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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)

Learn with Lloyd!

You’re not going to magically become a better writer just by reading.  After all, would you expect to become a better speaker just by listening?  If you want to build your writing skills, you have to do one thing: write!  Doing assignments for a class is important, and revising after receiving feedback is especially important.  But if you really want to improve your skills, challenge yourself to write regularly … not for class, but for yourself.  Give yourself writing tasks:

Try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity (follow the steps for this process outlined in my blog post “Writing in the Time of Corona”).

Keep a writing journal: Write for 15-30 minutes every day, no matter what.  Write about anything that comes to mind; if nothing comes to mind, write about nothing coming to mind!  It’s good language practice, and writing about “nothing” is still writing; after a few minutes, the very act of writing can stimulate your idea flow.  Journal writing can improve your abilities to organize your thoughts and express yourself precisely, abilities that apply to both writing and speech.

Self-Dictation: Choose an article or story you enjoyed, and record your voice reading it aloud, and then play back the recording as a self-dictation.  Write each sentence, pausing or replaying the recording in the same way a teacher delivers a dictation in class.  Finally, check your spelling and punctuation against the original text.  Regular dictations/self-dictations will improve your writing skills.

Copy good sample paragraphs and entire essays or other documents: Get deeply acquainted with a writer’s word choices and sentence structures.  The text you choose serves as your “tutor” — it demonstrates good writing, and you absorb the lesson well because you’re doing it … not just thinking about it.

As a learning tool, copying is not taboo!  If you consider a particular sentence, paragraph, or essay well written, analyze what makes it well written.  If you want to learn to write like that, copy it!  Copying is a natural way to learn any craft.  Most human skills are acquired largely through imitation: artists copy masters to learn their techniques; musicians practice the works of other musicians and composers; babies learn to speak by imitating adults; second-language learners imitate first-language models.  Unfortunately, the taboo against copying other people’s ideas inhibits many student writers from using copying as a tool for building writing skills.  But this kind of copying is entirely different from plagiarism; private writing practice exercises are not the same as false public presentations of others’ ideas as your own.  Copying is a natural way to boost your writing competence.

Follow Good Examples

Start noticing how writers write.  When you like a piece of writing, examine it closely.  What part did you like the most?  Why?  Did you like certain words/phrases, or the simplicity or complexity of a particular sentence?  What kinds of sentence structures impressed you?

In addition to pieces by professional writers, documents written by your boss, your teachers, your faculty advisor — anyone whose writing you’d like to emulate — are worth considering.  And be sure to examine published articles, brochures, websites, and reports that relate to your field or specialty.  Such documents may serve as excellent models for your own professional writing.  Imitate good models — not just by reading them, but by moving your fingers: respond to them in your writing journal, record and use them for self-dictations, or copy them!