On ESL writing

Hello, my name is Ana, and I’m ESL. (English Second Language) *bows to the group*

Last year I met a fellow writer out in real life. He was a native speaker. At some point in our conversation, he asked me, “but you don’t write in English, do you?”
It had a flavor of, “You shouldn’t be writing in English, should you?”

I found it a little troubling that this person thought I shouldn’t be writing in English, but luckily I was way too far into it to turn around and run. Because, yes, I should be writing in English. That’s a decision I made a long time ago. Why? Well, for me it’s simple. The German speaking market for my niche isn’t as big as the English speaking one.
It’s respectable, but writing in English, I can reach more people. Good enough for me.
I often hang out on irc in a writer’s chatroom. It’s a pretty international group. Sometimes new writers come in, state that they’re not native speakers and how to build vocabulary etc

Here’s the advice I usually find myself giving:

1. Read. It’s a known fact that writers should be readers. ESL writers should breathe books. Goodreads tells me I started reading published novels in my genre in July 2012. By the time I submitted my first novel for consideration March 2014, I’d read well over 50 of those novels. I’m not saying you should write down every unknown vocabulary you come across. IMO, that’s what dictionaries are for, but you’ll get a better feel for which words are appropriate to use.

2. Realize you’ll make mistakes. Realize also that this isn’t the end of the world. Native speakers also make mistakes. The mistakes they make are usually a bit different from the mistakes ESL writers make. (For example, the native speaker is more likely to confuse lie and lay, not know what passive voice is, or how those dangling participles got into their ms.)

3. Get beta readers, or even better yet, critique partners who will take your language apart. It’ll hurt, oh, it’ll hurt. But what doesn’t kill you and all that… With a bit of luck you’ll identify some problem zones in your use of the language that you can then work on.


There’s challenges that come with writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue, but they’re not insurmountable. For me, it’s that nagging feeling of doubt in the back of my head that what I’m saying, what I’m typing right now, isn’t correct. This can grow stronger or weaker, and especially gains power during edits.

The first time I had a crit partner mark up my first novel, it was horrible. Like I didn’t know up from down anymore. With everything she slashed I wondered, was this bad style, or incorrect language? Is what I’m typing to replace it better? Is it correct?

This can quickly escalate into: Oh my God, what is that wooord? Eff this, I don’t speak English. Why am I doing this?

Tables may be flipped.

Then there’s the awkward moments when I use a work thinking it means one thing, but it means another. And the awkward moments when my supposedly American characters use British slang.  Cue blushing.

Best way to get through these times: Make friends with other writers, whine, have a laugh about it–and move on.

*of course this is all my personal experience, and you may be way more awesome at this than I am and never make mistakes!


**this post hasn’t been checked for ESL induced mistakes. If you find any, you may keep them.