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I live in England for last 8 years. My English is pretty good if I speak with friends. The problem starts when I want to write some text. I study on English Uni so need to write a lot. I do have simple problems with 'the', 'a' etc. I went through exercises and know the theory but as I think about rules I can always find exemptions and because of it, the rules does not make sense.

Anyone know the way to improve English, when solutions like 'learn, practise and do exercises' fail? the reasons for fail are (1) lack of time, (2) over-thinking.

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3 Answers 3

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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Thank you very much @Penguin_Knight for your post. I have to say, very good insight. I would like to refer to rules, over-thinking etc. I coming from non Latin language and some rules and exceptions which maybe are obvious in English does not necessary make sense for me. I write a sentence and after start to analyse if it is correct. On the end I finish with the sentence which is much worst that the first one. And time... that's so bad that a day has only 24 hours :( One more time thanks, specially for links –  tomasz74 Nov 12 '12 at 19:24
    
@tomasz74 You're welcome. I added a couple more points regarding your concerns. –  Penguin_Knight Nov 12 '12 at 19:54

The 'Learn, Practice and Do' methodology is generally recommended for this sort of thing as it does work, as long as you put in the time and practice.

If, as you say, you have no time, then there aren't many solutions that will work for you. There aren't any short cuts to putting in the practice of reading and writing in English, as despite there being lots of clear rules, there are exceptions to every rule.

For usage of particular words, I would encourage you to visit english.stackexchange.com but be aware that the focus on that site is not as an English improvement site, but does allow questions on:

  • Word choice and usage
  • Grammar
  • Etymology (history of words’ development)
  • Dialect differences
  • Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)
  • Spelling and punctuation
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I've never been in a position similar, but I might suggest broading your reading. Reading of novels, of textbooks, of modern tales, of classic fiction. Largely we put together language, not as a forumula at the word level, but as a sequence of segments, cliches gliding into place - effectively we see catchphrase after catchphrase, and the more of these you absorb the more confortable you might be.

It turns out that one can go a particularly long way with a restriction of the things one is allowed to say. If, for example, someone did a sponsored event were they were only allowed to speak in phrases from a particular movie say, they might find that's it's suprsingly easy to get ones meaning accross...

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Thank you @Joe. Probably very good advise in 'normal' case. I think, problem is that I read every day. I need to read stuff which is published in my subject, every day I read new things, and here comes a flow. I have to read are in English but... Most of it are news in the internet written all over the word where English is not the first language. Another set of words comes from journal again written in English but somewhere where English is only thought or maybe even not. Every day I have contact with English text but most of it is written with grammar I would't like to have as mine. –  tomasz74 Nov 11 '12 at 21:18

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