You Are What You Read
Readers often ask how to improve their English writing skills when English is not their native language and they don’t live in an English-speaking country. My advice? Do it the way I did. Imitate me.
“But Michael,” you may object, “English is your native language and you’ve lived your whole life in an English-speaking country.”
So okay, don’t imitate me. Imitate somebody else. But it’s vital that you imitate somebody. You can’t gain skill in a language, whether or not it’s your native language, without imitating those who are more skilled than you. In the case of language learning, listen to BBC Radio in English. Read English language websites.
Don’t worry that you can’t (yet) speak or write as well as other people. In fact, at first, you shouldn’t even try. You have to take in before you put out. How much did you speak during your first year? How well did you speak during your second year? A friend of mine, an expert in language learning, advises people to follow the example of little children. Listen for a year or two before you try to speak.
Some writers would do well to take that advice, to read much more than they write, if they really want to learn how to write. Read the works of the best writers in English that you can find. If that doesn’t leave you enough time to read low-quality popular magazines, that’s even better. Read the writers who write the way you want to write someday.
Read books written in a voice similar to yours. That means, of course, that you have to know yourself and your communications style well enough to recognize a similar voice when you hear it. Hopefully, it will be writing that you enjoy reading. But be true to yourself. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. Many people want to dress like movie stars because they want to look like movie stars. Except that they don’t. They would do better to dress like themselves. It would be more attractive.
My formal education gave me only a small portion of my writing style, my grammar, my vocabulary, even my spelling. I learned most of it from reading. There’s another reason to read only the best literature: if you see a word misspelled or misused too many times, you will start to assume that it’s correct. What determines the meaning or spelling of a word is how it has been used or spelled over many years. Even the Oxford English Dictionary justifies its entries with quotations from literature.
Two of the greatest influences on my writing style are G.K. Chesterton and Rudolf Flesch. Chesterton taught me that varying your word choice for its own sake (what my English teacher called “elegant alternation” when I was 14) isn’t necessary, that repeating the same word may be more powerful or humorous. Flesch taught me that short sentences are easier to understand, even if some writers think that long sentences make them seem more intelligent.
Other writers might consider Chesterton and Flesch too blunt or direct for them to imitate. Their own personality is more gentle and their writing must reflect that. Find your own writing models. But choose them carefully. Your writing becomes like your reading. You are what you read.