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With the current pandemic prompting restrictions on public gatherings and onsite classes, we’re all more physically separated from each other.  Devising your own independent study activities can be a reassuring way to engage with the world … and keep your joy-of-learning flame burning.  

Communicating at a distance means that writing is probably playing a more significant role in your life: you may be composing more text messages, emails, and written assignments than ever before.  As your need to write increases, along with enforced time alone, consider refining your writing skills with the help of the best teachers: good writers.

Start from the source: books, stories, articles, and other texts that you find interesting and well-written.  The “you” part here is important: allow your own preferences, feelings, and instincts to guide you.  This is a chance to explore writing that is meaningful to you — NOT what someone else chooses for you or claims you “should” read.  

Notice sentences that make an impression on you.  Did you like one particular part of a piece you just read?  Did the opening page of a novel have a mysterious or magical effect on you?  Did your boss or teacher write something so useful or clear that you’d like to emulate their technique?  

Re-read those sentences carefully.  What did you like so much?  Why do you think so? 

The answers to these questions can lead directly to improving your own writing skills, but you’ll need to exert some energy.  Are you ready?   

If English is your second language, try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity: 

a) Translate several well-written English sentences or paragraphs into your first language.

b) Wait a few days (or longer) so you can forget the details of the original English.

c) Without looking at the original text, translate your translation back into English.  

d) Compare your English translation with the English original, notice the differences … and learn from them!

Back-translation is a simple idea, but doing it takes commitment and effort!  So limit your first attempt to just a few sentences that really interest you: a short excerpt that struck you as useful, meaningful, or beautiful. 

The final step — comparing your back-to-English translation with the original — will show you how you can improve your written English.  You’ll notice differences in word choices, sentence structures, and punctuation & style elements that you can immediately apply to your next writing task.  Pay special attention to aspects of the original that you did NOT include or incorporate fully in your translation: these oversights will show you what you need to learn, as opposed to what you’re already good at.  

One rewarding aspect of this comparative analysis is that you choose the material and you manage the process yourself.  The text itself is the key, the writer is your virtual teacher, and you are in the driver’s seat.  Drive on … and enjoy the journey!

A version of this article will appear soon in NYU’s English Language Institute blog.

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)