What should you do if you want to improve your writing ability in Chinese? The answer is two-fold. First, you should start reading more. Without a passive understanding of the language you’re going to use when you write, it’s almost impossible to use it accurately and writing will be reduced to a translation exercise that relies heavily on dictionaries. You will forget most of the words right after you copied them from the dictionary. Not good. Don’t expect to be able to write something you can’t read.
Second, you get good at what you practice, so if you want to get good at writing, no amount of reading will take you there if you don’t also combine it with writing practice. I think these are parallel processes, so I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write anything until you’re literate. This is not a good idea for the same reason that it’s not a good idea to delay speaking until you can understand spoken Chinese. It’s not bad because it wouldn’t work (it probably would, perhaps even very well), but because it would take an awful lot of time before you could do anything useful with the language.
If you want to be able to write Chinese, you have to write. But how should you practice?
Low and high intensity writing practice
As I have argued many times before, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need activities of both low and high intensity. For casual, low-intensity writing practice, please refer to the following articles:
In this article, though, I want to look at a high-intensity activity that combines reading and writing into one. It’s the best way of improving writing ability that I know of, and can be used at any level, but works best from intermediate and up when you can read and write sentences.
Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries
Writing summaries of Chinese texts is excellent practice. You might think that it doesn’t sound like too much fun, but this activity is so good that you have to check it out. Here are some of the benefits:
- Intensive reading – The first thing you need to do if you want to write a summary is to completely understand the original text. This means going through it carefully and resolving any issues with a tutor. This kind of activity should be on your weekly schedule anyway, and so getting it integrated in a more comprehensive exercise is excellent.
- Focused reading practice – In order to write a summary, you have to read very carefully and pay attention both to the content and the language. It’s probably a good idea to read it several times, focusing on different aspects every time. I have written more about focused reading here: How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading. Underline keywords, understand what words in the text give it its structure.
- Natural exposure to important vocabulary – If you’re goal is to be able to write about your work, your hobby or something else, by reading texts in Chinese about these topics, you are exposed to the vocabulary native speakers use when writing about these topics. Collect the words, add them to the spaced repetition program of your choice. You also have good examples of how they are used, so don’t just add words, grab phrases or sentences.
- Making the text your own – Just reading a text with the aim of really understanding it is a good activity in general, but it doesn’t become your own text until you do something with it. Writing a summary is one of things you can do. Other things include commenting on the text, discussing it and so on, but these require much more support than writing a summary.
- Activating vocabulary and grammar – Knowing something passively is one thing, but in order to be able to write well, you need to be able to use the words as well. When you write your summary, you practice using the words you have learnt from your reading practice. If you do this with several articles with a similar topic, your command of the key vocabulary will increase rapidly.
- Preparing for exams – Writing exams are often about reading some text and then transforming it into your own. Naturally, it might not be a straight-up summary they’re asking for, but restating something you have read in your own words is common. Being able to do this well shows both that you can read well and have a command of the language that allows you to do something useful with the things you read.
- Avoiding translation – I think translation is an excellent exercise (Translating to improve your Chinese), especially for advanced learners, but sometimes its good to avoid translation and just focus on the Chinese. Furthermore, if you write under the guidance of a tutor, summaries don’t require that much from him or her, but discussing the finer nuances of translation is really hard and demands a lot from your tutor.
Have I convinced you? If so, let’s turn to how to write summaries.
How to write summaries for language practice
The following procedure can be changed according to your needs, but works well as a starting point:
- Find one or more texts about a certain topic (you should be able to read these texts)
- Read the text and make sure you understand everything (ask someone if you don’t)
- Collect interesting words, phrases or patterns from the text (learn them, review)
- Write a draft of a summary (length can vary, see below)
- Ask for feedback from a tutor (Why good feedback matters and how to get it)
- Correct your summary (and make sure you understand what you’re changing and why)
- Save your summary for benchmarking purposes (Benchmarking progress to stay motivated)
- Publish your summary on your blog, social media site or whatever (I publish some stuff here)
Also, don’t forget that it’s the process that matters (how much you learn), not the actual text. If you need more than one round with a tutor, that’s perfectly okay! Focusing on the process is key: Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process.
Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese
It’s pretty easy to get quick feedback on Chinese writing for free. I have written an article about Lang-8, which is a service that allows you to upload your texts and receive feedback. In return, you’re expected to help other students learning your language (not necessarily the same people who help you, of course). These native speakers aren’t teachers, but they can still help you out a lot. Read my article here: Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese.
A brief note about length
The length of the text you read and the summary you write are variable. You can summaries a book, but you can also summarise a short newspaper article. Furthermore, the length of your review can also vary, which is perhaps more interesting. This is actually something which can be very difficult, even in your native language, so it’s not purely related to the language itself. Try the following:
- Choose a text (let’s say 1000 characters)
- Write a summary using 250 characters
- Write a new summary using only 150 characters
- Write a third summary with no more than 50 characters
- Make sure each summary is still accurate!
These texts will have to be quite different to capture the gist of the article you read while meeting the length requirements. If you have never done this in any language, you will find that writing a short summary is usually much harder than writing a long one.