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:
- Select an area of focus (see above)
- Start recording good examples from the material you read
- Extract sentence patterns and useful phrases
- Sort and organise the examples you record
- Keep your record handy next time you write and use the new words or phrases
- Check what you have learnt with native speakers
- 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!