Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Improving Chinese writing ability: Common problems and how to tackle them

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/nh313066

We all know that practice makes perfect. Even if you have the theoretical knowledge necessary to write well in a language (such as you may gain from reading books), you still need to actually write to become good at writing. Apart from practising the skill of writing itself, writing is also an excellent way of exposing problems with vocabulary, grammar and logic (which might not work in the same way as in your native language).

Many errors that might go unnoticed when chatting look egregious in writing. Thus, I consider writing to be a cornerstone of learning Chinese, at least once you move beyond the basics. Being asked to write in a foreign language (or indeed their own language), most students will sooner or later exclaim: “I don’t know what to write about!”

In this article, I intend to address this question. Please note that this article is not concerned with handwriting, it discusses writing in general regardless of method. Discussing handwriting or the benefits of writing in general is left for future articles.

In this article, we will look at:

  • Why topic matters when writing
  • How to avoid performance anxiety
  • Why perfectionism should be avoided
  • How to find suitable topics
  • Some general tips and tricks
  • What to do with your finished texts

Why topic matters when writing

People will tell you that the topic doesn’t matter, that you can “write about anything”. If this were the case, I don’t really know why you are still reading this article. I think most people simply can’t “write about anything” and that they need help and guidance to find suitable topics. Also, it’s not only about finding a few suitable topics, it might be about finding several suitable topics a day, depending on how much you write. Keeping this up is not easy.

The choice of topic influences your attitude

The topic matters because it determines your attitude towards the text you’re writing. If you think the topic important for some reason, you have a strong motivation to express your opinion. If it’s a topic you don’t care about at all, the only thing driving you forward is your motivation that doing so will improve your Chinese. This isn’t very good, if you’re going to spend serious time writing, you need to like what you’re doing. One way of doing this is to maintain contact with reality.

The problem is of course that as beginners we don’t have the necessary vocabulary and grammar to choose the topics we care most about and that we would write about in our native languages. This problem is unavoidable to a certain extent, but we can still practise damage control. Make an effort to find topics that you think are okay (but not necessarily love), avoid topics you despise (but accept topics that you merely dislike).

How to avoid performance anxiety

This problem faces anyone who is used to writing at a more advanced level in their native language. What happens is that we use the standards of our performance in our native language to assess our performance when writing in Chinese, which is bound to produce a sense of anxiety or the feeling that what we write is boring, meaningless and mundane. Realising that this is a problem helps, but it’s not enough.

Two lines of thought may help. First, we didn’t start out as advanced writers in any language, it was something we achieved only through diligent practise over time. Thus, if you’re at the beginning of your Chinese writing life, realise that the baby steps you’re taking are necessary if you ever want to reach proficiency. Every paragraph you write is a step in the right direction. Every mistake you make is a step forward. More importantly, every paragraph you don’t write is an opportunity missed, a step you could have taken but didn’t.

Second, if you have to, focus more on the language learning aspects of what you’re doing. Your primary reason for writing in Chinese isn’t to produce a literary masterpiece, but to learn the language. The activity of hitting keys and seeing characters appear on the screen, forging them into sentences and joining these into texts might look the same regardless of what language you use, but it’s not, because the reason you’re doing it is completely different. You’re confusing two activities which are similar, but yet different.

Why perfectionism should be avoided

Perfectionism is the death of creativity and should be avoided at all costs. I have written much more about the problem of perfectionism earlier, so please read this article in case the topic interests you. There are several problems with perfectionism and writing.

Perfectionism means that you will…

  • …spend too much time looking for the perfect topic before starting
  • …fail to start writing because you’re waiting for the perfect situation
  • … not write as much as you can because you lack inspiration
  • …spend lots of time looking for the perfect word when you should be writing instead
  • …find other excuses not to write, because you’re afraid that the result won’t be perfect

Of course, I don’t mean to say that you should be sloppy, I just want to point out that aiming for perfection is usually bad. If you want your texts to be good, you can still let out your inner perfectionist while you correct yourself, only don’t do that before you actually have a text to edit. Just write, quality comes later.

How to find suitable topics

Most students don’t know what to write about. If you’re enrolled in a language course, your teacher might give you topics, but this isn’t likely to be enough and only covers what you’re doing in class. Thus, I will try to provide some guidelines for how to find more topics than you can ever write about. Feel free to add more in the comments!

  • Write about your daily life – This is obvious, but since your life changes and different things happen each day, writing about these things provides a more or less inexhaustible source of writing topics. Note that you don’t have to keep a diary as such, you can merely write about different things you encounter in your daily life. Remember that nothing stops you from going back in time and write about past experiences.
  • Translate text from other languages – Even if you’re very serious with learning Chinese, it’s likely that you spend at least some time reading things in your own language. Take one of these texts and translate it into Chinese. If it’s too hard, translate only the essence and use your own words. The goal here isn’t to produce good translations, but to use texts in other languages for inspiration.
  • Find questions or topics online –Humans are quite good at asking questions, so they are available in huge quantities online, along with ordinary discussion topics. Try searching for ESL questions and/or topics. I did a quick search and here are five interesting lists I found with thousands of questions and topics. Enjoy!

Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom
50 Questions That Will Free Your Mind
ESL Question and Conversation Cards and Lessons
List of Fun and Awkward Questions to Ask Friends
Great Questions List

Some general tips and tricks

Apart from using the ideas above, I also find the following activities useful:

  • Write down any interesting topic you come up with, even if you have enough topics for the moment. Keeping a long list of suitable topics is excellent, because it saves you the step of finding something to write about next time you want to write.
  • Finish writing before checking words/grammar, even if it’s frustrating. If you know there is a suitable word, but you can’t find it immediately, leave a mark of some kind and get back to it later, otherwise you risk spending most of your writing time looking for vocabulary.
  • The length of your text isn’t important, or at least it’s more important that you write than that you write long articles. If some texts are only a few sentences, so be it (makes it easier for others to correct). Don’t force it, write as much as you feel a topic or question can give you.

Use Lang-8 to have a native speaker correct your text

If you’re going to benefit from the mistakes you make, you need to know that you’re making these mistakes, otherwise you’re just fossilising bad habits. Personally, I prefer to use Lang-8, which is a website where you can register (for free) and have your texts checked by native speakers. In return, you help other students who try to learn your native language. I have written an article about Lang-8 here:

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

A final word of warning

Don’t force yourself to write if it can be helped. Writing requires focus, inspiration and energy, things which aren’t present at all times. If you really don’t feel like writing anything at all right now, study something else and write when there’s a better opportunity. Just don’t make this a habit and an excuse not to write at all. It really doesn’t take that much inspiration to write a short text about something you did this week or answer one of the questions I linked to above, does it?

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  1. Guus says:

    I can have great joy writing in whatever language. The issue is normally to sit down and do it.

    I agree that it’s best to write about what you care about, but have once fallen in the trap of writing about something that I cared about too much for an English exam. The structure of my story came apart from wanting to but too much into the article.

    If you want to say a lot about a certain topic but can’t due your level of the language, it can be frustrating.

  2. Sara K. says:

    I’m currently on a roll with my Lang-8 entries about San Francisco/California botany. It’s very easy to get specific (I can talk about one species of plant per entry), and some people seem to be interested in the topic, especially since it’s very easy for me to add personal touches (for example, when I talked about lupines, I uploaded some photos my father took of the lupines growing in my family’s backyard). I could make many, many entries about this topic (for example, I might make a follow-up entry about the lupines explaining WHY they are in the backyard).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sounds great! Seems like an inexhaustible source of topics. I was on a roll with more than one entry per day for a while, but then… I stopped. I’ve been doing other things, but writing sentences now and then should be possible.

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