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Writing Advice To Myself, a Non-native English Speaker

I am a non-native speaker of English who writes in English. This means I write from a strange sort of distance that I’m always trying to close to make a point. At the same time, this distance can work to my advantage – when I want to evade criticism. You see, if I use English poorly, it can’t be my fault: I’m not a native speaker. Convenient, uh? Only this time, when I read George Orwell’s discussion of bad writing in Politics and the English Language, I felt like I no longer had an excuse. I faced my weaknesses as a little scribbler, and wrote a few recommendations for myself. This is my Orwell-inspired writing advice to myself as a non-native speaker of English.

Don’t rely too much on imitation

You’ve learned to speak English by imitation. You’ve begun writing in English by copying the phrases you’d read. Because you live in a foreign country, imitation has become a way of life. It’s part of learning and it’s unavoidable. But when you’ve written enough English to consider yourself a writer of English, it’s time to drop the habit. Because overused phrases are overused no matter who writes them. Your reasons for repeating them might be different from that of a native speaker -you have an imitating reflex, while they’re probably being lazy-, but the result is the same. You end up promoting tired English, and the slovenliness of thought Orwell warns against. You can come with your own phrases and metaphors. Yes you can. Try it.

Don’t rely too much on Latin forms and Latin words

In the English-speaking world, it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that Latin words sound better than Saxon words. The more serious a publication claims to be, the more Latin words it will use. This is great news for you, since your native language comes from Latin. You can use words from back home with only small changes. You can once again trust the solid equation: word= prefix+root+suffix. And this will pass for mastery of the English language. Minimal effort, maximum effect. Yay for Latin. Cheater. Native writers, at least, had to learn the Latin words and forms before making up lazy words like “re-read”, or “regionalise”. You, however, knew them from the start. And if there’s a chance native writers once knew the equivalent Saxon words and have just forgotten them, you, on the other hand, have never learned them. Cheater. Lazy cheater.

Don’t be afraid of using simple words

The dream while you’re learning English is to leave behind “like”, “give”, “want”, and other basic verbs. You must swap them for something fancier at the first opportunity. It’s been drilled into your brain with a red marking pen. But you know what? There’s something to say for “like”, “give”, “want”, and other basic verbs. Like the immigrant that you are, they get the job done. You can always be certain of their meaning. They will even convey complex ideas and emotions for you if you use them right. (See: Roxane Gay, who composes entire books with words that are no more than three syllables long.) The motivation for using complicated words, Orwell points out, tends to be show-off, not meaning or clarity. This is especially true for non-native speakers, because we have something extra to prove. So hang on. Resist the urge to be a twat. Just say what you have to say.

Remember that sounding like a native speaker is not your priority.

For a non-native speaker, there is no greater compliment than being told you sound like a native speaker. It means you’ve won. You’re part of the club. It’s an even bigger compliment when applied to writing, which requires more work and time than spoken language. So when you’re writing as a foreign speaker, it’s easy to forget why you’re writing in the first place, and to focus on sounding fluent instead. This translates in the repetition of the tired phrases I mentioned before, or, worse, in the use of words whose definition you’re not certain of. Look. It’s human to want to belong, especially when you’re away from home. But if you’ve chosen to write, it’s because you had something to say. An idea, that made you turn the laptop on. Why bump it down to second place on your list of priorities when you start the actual writing? It’s the reason you’re here. If you don’t let it guide you, the resulting piece will have no sense of purpose. It might sound erudite and pompous, but its meaning will be vague and limp. Orwell has a simple name for this kind of writing: bad writing. Remember: good writing is not necessarily the long sentences journalists write in established newspapers. It’s writing that fulfils its purpose. And so what if your sentences are wonky? Get a proof-reader, or promise to do better next time. There’s nothing shameful about learning.

You can do this. Good luck.

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