Writing is an important part of learning Chinese. The written word allows us to communicate online, record our thoughts and opinions and share them with others.
Writing is also an important part of many professional applications of learning Chinese, such as communication with colleagues, partners or clients. Finally, writing is also a part of many proficiency tests.
Writing in Chinese is different compared with most other languages in that there is a dual challenge learning both to write characters and to compose text. These are two completely different skills.
In this article, I will focus on composing text. For more about learning to write characters, please read this article: My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters.
Writing as a process rather than a product
Many students and teachers treat writing as a product, putting emphasis on the text itself. This effect is often enhance by setting a grade on a writing assignment and then moving on to the next unit.
Writing is better viewed as a process, where what you write is just a milestone on your journey towards better writing ability. This usually means that you write fewer texts, but that you work more with each one. The goal is learning, after all, not writing a certain number of characters.
It should come as no surprise that I like writing; I have spent many thousands of hours writing in a foreign language (a lot of English, much Chinese and almost no French). Naturally, this website is in English, but isn’t called “Hacking English”, so I will focus on Chinese here. I have actually published a few articles in Chinese here as well, this one about using adventure text games being the most recent one. The advice in this article is based on my own experience with writing in foreign languages, as well as reading and research into second language writing.
I have divided the writing process into three phases:
How to improve your Chinese writing ability: Before writing
- Read more – Without enough reading, you can never hope to write well. You should spend many times more time reading than you do writing, even if your primary goal is to improve writing. While writing itself is a skill that you need to practise to improve, it’s also true that writing itself does not teach you anything new about the language. Writing is in this sense a result of learning, not the cause of it. Read as much as you can; read extensively.
- Read narrowly – Because reading is so important for improving writing ability, I’ll bring up another way of reading that can be particularly helpful: narrow reading. This is when you read several texts about the same topic, which allows you to get used to the vocabulary and structures used. This is not only good for building reading ability, it’s perfect preparation for writing as well! This shares many of the benefits of writing summaries, which also starts with reading.
- Read with focus – I promise, we will get to writing soon, but to really hammer home the importance of reading, let’s look at one final reading strategy that can help your writing: focused reading. This is an active form of reading where the goal is to collect useful language for your own writing. This works best for non-beginners who have some writing in Chinese under their belt. If you struggle with an aspect of writing, read texts that are likely to contain good examples you can learn from, then collect snippets of text you can use yourself. For example, if you think it’s difficult to express causal relationships (stuck with 因为/因爲… 所以…) or find yourself using the same way to add move forward in a story (such as using 然后/然後 all the time), then collect examples of how native speakers do this in their texts. Create your own little phrasebook and then refer to it when you write your own texts. As a shortcut, I recommend 一步一个脚印, where translator Carl Gene Fordham collects interesting words and phrases in various categories.
- Familiarise yourself with text type and genre – When reading, pay attention to the genre and how it works, A formal email, a shopping list and a doctoral dissertation are very different types of texts. A few questions to ask yourself are: What function does the text serve? Are there any formal characteristics of this type of text in Chinese? How is information organised in this type of text? The answers can be different in Chinese compared with your native language. For example, writing emails is very different in different languages when it comes to how to start, end and so on. Sometimes you can find information about this online as well, so it can be worth studying a bit. I actually asked a question about this on Stack Exchange back in 2012.
- Write about topics you care about – When choosing what to write, the most important consideration is what you want to communicate to others. Writing requires concentration and effort, which is harder to muster if you feel the task is boring or meaningless. We all like different things, so it’s hard to give general advice, but topics related to your own life, your experiences and opinions are good places to start. A journal or diary is great because it provides a never-ending sequence of events to write about! If you find it hard to come up with topics, here are some suggestions: 50 Questions That Will Free Your Mind, 49 ESL Writing Topics, the Book of Questions.
- Keep it on the write level – While you should write about things you care about, keep it realistic. As a rule of thumb, do not try to write about things you are not already reading about with some confidence and fluency. Don’t write about spaceflight if you’re not already comfortable reading about it in Chinese; stay away from writing fiction heavy on descriptions of places and events if you’re not reading such stories a already. I’ve done my fair share of writing beyond my level and it’s not worth it. You will spend many times longer on each text, but you don’t learn more. As I said before, writing is the result of learning, not the cause of it.
How to improve your Chinese writing ability: During writing
- Organise your thoughts by writing a simple outline – When it comes to writing clearly, much of the thought-process is the same no matter what language you’re writing in. It’s hard to write coherent and easy-to-read text even in your native language if you yourself only figure out what you want to say as you go along. Needless to say, it’s even harder in a foreign language! Write a simple outline before you start. This can be a handful of bullet points.
- Write a full draft, then polish – Inexperienced writers often get stuck in details immediately. What should the title be? How should it be worded? Does A make a better title than B? These things will emerge later. Instead of focusing on details from the start, write a draft first. This version is probably quite bad, relatively speaking, but fortunately, you don’t need to show this to anyone! Once you have a draft, you can go through the text again and take care of those details you skipped earlier. Choosing a title is easier after you have a draft, for example. Now that you know what the whole text is like in general, it will be much easier to work with and you also don’t feel stupid after spending one hour and having only written two sentences.
- Avoid perfectionism and performance anxiety – Many people feel that their writing is not good enough or that the result needs to be perfect. This is because they think of it as a product, rather than a process. Don’t wait for the perfect situation to write, the perfect topic, the perfect mood, and so on. Inspiration will come to those who seek it, not magically appear out of nowhere. Don’t feel that your text needs to be perfect, because you will rework it later anyway. If you really feel anxious about writing, try something less formal, like chatting online, which is still writing, but not in a form that most people think of as a product that has to be shiny and polished.
- Never translate word by word; focus on the underlying meaning – For beginners, writing is often the same as translation. To a certain extent, this is hard to avoid because you will naturally know how to express something in your native language and then think about how to translate it into Chinese. This is less of a problem than translating while speaking, but if done incorrectly, your text will still read like English with Chinese words. To avoid this, never translate on the word level, but rather go down to the underlying ideas and then thin about how to write about that in Chinese. Read more here: The beginner’s guide to Chinese translation.
- Play to your strengths and use what you know – The most frustrating part of writing in Chinese as a second language is that there are so many things we want to write, but can’t because we don’t have the vocabulary or grammar for it. Still, I have taught many Chinese courses involving writing in some way, and most of the students underestimate how much they can convey using only what they have learnt. For beginners, this can be simple things like changing perspective, so if you don’t know how to write that a person is “poor”, just write that he “doesn’t have money”. Don’t get stuck on specific words! More advanced learners can write about much more than they tend to think. An example in English might be this article that I wrote using only the 1,000 most common words. Most readers didn’t even notice.
- Experiment now and then – Writing is an excellent place to try out words and structures you’re not entirely sure of, but have heard or read many times. This is especially true for introverts who might find it scary to experiment too much when speaking. Try and see what reactions you get! What I said earlier about writing being the result of learning rather than the cause of it is still true, though, so don’t overdo it and base your experimenting on input. See the point above about choosing the right level. Naturally, don’t experiment if this is the final version of the text or if you’re taking an exam!
- Don’t make your text more complicated than you have to – Some students (including my past self) try to write more advanced Chinese than they can handle, thinking that throwing in more advanced words will impress people (chengyu is a good example of this). This almost never works and is generally a bad idea. Your goal should be to use to write as clearly as possible, using language you already know. This is also what the receiver will care about. Even on a proficiency exam, using difficult words just for the sake of it will not raise your score, especially if you use them incorrectly. Advanced readers are also very sensitive to uneven writing, so if your level is at the lower-intermediate, occasionally throwing in very hard words will just show that you used a dictionary and don’t really know what you’re doing. Teachers of all languages can testify to how easy it is to see through this, even if students (especially kids) are baffled by how easy the teacher can tell.
- When using a dictionary, always be mindful of context – When translating between two similar languages, you can often write a full sentence save one word you don’t know how to translate, look that word up in a dictionary later, and then complete the sentence. This almost never works when learning Chinese. The problem is that there’s almost never a 1:1 mapping between words in English and Chinese, so the dictionary will give you a dozen alternatives and the chance of you choosing the right one randomly is very low. Reckless use of dictionaries is usually highest on list of things I want to stop my students from doing. When looking up words, make sure they mean what you think they mean. You can do this by checking example sentences or by double translation. Also make sure to check how they are used, which can involve reading several example sentences! Again, reading is the key to writing. Read more about using dictionaries properly here: Looking up how to use words in Chinese the right way.
- Use double translation if you want to be sure you’ve found the right word – This is when you look up a word in Chinese, then feed the result back to the dictionary and translate back to your native language. If the result seems reasonable, it’s probably the word you’re looking for. Let’s say you want to translate “beam”, as in “beam of light”. You look it up and get 横梁. You put it in your text and causes great confusion, some amusement and a bit of frustration for your Chinese teacher. If you had translated it back to English, you would have seen that 横梁 means “beam; transom; crossgirder; girder”.
- Use search engines to verify language usage – This sounds like a cheap trick, but search engines are actually great resources for checking things like collocations (words that often occur together) and expressions you’re unsure of. Which words for time periods can you double? We all know about 天天, but what about the rest? 年年? 月月? 日日? Try to add context to your search to limit the results; here we can add 都 after to check if these can be used to mean “every day/month/year”. Google says yes to all four (more than 15 million hits for the least common of them: 月月). You need to be careful, though, because raw hits don’t tell the whole truth. Be sure to check a few examples so they actually reflect the usage you’re after! Read more here: Using search engines to study Chinese.
How to improve your Chinese writing ability: After writing
- Get feedback on your writing – In the introduction, I said that writing is a process rather than a product. I’ve also said that writing itself won’t teach you new things about Chinese. When writing is regarded as a process, though, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn. The most important part of this is feedback. Feedback gives you a unique opportunity to learn from negative evidence (what you can not write), which you won’t get from reading. I’ve written more about getting feedback here: How to get honest feedback to boost your Chinese speaking and writing. I also wrote about it with a teacher-focus here: Training your Chinese teacher, part 4: Writing ability. If you don’t know where to get feedback, Lang-8 is still around and works great for receiving feedback. You could also check Journaly, as introduced in this month’s writing challenge.
- No, you’re not done yet – The feedback you get is useless unless you do something with it. Language teachers all over the world waste a lot of ink correcting their students’ writing, only for them to just look at the grade and ignore the feedback; this is a good example of writing as a product. Instead, go through the feedback you hove received and explore your errors with the goal of learning more about the boundary between what works and what doesn’t. Naturally, be mindful of different types of mistakes: typos are completely irrelevant in this context!
- Realise that mistakes are learning opportunities – For most people, being corrected is not pleasant because it means we’ve done something wrong. It’s easy to shoot the messenger and assign part of the problem to the fact that someone pointed it out, but this is about as rational as blaming the dentist for telling you that your tooth has a cavity. The point is that the problem is there whether someone finds it or not, so the best time to find it is now. It highlights where your mental model of the language does not match that of native speakers. You largely build this model through input, but you can trim and adjust it through feedback as well. Read more here: Making mistakes in Chinese is necessary to adjust your mental models.
- Save or publish your writing – A good way to benchmark your learning and create an easy-to-access log of your writing practice is to publish what you write online. You can do so on a blog or through one of the tools I shared above (Lang-8 and Journaly). This makes it easy for other people to see your writing and help, and it allows you to look back at your own writing and see gradual improvement. I published my Chinese writing on such a blog for many years, and even if the site is not accessible at the moment, you can find an archive copy here. Granted, it hasn’t been updated since 2013, so it’s a bit old by now, but it served its purpose!
Towards better writing ability in Chinese
This article contains tips and tricks I have collected over my 20+ years of writing in a foreign language. These are insights I wish I would have come to earlier, but that I hope will help you on your quest for better writing ability in Chinese.
This is also the advice that I give to students in the university courses I teach that focus on writing, all collected in one place with easy references to further reading. I realise that there’s more here than most of you probably bargained for, but as should be clear by now, I not only love to write, I also love writing about writing!
What’s your best tips for writing in a foreign language? Do you have any other tips beyond what I mention here? What advice would you offer other people who have just started writing in Chinese? Leave a comment below!
Editor’s note: This article was written in February 2021 and replaces several old articles with partially overlapping content. Comments from these other articles have been moved here.
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