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University Language Centre

Writing in a foreign language

Suggested activities for developing your grammatical accuracy and style.

  • To improve your speaking skills you need to listen and imitate.
  • To improve your writing skills you need to read and imitate.

Good, modern bilingual dictionaries (eg for French, the Collins-Robert or the Oxford Hachette) give useful guidance on writing, in their centre-pages.

But it is far more fun - and ultimately, more useful - to develop your own style by reading authentic materials. In this way you see how language is used in a real context. You can compare styles and develop a feeling for usage.

Choose a newspaper/journal article which interests you and try the following activities.

1. Acquiring forms of expression

Start by underlining useful phrases by function eg:

  • introducing a concept/argument;
  • linking paragraphs/ideas;
  • contrasting one idea/argument with another;
  • proposing an alternative;
  • disagreeing with or correcting a previous statement;
  • being persuasive.

Build up your own database of these phrases and use them when writing yourself. Remember to continue adding to your lists and to vary usage when writing essays, reports or presentations. Whenever you do use a phrase from your lists, put a tick beside it so you can keep a running record.

2. Avoiding repetition

Choose a key concept or word in an article and find out how many different words or expressions are used to convey the same essential meaning while avoiding excess repetition. Repeat this exercise listing the alternatives each time. You could use colour-coding for the various groups of equivalent words. Note how sometimes an alternative single word is used, sometimes a totally different part of speech, and sometimes a phrase.

Apply these same principles when writing yourself, by using a monolingual dictionary or creating phrases in a similar way. Keep records of synonyms and other phrases you have developed for yourself.

3. Learning to summarise

Select three or four paragraphs and write:

  1. a title of no more than three words for each one.

When planning your own writing, you could work from a series of 'titles' to develop the content of each paragraph. Or when rereading your work, try to write a title for each paragraph. If you find it difficult it could be because the content is not defined clearly enough.  

  1. a single sentence to summarise the content of each one

When writing conclusions and referring to or summarising points you have already made, this skill is a useful one to acquire.

4. Developing a sense of style

  1. Think about the whole article and decide who its intended readership is. Is it directed at a particular intellectual level, subject interest group, professional interest group or even gender group?
  2. How does the writer ensure that the reader remains interested in the subject matter
  3. How much background information is provided for the uninitiated
  4. What range of technical or subject specific vocabulary is used?
  5. How simple and straightforward is the sentence structure? Or alternatively, how complex is it incorporating additional relative and subordinate clauses? What effect does such a choice create?
  6. What tenses are used and what effect do they have? Note particularly which past tenses are used and why. When quoting, note the use of direct or indirect speech and why.

 Applying the principles you have deduced in this way, write three versions of a film review after viewing a DVD:

  1. directed at an eight-year old child  
  2. as if in a letter to a friend  
  3. as if for a newspaper/TV listings magazine

Show all three to a friend or to your Face-to-Face partner, and ask them to identify the intended readership and then how they came to that conclusion. Note their comments and how you can develop your sense of style further as a result.

Keep copies of any articles used and of your notes and conclusions in your independent learning file. Remember to consult them whenever you are writing essays, reports, presentations, letters etc.

See also