Writing Skills Guide
Do you want to improve your writing skills? Practise writing a little every day. You may fall in love with it!
In this guide you will learn:
- why you should write in English
- what you should write
- writing topics and how to narrow them down
- tips and strategies for writing
- common writing questions in exams
- vocabulary used in this writing guide
You can also print out a writer’s checklist.
I'm sorry to write such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one. variously attributed to Blaise Pascal, Abraham Lincoln, Marc Twain et al.
Even in your own native language, reading skills probably come before writing skills. You learn to read and then you learn to write. How much you read often determines how well you write. This is why it is important to read often. You should also read many different types of writing. You know reading is important, but why do you need to learn how to write?
Basic writing is an essential skill in English. You need to be able to write in order to fill out forms and applications. Depending on your native language, you may need to learn how to produce the Roman alphabet (Aa Bb Cc). You should learn how to print, handwrite and type English letters. Intermediate writing skills will allow you to communicate with others around the world. This is important in the online world. Advanced writing skills will help you pass exams and get better jobs.
Writing well in a foreign language takes skill and practice. Producing a foreign language in a readable format is very rewarding. You can express your thoughts and opinions in more than one language. Many more people in the world can now understand you! Keep your writing samples so that you can look back at them over the years. If you work hard, your progress will be very noticeable. There will always be room for improvement.
Here are some of the specific reasons why English learners are encouraged to write in English:
- Like reading, writing is something you can do on your own.
- You can get feedback about your language errors based on your writing. Teachers can easily find areas that you need to work on.
- Writing is enjoyable and relaxing. Show your creative side in a new language.
- Good writing skills demonstrate a high level of English. You’ve spent many hours studying the language. It’s time to show what you can do with it!
- Writing out your thoughts helps you clarify them. This is useful before a presentation.
- Writing allows you to actively use new English vocabulary, expressions and grammar that you have learned. If you don’t use it, you will forget it.
- Writing after you read something, shows that you have understood what you have read.
- Writing in English is necessary for many jobs. Many academic institutes require you to demonstrate your English writing skills.
What to Write
Practise writing a little bit every day. If you don’t have a teacher, you’ll have to motivate yourself to write. Here are some different types of writing practice you can try:
Essays: Popular types of essays include persuasive, descriptive, comparative, and narrative. Review this essay checklist (or create your own).
Responses to Comprehension Questions: Read some text at an appropriate level. This may be an article, a blog post, or a story. Create your own Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, and Main Idea questions. Then answer your own questions. You can also challenge a learning partner.
Articles: Are you an expert at something? Could you write about it in your own native language? Try writing something similar in English. You don’t have to publish it. Just write it.
Blog Posts: EnglishClub offers you a free space to blog called MyEnglishClub. When you start blogging, you will have an instant readership of thousands of English language learners and teachers. These people understand that you are a learner. You can take monthly writing challenges or think of your own topics. Decide whether or not your blog will be private or public.
Writing Prompt Exercises: There are several sites that offer daily writing prompts. These are fun, interesting ideas to inspire you. Search online for “writing prompts” and get started. Record your writing in a notebook or an online journal.
Forum Discussions: Do you have strong opinions? Practise writing while sharing your thoughts and opinons on questions and concerns of your peers. Post your own discussion topics too.
Dictations: Improve your spelling, writing and typing skills as you practise listening. Dictations can also help you learn new vocabulary in context. EnglishClub offers dictations for different levels of learners. You could also practise dictations with a partner.
Email: Choose one or two fellow English learners and begin writing back and forth. Make sure you trust this learning partner before giving out your email address.
Book Reports: Include a brief summary and review of the book. Share a few of your favourite quotes. Learn how to cite a source properly.
Fiction: If you enjoy writing stories in your own native language, try writing one in English. There are several websites and apps that offer images to inspire you. Polish and publish your story in an ebook.
Poetry: Writing poetry is a great way to practise vocabulary. Keep your poetry to yourself or share it with a trusted friend.
Dialogue: Practise writing conversations that you hear around you. Practise using informal expressions and idioms.
Choosing the right topic is sometimes the most difficult part of a writing project or assignment. Choose a topic that interests you. It helps to have some background knowledge.
Sample Blog Topic Ideas
- Write an introductory post.
- Write about your day. Choose a memorable moment. Include a photo.
- Comment on a current event in the news (in your own writing).
- Share cultural information about your country or a holiday.
- Choose a writing challenge topic from Tara's blog. Make sure to link to your blog post from the comments in the original blog post. This will help more readers find your post.
- Share and describe a photo.
- Describe a funny or embarrassing moment from your past.
- Write a review about a movie, book, album, or website.
- Write a post using EnglishClub’s idiom of the day.
- Choose your favourite quote and write a post about it.
- Pose a question to MyEnglishClub members and invite readers to comment.
- Invent a game or challenge for your readers. Write the instructions.
- Provide a weather report for your town.
- Write a poem or song.
- Write a letter to a famous person.
Sample Essay Topic Ideas:
Here are 20 questions to get your wheels turning. These can be used to practise writing essays. If you’re assigned an essay on a test or in class, you’ll have to use the topics provided by your teacher or examiner.
- Do men and women enjoy equal opportunities in your country?
- Should children go to school in the summertime?
- Are video games harmful to children?
- Will ebooks replace paper-based books entirely?
- What’s the worst thing humans do to the environment?
- Should couples live together before marriage?
- Is it better to have one best friend or many acquaintances?
- Do self-employed people live happier lives?
- How important are childhood dreams?
- Should the government pay for post-secondary tuition?
- Is bullying a regular part of growing up?
- What are the most important qualities in a teacher/parent/friend?
- How has technology changed since your parents’ generation?
- What is the best way to travel?
- Should smoking be allowed in public?
- Should mobile phones be banned in schools?
- Is airport screening worth the cost of security?
- Who has been your most important mentor?
- Are vegetarians healthier people?
- What are the secrets to living a long life?
Search online for topics using the term “essay topic ideas” or “discussion topics”. Don’t get caught plagiarizing an essay. Many sites will try to convince you to buy essays. Most teachers will not be fooled. Be sure to write using your own words.
Narrowing Down a Topic
After you choose a topic, you will need to narrow it down to something more specific. For example, if your topic is “addictions” you will need to choose an addiction, such as alcohol. Then you will need to narrow your topic down even more, for example: teenage alcoholism. Is your topic ready? No, not unless you’re allowed to write more than ten pages! A short essay must have a very limited focus: How the Media Encourages Teenage Alcoholism.
Here are some possible angles to use after you’ve chosen a topic:
- age or stage in life (teenagers, elderly, generation X) in relation to this topic
- a specific problem related to this topic
- a specific country or city and this topic
- a specific time period in history in relation to this topic
10 Tips for Better English Writing
1. Read in English. Find reading materials that you enjoy. Books and materials should be at a suitable level (you don’t need to look up words all the time). Start with low level non-fiction about topics you know.
2. Brainstorm: Gather your thoughts, ideas and opinions before producing a piece of text. Write everything you can think of in a mind map or list. Highlight or circle the best ones. Add real life examples.
3. Write with a reader in mind: You should always think about your target reader as you write. Who is most likely to read this text? Even if you don’t plan to show someone your writing, identify a target reader.
4. Format: Tidy writing makes for easier reading. Show that you care about your reader by using capital letters, punctuation, and paragraphs.
5. Proofread: If possible, give your writing time to breathe. Proofread it a few hours or even a day later. Check your spelling too!
6. Keep it simple: You can usually cut about 1/3 of what you wrote and it will still make sense. Cut out the unnecessary words and sentences. Choose one main tense, and try to stick close to it.
7. Use transitional phrases: Your writing will flow better if you connect your sentences and paragraphs properly.
8. Practise informally. Keep a journal or blog and practise writing in English daily. Eventually you will start thinking in English. Over time you will develop an English writing voice. Some writing teachers say they can tell which students keeps journals because these people have a stronger writing voice.
9. Avoid translating. If you translate, you will probably use the wrong verb tenses. Many teachers will tell you to think in English. You might want to put on a special “English hat”, or use a different pen when you are writing in English.
10. Find models and mentors. Can you find an advanced learner or teacher to help you with your writing questions? You should also find a few authors or bloggers who can act as models.
11. Familiarize yourself with parts of speech. Can you identify every noun in a sentence? Can you spot every verb? Do you know all of the different verb endings? What about modifiers? Become an expert in the parts of speech. When you proofread, check words that you have problems with.
12. Identify your common errors. Do you know what your common errors are? Many writers make similar ones. Some writers make the same ones often. Ask a teacher to help you identify your weak areas. Make a writer’s checklist for yourself. Check it off as you proofread each piece of writing.
13. Choose topics wisely. Is content a problem for you? Do you run out of things to write about? Don’t forget to brainstorm before you begin writing. Also, choose topics that interest you. The best topics are ones that you have background knowledge about. Even if the topic is assigned to you in a test, you can still narrow it down to an aspect that interests you.
Here are some strategies for improving your writing skills:
- Write quickly without thinking (stream of consciousness).
- Learn spelling tricks.
- Practise different types of brainstorming, such as mind mapping, free writing, list making and collage.
- Focus on one aspect of writing at a time (punctuation, verb tense, transitional phrases, introductions, conclusions, writing questions).
- Give yourself a deadline for each assignment, project or blog post.
- Write regularly.
- Practise the different stages of writing (pre-write, first draft, second draft, rest, proofread, polish, publish).
- Study and practise using persuasive language.
- Find and read many examples.
- Become a strong researcher.
- Practise note-taking.
- Practise timed writings. Give yourself a writing task to complete in 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes. For example: Write an email to your dad about your week (2 minutes). Write an ad to sell your bike (5 minutes). Write a letter of complaint to the news editor in your town (20 minutes).
- Create a writer’s checklist like this example.
Common Writing Problems
- The writer doesn’t plan or brainstorm first.
- The writer doesn’t use punctuation properly.
- The writer doesn’t include organized paragraphs.
- The writer doesn’t use capital letters properly.
- The writer tries to use long sentences.
- The writer tries to use advanced vocabulary.
- The writer doesn’t understand how to use different verb tenses.
- The writer doesn’t use articles.
- The writer copies someone else’s writing (plagiarism).
- The writer doesn’t check his/her spelling.
- The writer submits, shares or publishes without proofreading.
- The writer doesn’t think about the audience.
- The writer tries to translate word-for-word.
Most standardized tests have a writing component. You will score higher on the test if you can anticipate the types of questions you will find. You may or may not be allowed to plan what you are going to write. If you have time to plan your writing, be sure to use it! This will make a big difference to your score. Don’t forget to save time for proofreading.
Types of questions
Writing questions are often essay-based. Sometimes listening activities are combined with writing activities. You respond to what you’ve heard by answering questions in written form or by writing an opinion essay. You are sometimes asked to write about your background knowledge or experience. Here are some specific types of questions you may come across:
- Give your opinion.
- State the main idea.
- Provide reasons.
- Provide examples.
- Summarize the main points.
- Agree/support with reasons.
- Disagree/oppose with reasons.
- Write about what you heard (dialogue, lecture, ad).
- Compare and contrast.
- Infer something about what you read or heard.
- Write sentences based on pictures.
- Respond to an email or letter.
You may also want to review TOEFL Writing Practice.
Writing Checklist for English Learners
Here are some of the words and phrases that we use on these pages to talk about writing.
authentic reading (noun): written materials that are not designed specifically for learners (eg, news articles)
background knowledge (noun): information that you already know about a topic
blog (noun/verb): weblog; an online journal that you post to regularly
brainstorm (verb): to think of (and note) many ideas and examples before writing a piece
checklist (noun): a list of reminders that you can check off when reviewing your completed work
citation (noun): formal mention of the original source where you found information or a quote
dictation (noun): an exercise that requires you to write exactly what you hear
feedback (noun): response from the reader about your work
flow (noun): how smoothly your writing moves along for the reader
forum (noun): an online discussion board
handwrite (verb): to write in cursive (a style in which letters join together)
narrative (noun): a written account of events
narrow down (verb): to reduce a general topic to something more specific
non-fiction (noun): stories or information based on truth or facts
note-take (verb): to write down small bits of important information as your read or listen
persuasive (adjective): causing a person to believe in something
plagiarism (noun): the copying of another person’s work or art
polish (verb): to make something as perfect as possible
prompt, writing prompt (noun): something such as an image, quote, or sound that can inspire a writer to compose a piece of text
proofread (verb): to read over one’s writing to check for mistakes or typos
punctuation (noun): marks used in sentences to clarify meaning (eg, period, comma)
resumé, CV (noun): a formal document that provides details about your education and employment background
sequence (noun): a particular order
standardized test (noun): an examination that has a set format, such as TOEIC
stream of consciousness (noun): a style of writing in which you write whatever comes to your mind
target reader (noun): the type of audience you are writing for (eg, teens, doctors, teachers)
transitional phrase (noun): words that connect one written section or idea to another
voice (noun): the author’s personal writing style
writing challenge (noun): a monthly writing practice task on MyEC