As an ESL, I’m more than happy to share my experience and tips. However, I would first like to humbly disagree that exceptions in English rules nullify the rules. It’s true that English, when compared to other Latin languages, seems to have more irrational exceptions which even local speakers cannot explain, but rules are rules and without them we’ll lose the anchor point for a meaningful discussion. In addition, your frustration likely comes from spoken English. When it comes to formal written English (which is what you need help with), the rules are much more consistent, stringent, and well laid-out. In a nut shell, we shouldn’t ditch a rule because someone, no matter how famous, had broken it before very stylishly.
Second, not to be pessimistic, but I would not attempt to write like a native speaker does. ESL writers rarely will attain that level of cultural affinity. Notice that I didn’t say proficiency; we can write nearly flawlessly and yet any native speaker can tell the work is from an ESL writer. Practical goal setting in English learning cannot be more important, I’d recommend striving for clear communication rather than being “local.”
Now, my tips:
Get a good set of desktop references: I write technical articles and I always check reference books for English rules and usages. Here are some books that I have found very useful.
I also have a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. For my next purchase I’d probably go for a set of language references and/or encyclopedias.
Form a writing group: I formed a writing group with two other colleagues (both are native English speakers) about a year and a half ago. Each week we take turn to circulate our draft articles, reviews, and proposals for contextual, structural, and grammatical comments. This group has been tremendously helpful for me to fine-tune my written English and keep up with my writing productivity. What’s more, I have become much less shy in sharing my work and listening to criticism.
Work with a professional editor: For important work such as dissertation, conference abstract, and academic manuscript, I’d suggest hiring a professional editor to go through your work. They can weed out strange foreign usages and improve the efficiency of the work. In addition, you can learn a thing or two from the proof they return to you.
Join a local writing guild: I have recently joined a scientific writing association in the US. There are three reasons: to diversify my career profile, get some professional credit-granting training, and build a larger personal network. I have been reading a great deal about scientific writing and am glad to be able to formally commit to it.
Write everyday: I schedule one hour a day just for writing. I took this advice from Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot. The benefit was instantaneous. I have become much more productive and less stressed about writing. The rule is really simple: write one hour a day and that’s it. An advantage is that the more I write the more grammatical problems I get into. By tackling these problems along the way, my grammar has improved and the emergent problems have become more complicated, challenging, and fun!
Deal with setback: Time to time I do get frustrated… works can get rejected, reviewers can get unreasonable. I usually laugh, put the thing away for a while, and then read some therapeutic books. For those I’d recommend Johnson’s Write to the Top!, Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
You stated that you don’t have time and tend to over-think. I hate to present this reality check but if you cannot contribute about an hour a day to work on writing, it’s probably not going to be easy. Rethink how your time is spent and prioritize your tasks. Writing should be on the top tier: it’s the most under-taught skill and yet the most evaluated skill in our life. Our school system might have failed us, but we still can pick up the responsibility and train ourselves to be a better writer. As for over-thinking, it’s actually not a disadvantage. I’d suggest channeling your energy from over-thinking about the grammatical rule to being empathetical--think how your readers think, and try your best to align their thought so that it’s closest to yours.
Hope these help, and good luck!
Respond to your comments:
Thanks for your feedback! Your comments have reminded me of a couple more things:
When revising, keep the old version(s). I learned this trick when taking a class on questionnaire writing. The instructor told us to keep all the versions, because sometimes revision can make it worse. So, in your case, instead of chiseling a perfect sentence, simply write a couple more versions for comparison.
Sentence is important, but don't overlook the overall structure. If you find yourself pondering over sentence by sentence, I'd recommend a quick read of Kaye's Writing Under Pressure and some introduction on free writing. In a nut shell, it's better to have built a functional but ugly house than to have made only a very sophisticated stained glass window.