Understanding the theory of writing will not improve your writing on its own. The only way to master any skill is to practise it as often as possible, and to learn from your experiences (good and bad).
Write frequently and, equally important, edit carefully. Ask for feedback from people with enough knowledge to provide constructive criticism (that is, corrections that can help you improve). If you don’t know anyone who can help, don’t be afraid to search online. There are many writers’ groups available where writers are keen to help each other improve in the craft.
There are many different ways to practise, and it is up to you to choose a way that suits your needs. Whatever you choose, remember that the more you write, and the more different styles you try, the quicker you will progress. Some ideas for practice in everyday life include:
- Develop written relationships with people, consistently emailing or sharing letters.
- Write stories based on your real-life experiences, like a diary.
- Write a blog, sharing it online and asking for reader feedback.
- Write a book summary after reading a book.
- Take notes, whenever possible, such as when in lectures, watching TV, or reading.
- Write reports on things you have seen or done, such as book or TV reviews.
Share your writing. Ask people to correct it. If your writing is part of your profession, consider hiring a proofreader or an editor. It is not enough to simply write, you must write with feedback.
This is especially important in the workplace or when writing anything due for publication, and it applies to all English speakers, not just foreign learners. I miss mistakes in my own work, but thanks to working with editors I can identify these mistakes and eliminate them in the future. Unless someone else points out your mistakes, you will continue to make them.
There are teachers and trainers who encourage setting word counts or other challenges to ensure that you write a certain amount every day. This discipline may work for you, but I do not use it personally. I do believe in writing as much as possible, but, in my opinion, writing for the sake of hitting a number focuses on the wrong goal.
If you do find daily targets helpful, remember that you are writing to improve and to learn. Writing a 100-word email that is sent and read, after all, may prove more educational than writing a 1,000-word essay that you keep to yourself.
Find what motivates you best. Practise in a way that works for you. Write things that you enjoy, and things that feel natural. Write things that are unusual and challenging, too, and always try to learn from it. If your writing is mostly focused on academic or business texts, try something creative. If you mostly write creatively, try something educational.
Bear in mind that practising writing by actually writing is only half of the challenge. Your writing will always be limited by your exposure to the writing of others. Until you see different conventions in use, you will not know how to use them. If you really want to improve your writing, read more.
Read as much as possible, from as many different areas as possible. The more you read, the more you will understand, and the easier writing will become. As the blunt but accurate American writer Harlan Ellison said, “A writer who writes more than he reads is an amateur.” As with writing, read thoughtfully and read with a critical eye.
Question how different conventions work, look up new words, and ask if what you are reading is actually correct.
Tips for Faster Writing
A big barrier to practising writing may be the concern that it takes a long time. When you are trying to improve, it can be very time consuming to think of the right words and phrases. This is something that comes with practice, and the more you write the quicker you will become. But what if you have a limited amount of time? How can you save time and energy on writing?
Preparation fosters faster writing. If you plan your topic and structure and have an idea of what you want to convey, you can mentally start thinking of words and phrases to use before you get to writing them. It can be useful to brainstorm in this stage, simply noting words and phrases you want to use, not complete sentences.
When you start writing, try not to over-think it. It is easier to come back and correct mistakes than it is to continually stop and start. Writing with a sense of flow and fluency comes from relaxing. Don’t worry about the result at first, just try to feel the words.
Setting a time limit can help, as necessity and urgency are great ways to encourage yourself. If you force yourself to complete a piece of writing in a set time, you have no option but to speed up, ignoring mistakes and not over-thinking.
Connected to this, you may also want to set word count targets for a specific amount of time, with the aim to simply create sentences quickly. As stated above, though, be aware of limiting yourself with targets. Remember the targets are not the goal, they are tools to encourage writing.
Always re-read and edit your work to improve your speed. Noting the things you have done right will build confidence while analysing your mistakes will help you avoid them in future.
Above all, remember that writing is a skill. It is not a piece of knowledge that can be learnt theoretically. Like a muscle, you must use the skill again and again for it to improve, and the more you use it the stronger it will get. If you want to write faster, you must write more.
Bending the Rules
As your skills in writing English improve, you will be increasingly faced with the temptation (and the need) to bend the rules of the language. A great many rules in English may be dictated by style guides, such as for punctuation and naming conventions, but there is a huge amount of English that sticks to unwritten, or at least arguable, rules. These uses are too diverse and nuanced to teach simply.
You can develop an understanding for them through extensive exposure to English in use, such as through reading and listening practice. Colloquial or other adaptive uses of English can be very specific, so if in doubt, consult with an English speaker who can tell you if you are using the language correctly.
Particular areas to look out for include phrasal verbs, idiomatic words or phrases, and regional language.
Flexible English rules tend to be most useful in informal writing. It is rare that you will bend the rules in formal writing, where the most correct or conventional forms will be expected. However, you may see many variations in formal writing that don’t necessarily bend rules so much as apply less common or more advanced rules.
As with the general tips for writing practice, when it comes to bending the rules, you will only learn through extensive writing and reading of your own. Much of the nuance of English cannot easily be taught, only observed and applied.