Learning to write – in English


in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

Is there any difference between writing in your language and English? The answer is “no and yes.” If you can get your ideas from your mind into someone else’s mind clearly, quickly, and economically when you write in your language, that will help you when you write in English. However, there are some things that make writing in English different than writing in other languages.

What’s different about writing in English? William Zinsser, who used to teach writing at Yale University, answers this question as well as anyone. Let me summarize it for you.

What is good English?

Zinsser says that good English is…

…plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right.

He says that writers need to begin by using short, simple nouns that express the basics of everyday life – house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road. He strongly warns against trying to find “impressive” nouns.

Zinsser says that short, plain, active verbs are the writer’s best tools. If you use active verbs, your writing will automatically be clear, warm, and energetic. For an example, read this famous sentence from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front (face) only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Notice the short, active verbs – went, wished, live, front (face), see, learn, teach, die, discover, lived. Now see what happens when Zinsser turns this active sentence into a passive sentence:

A decision was made to go to the woods because of a desire for a deliberate existence and for exposure to only the essential facts of life, and for possible instruction in its educational elements, and because of a concern that at the time of my death the absence of a meaningful prior experience would be apprehended.

The sentence slows down. It’s not nearly as clear. And, compared to the original, it’s boring.

Rules for writing good English

Zinsser says there are four rules – he calls them principles – for writing good English:

Be clear. If your writing isn’t clear, you might as well not write because no one will understand.

Write simply. Simple is good. Don’t try to impress. Be willing to write simple sentences with short words.

Listen to the simplicity and clarity of Barack Obama’s writing in his book Dreams from My Father:

At night, lying in bed, I would let the slogans drift away, to be replaced with a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known.

They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month. . . . A pair of college students . . . placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of riot. . . . A county jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.

Be brief. Short – words and sentences – are always better than long. Zinsser says that…

…short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many…. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman….

Be human. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Again, don’t try to impress. Let your readers hear your voice, not someone else’s.

An example – from William Zinsser

William Zinsser is an excellent example of what he teaches. He begins his book Mitchell and Ruff: an American Profile in Jazz with five declarative sentences – or statements:

Jazz came to China for the first time on the afternoon of June 2, 1981, when the American bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff introduced himself and his partner, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, to several hundred students and professors who were crowded into a large room at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The students and the professors were all expectant, without quite knowing what to expect. They only knew that they were about to hear the first American jazz concert ever presented to the Chinese. Probably they were not surprised to find that the two musicians were black, though black Americans are a rarity in the People’s Republic. What they undoubtedly didn’t expect was that Ruff would talk to them in Chinese, and when he began they murmured with delight.

Even though the first sentence is long – 52 words – it’s clear. Why? The entire sentence is controlled by one simple idea – “Jazz came to China…when…Willie Ruff introduced himself and…Dwike Mitchell, to several hundred students and professors….” And it’s followed by four brief, equally clear, equally simple sentences.

When you begin to write

Don’t forget – “simple is good. Short is better than long. Long…nouns are the enemy. Active verbs are your best friend. One thought per sentence.”

You will need to use compound and complex sentences – sometimes – like Zinsser did in the example from Mitchell and Ruff. You will need to use passive voice – sometimes. But use them they way you use any other tool – properly and only when they’re needed.

Warren Ediger

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References: William Zinsser. Writing English as a second language.

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Rodrigo September 8, 2010

Great!! This is very helpful Warren. William Zinsser is the man talking about writing, but sometimes I find his articles a little complicated. I won’t give up though. By the way, since we are talking about writing, I find your writing very understandable, I rarely run across a word that I didn’t know before. And I was wondering, how much limited is your writing here? how an American would find it? Normal? Simple?. Strange question, I know. haha! But I wanted to know for measuring my actual reading level.

Warren Ediger September 8, 2010

Rodrigo – Thanks! Remember – if you find something that’s difficult – even one of Zinsser’s articles! – wait to read it until later, after you’ve read some easier things and your English has improved a little more.

Interesting question – about my writing. First, I’m delighted that it’s understandable. This is my classroom, so it’s important to know that you and others understand what I write.

I don’t consciously simplify what I write. Whenever I write or speak, I’m aware of who’s in my audience and automatically adapt to them. I’ve worked with hundreds of English learners, and I think I have a good “feel” for what works and what doesn’t. I intentionally write in a conversational style – notice how often I use “I” and “you.” And when I write, I often imagine that I’m sitting and chatting with a student or group of students – over a cup of coffee, of course. If I were writing a professional paper, it would be for a different audience and different purpose, so it would look and sound different.

I do spend a lot of time revising – I’ll talk about that in my next Writing to learn article – to be sure that I’ve said what I want to say as clearly as possible.

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