How to improve your writing skills in a foreign language
Out of the four foreign language skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening, writing is probably the least commonly practised.
When you’re first starting out learning a language, reading is usually the easiest, and speaking and listening are the most important because you want to communicate. Which means unfortunately for writing, that gets left behind.
Also, unless your job involved writing, then not many people write all that much in their own language, apart from texting friends. The average person isn’t writing articles or constructing essays. Let alone doing this in a foreign language.
However, if you do want to achieve fluency in a language, live in the country, study in the country or take one of the official language exams, you’re going to need to learn how to write well. And no, you don’t need to be at the level where you can write a novel. But you do want to be able to craft an email or a letter without sounding too much like a child.
Ways to practise writing
The first three suggestions are going to look at making writing a more natural part of your day and to develop it like you would your speaking or listening. And the other two suggestions will look at ways to help your improve your grammar and sentence structure actively while writing.
Keep a daily diary
The first thing I would do is to make writing in a foreign language feel more natural. Out of all of the skills it’s probably the one you do the least and you don’t get better at something without practising it.
Your speaking only got better when you started to have more conversations. Your listening probably improved when you were watching TV in the foreign language or you had to have conversations with locals who spoke fast. And it’s the same for writing, you need to practise it.
To do this I would start keeping a diary everyday about what you’ve done. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages long, it could just be a short paragraph if that’s more realistic for you. But it would be a good way for you to practise writing, and for it to become a more natural skill for you.
If you have a native friend you could ask them to read over it and give you advice (as long as it’s nothing private).
Hello talk is an app that has some similarities to italki, in that you can find people learning your language and practise with them. But rather than arranging skype language exchanges, it’s more commonly used to find people in your area to start messaging and then meet up with them if you want to.
I used Hello talk when I was learning French to chat to locals and I found it made my French sound more natural.
On the app there are functions to highlight mistakes people have made and correct them. Some people don’t like correcting others and prefer to chat but I found most people were happy to tell me how I could sound more natural and point out when I had made a mistake.
Seeing things written down also helped me not to make those mistakes when I was speaking.
Text people – whatsapp
This may sound obvious, or it might sound to easy, but I would recommend just trying to text people in the language you’re learning, especially if you’re friends with native speakers.
This way you’ll get more used to writing naturally and you’ll learn how to write informally. (It’s not just formal writing that people need to practise.)
If you don’t have friends that you can do this with casually, then there are whatsapp groups you can join which are dedicated specifically for practising languages.
Italki is an amazing tool, and aside from Duolingo it’s probably my favourite language learning website. In addition to having functions for language exchanges and classes, Italki also has a notebook section.
In this section you can write an article, a diary entry or whatever and you post it to the shared notebook. Then native speakers look at your work and give you corrections or suggestions. And it’s free! I know that sounds too good to be true but it really is.
Because so many people are learning and they want help, they’re also willing to help others. But if you do use it, then it might be nice to go on and correct someone’s English entry. That’s what helps the community to continue the way it does.
Download past exam papers and practise the exercises
This is probably more specific to people who want to practise their writing to take an exam.
If you’re going to take an exam and you want to improve your writing skills, then one of the best things to do is to buy a past exam textbook or download some past papers and practise them. This will give you a better idea of what kind of things you need to write, what grammar you need to practise and more.
If you’re studying for an exam it might also be a good idea to try doing this under timed conditions. Then you’ll be more prepared when you come to do the real thing.
If you have a teacher or a native friend you can ask them to check your practises and to let you know what you need to work on or if there’s a common grammar mistake you keep making.
Exam papers aren’t just useful for people taking the exams. Each level of a language exam has specific things that people need to do because each level takes you through different topics and grammar.
Even if you’re not taking the exam you could benefit from past papers as there are a wide variety of topics that encourage you to improve in different areas.
Although I definitely wouldn’t be focusing on my writing over speaking or listening when I’m learning a new language, you can’t deny that it’s an important skill, especially if you want to live or study in that country.
Becoming good at writing, for me, also feels like truly mastering the language. Lots of people are able to speak a language, but to craft written words takes a deeper knowledge of the language that is taking you all the way to fluency.
Writing isn’t as fun as the other skills so start small and work your way up. A small paragraph a day is much better than intending to write an essay a day but failing because it seems like too much work.
Good luck and keep learning.