to add words and words (and their major translations) and to see if I have just inserted those I use Ctrl + f that allow me a swift research. (Ctrl +f functions the same way for text search inside a browser.) I also try to pronounce aloud the new entry before to insert it.
When I meet a supposed new word I search to predict if I have just seen that before, then I go on my e-sheet and search with Ctrl +f. If it does appear then I try to remember the meaning before to look at translations.
If it is the case I add new translations for that word.
So this approach probably is starting to be my spaced repetition system, because in fact I don’t have enough time to revise my growing word list.
Another issue, recently I started to guess if a new word pronounced into another fashion could be a word that I just know into another language I started to learn. Or, at least, it could be new to me also in that other language but have a similar meaning and writing so that I could gain two new words at the same time. It seems to me that associating sound and appearance of a certain word in another language makes me easier at least remember the existence of a word and, perhaps, its meaning. Unfortunately, the fastest method I know to check this is to use google translate for validation. That I find relatively time consuming.
I’d like to know if there are comparative word lists between different languages that take advantage of such similarity. To to deepen the awareness of the proximity and exchange between languages.
Last thing, I look forward the next part of this article. ^^
Hi again Red! Thanks as usual for your comment 🙂
As far as copying a word and pasting it on an e-sheet, I think it’s not necessarily a very productive way to go about learning new words. I guess if it works for you just fine, it’s OK, but it’s not a method I would use myself nor recommend to others. I think that actually coming over a word again and again through input will really anchor the words in your mind, and that can always be helped with writing exercises such as the Lingholic Method I’ve introduced, or with other techniques such as Anki or the Goldlist Method.
I think trying to guess the meaning of words before looking at them in a dictionary is a very good habit. I definitely try to do that, and I feel like the words stick more as a result of my efforts. If I do know words that sound similar in two foreign languages that I already know, I will definitely try to make mnemonics based on that, but I wouldn’t go as far as to explicitly look for words in Google Translate just to check, since, as you underlined, this is too time consuming.
Glad you enjoyed the article, and by the way there is not next part to it! The article itself was divided into 2 parts though (the 2 parts of the Lingholic Method).
Thanks for your answer.
I agree about the fact that seeing many times the same words helps to remember these ones and become more and more close to their meaning and then better remembered eventually.
Also I admit that could be boring create a word list like mine.
One of the reasons for starting this list is been I wanted to check out the speed at which I meet new words. And also to keep track of words with a low frequency repetition. For which I think it’s necessary a different criteria of memorization. To me this ends into write those down into a list. Only because of the fact that I’m not so good at sticking low frequency words in my long memory.
In my personal experience I found that anyway I need to check the meaning of words, because it could happen that, by repetition, I previously predicted a translation that could stand for a given word, only to learn later that I associated a similar meaning, but incorrect. 🙁
Another consideration: the more the words come by a complex text, or are technical lemmas, the less it’s possible to predict or guess their meanings. (Here probably start to be a different nature issue. It’s about what to do when an upper-intermediate/advanced level has been reached.) I mean: until one reads a newspaper, or a literature book it is still valuable the approach of guessing the meaning of words. But (a little bit) technical stuff -I don’t mean nuclear physics! 🙂 – ,also if well known in our mother tongue, with all that specifics words, starts to become a hard task to me. So, until I became more competent in that subject in a foreign language, I need a cross-check between at least three internet translators. (that yeah, it is time-consuming!!)
I’m interested in whatever consideration, criticism, or strategy about it. I’m open to diversity of thought and approach… 🙂
When you start dealing with more complicated words, you could argue that it becomes harder and harder to guess the meaning of the word (in some cases you might not even know the meaning in your own native tongue!) However, as usual context is of huge help, in addition to prefixes and suffixes that usual come again and again.
I’m curious as to whether you’ve ever given SRS a try (such as Anki). I think this might come in handy to you more than a list built in a document, because Anki, for example, actually has an embedded function that can track all of your progress, so it’s super easy to visualize and to see how many words a day you review and you remember, etc. On top of that, you can add audio, pictures, and example sentences to really help anchor the meaning of words in your head. If you commute to school or work by public transport and you have a smartphone, it’s an easy way to kill time!
Usually while reading it happens to meet a multitude of synonyms of terms already otherwise known. If some specific terms are useful to me I strive to verify them.
For instance, if I consult some instructions to apply at something I feel myself more forced not to neglect the translation.
Mostly, years ago, I was used to print writings and then underline unknown words and write down translations. Later I started making words lists in several sheets of paper. Over the time, watching them again, I marked in pencil a check mark in correspondence with the words that I was less able to remind, and then I deleted the check marks as I have been able to remember these words.
Unfortunately, however, it deals on various materials scattered, usually each one paired with what I had read. Not organized in a single e-sheet like I’m doing recently.
I was thinking of a way to mark the less frequent words, but still interesting, on the e-sheet was talking about. Maybe highlighting them in front or with a symbol (asterisk), that I can remove later. A little like I did with lists in different sheets of paper.
I learned of the existence of such programs as Anki only more recently. And I have only given it a look on youtube, for now.
Per usual, super informative + helpful article. I am definitely going to implement copying texts into my language learning schedule.
Just curious, in terms of feedback, do you use Busuu or Italki, or prefer one to the other?
Thanks for the kind words. I’ve used Busuu very little in the past, so I’m not familiar with their peer correction kind of system. I’ve mostly used italki so that’s the one I can speak for. I’m definitely thinking of trying out Busuu and Livemocha in the future though, in order to make better comparisons and give better advice to my readers!
Hi Cher! Thanks for the kind words. I’ve used Busuu very little in the past, so I’m not familiar with their peer correction kind of system. I’ve mostly used italki so that’s the one I can speak for. I’m thinking of trying out Busuu and Livemocha some time in the future though, in order to make better comparisons and give better advice to my readers!
You made my day! I’ve been looking for a way to learn to write in two languages I learned fairly recently. My reading, listening comprehension, and speaking skills are pretty good. I just haven’t been able to make the jump to writing. I thought I could just start writing spontaneously, but that’s not happening. Your method seems very promising to me. Thanks!
[I grew up with 4 languages and writing these is no problem. I now realize that is because I learned all of these in a school setting and did a lot of traditional writing practice.]
Glad I made your day Ulrike 🙂
Let me know how you find the method after having used it for a couple of weeks, I’m very curious to see if you’ll get good results out of it. Which 2 languages have you been learning recently?
Thanks for the kind comment!
I’ve been learning Italian and Spanish, and Ive actually started with Swedish now too, just started. With Swedish I’ll put the writing into action right away. Thanks again.
i think this might work.
Hey, this website really, really helped me!! I’m having a timed essay-writing test next week, and essay-writing is just my weak point. After reading this terrific article, I feel completely at ease and ready for my test. Can you write an article about redundancy? I have trouble controlling my redundancy; I always write something like ‘shadowy, dark attic’ or something just as redundant. I’ve tried for months to break this habit, but I haven’t made any progress yet. I tried to use my last name, Greenglass, as a little mantra to stop my redundancy (glass is described as green, only one green), but nothing seems to be working. I really, really want to publish a book (even though I’m only twelve years old), but I’ll never publish one before I turn into a teenager if I don’t break this redundancy habit of mine! It’s so annoying. I can’t break this habit, no matter what I do. And because redundancy in writing isn’t like nail-biting or wetting the bed, I can’t see any other option for me. I’ve tried and tried and tried and tried very hard, but I just CAN’T BREAK THIS STUPID HABIT!! Any suggestions for me, Lingholic?