Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading

Image source: pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/

Image source: pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/

Improving writing beyond your speaking ability requires two things: exposure to written Chinese and focused practice, preferably in that order . Just to make things clear, in this article, writing does not mean handwriting, but rather the activity of putting words together to form a written text. Using this definition, basic writing ability is of course close to spoken Chinese, with the only difference that you write things down instead of saying them out loud.

Once you leave the shallow end of the pool and approach the depths of written Chinese, however, you do need focused practice to advance, because written Chinese really is quite different from spoken Chinese. You also need massive amounts of reading. This should be quite obvious. Less obvious is that there are many ways of making that reading more efficient if good writing is what you’re after.

What’s the weakest link in the chain?

As usual, if you want to improve in any area (writing in this case), you need to first figure out what your current problem is or what’s the weakest link in the chain. Put another way, what is stopping you from writing the kind of Chinese you want to write?

I think many people who think that their writing isn’t up to par, but don’t really know exactly what’s wrong. If you lack vocabulary, perhaps practising writing isn’t what you should do. Provided that writing is actually your problem, you then need to decide how to deal with it.

You could have problems on three levels:

  • Words: Even though it should be obvious that you need vocabulary to write well, I’m not going to talk a lot about that in this article. I think writing is more about the skill of combining words rather than knowing the words in the first place. This division is made solely for the purpose of explaining how to practice writing, of course.
  • Sentences: You use sentences to describe things, express opinions, ask questions, gainsaying others and so on. What kind of sentence do you have problems with? For instance, I think I’m quite good arguing a point in Chinese, as well as explaining things, but I’m not very good at describing people, places and events.
  • Paragraphs: The next level deals with how you structure your text and how you make it easy for the reader to understand what you’re trying to convey. This includes linking paragraphs together, introducing a new idea, highlighting causal relationships and so on. If you have problems in this area alone, you might produce texts that are grammatically okay but make no sense or are very hard to read.

In any case, you need to identify what your problem is. You might have problems on all levels, but since you can’t focus on everything at once, you still need to select a limited number of targets. Again, ask yourself, what’s the weakest link? Now, let’s move on to how focused reading can help you overcome the problems you have identified.

Focused reading to improve your Chinese writing

It’s easy to say that you need huge amounts of reading to become good at writing in a language, but it’s not very helpful. What should you read and how? I do think quantity matters a lot, but quality certainly has a role to play as well and what we’re going to look at now is one way of increasing the quality of your reading.

When I say “reading” here, I assume that you are already reading quite a lot. It doesn’t really matter if you’re reading textbooks, graded readers, news articles, novels or academic papers, just as long as they contain the kind of writing you’re after.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Select an area of focus (see above)
  2. Start recording good examples from the material you read
  3. Extract sentence patterns and useful phrases
  4. Sort and organise the examples you record
  5. Keep your record handy next time you write and use the new words or phrases
  6. Check what  you have learnt with native speakers
  7. Change focus and start over again

This isn’t rocket science and I think this should be clear enough, but I’ll still mention a few examples to further illustrate my point. A while ago, I found it hard to refer to academic sources in Chinese. This is so common in academic writing that it’s a big handicap not being able to do it smoothly. What I did to resolve this was simply to write down different ways of referring to authors and/or books that I encountered in my reading.

After doing this for a few weeks, I had a few dozen ways of citing sources. Then, when writing papers or reports, I simply glanced at that list and tried them out one by one, asking native speakers to give me feedback on the usage. Some ways of referring didn’t really work the way I imagined they would, but I still increased my active vocabulary in this area a lot. I don’t have a problem with citing sources in Chinese any more.

Here are some other things you can focus on:

  • Ways of saying “but” in a sentence
  • Ways of saying “however” between paragraphs
  • Ways of agreeing and adding emphasis
  • How to present a counter argument
  • How to raise a sensitive topic
  • How to be humble in writing
  • How to describe graphs and statistics

Of course, if you read enough, you might be able to do this without focusing on it (I doubt most native speakers do it this way, for instance, and I have never done any such focused learning in English either), but it takes much, much longer. I had probably seen the words I recorded multiple times before and understood them perfectly well, it was just that they refused to move from my passive to my active vocabulary. This is an excellent way of encouraging that transfer and therefore also improve your writing ability in Chinese!

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  1. Ash says:

    You can also use books that focus on helping you learn to write better. For sentence patterns, I use:
    I have a lot of Thesauri for Chinese, but my favorite 2 are: 中華書局的《中華同義詞詞典》and
    These are great for looking up a 口語 word to see more 書面語 ways of saying things. The Taiwan MOE online dictionary also shows 同義詞 (see http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/).
    I also keep an excel spread sheet of 口語 -> 書面語 pairs and quotes of sentences that I like. Makes it easy to access later. Of course, I always mark up books and articles that I read looking for new ways of expressing ideas.
    One last thing:
    Using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries is really good for learning how to describe things in Chinese.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Oh, neat, I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the first book. Synonym dictionaries are also good, of course, but I do think it’s possible to get by with digital sources I already have (including the MoE online dictionary, of course). I also keep spreadsheets like that and at some point, I might try to organise it into something which might be meaningful for someone else, but something tells me it will just take too much time.

  2. nommoc says:

    I really, really, really need to get back to reading aloud!

    1. George says:

      Yes indeed, reading aloud.. especially if the characters have the BPMF along side the idieogram to verify you are on track.

      Guessing tones really can be daunting.

  3. George says:

    I tend to breakout out my reading into lexical recognition, grammatical presentation (phrasing and contexualization), and idiom.

    A. lexical recognition deals with learning both characters and the common names of things. So I scan the newspapers for names and events, and I read the English language news in Taiwan to know what are the front page topics.

    B. gramatical presentation is big frustration as 2nd language material is just too generic, newspapers are a specialized stye. So this is where I look to elementary and middle school textbooks for short reading material of good style.

    C. idioms and creativity are hard. Where do you find the Chinese lexicon for Harry Potter? This is where I look at the Chinese titles for all the western movies in Taiwan and translate the titles — there are some surprising and amusing contrasts that offer up a lot of interesting questions for my Taiwanese friends to explain.

    Whenever out and about, I try to re-read the neighborhood signage for characters that I’ve ignored or misunderstood.

    Tools of the trade, it really helps to have an Android or Ipad with Pleco dictionary to input what you see.. in actual brushstrokes. I’ve been doing so for about 10 years (with a Palm Zire72).

  4. Bell says:

    I’m a semi-native speaker and can listen and speak very well. I have an okay reading ability, I can figure out the meaning of what I’m reading even though I don’t know some of the words based on context clues. The problem I have is with writing. My speaking is on par with native speakers, so grammar and sentence structure aren’t a problem for me. My problem is writing it. I can read the characters, but can’t write those same exact characters. Is that normal? How should I improve my writing. I am currently student taking Chinese at school.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s perfectly normal! You won’t be able to handwrite characters unless you practice doing just that. Of course, mnemonics and such can help to remember certain characters, but just reading will not enable you to write by hand. I suggest you check out apps like Skritter that focus specifically on handwriting characters (I am affiliated, but recommended Skritter long before I started working with them).

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