How to write a book · Writer basics 101

How to write well in a language that isn’t your mother tongue

I’ve had this interesting email:

Since January this year, I’ve been attending writing workshops, and my novel is progressing well. But English isn’t my first language, and I don’t do any creative writing in my day job. I feel I’m struggling. My priority is quality, and I think I need expert help. Should I get an editor? What do you advise? Maria.

babel fish

It’s clear that Maria can express herself fluently – to the extent that she can work in a foreign country. (Certainly not something I could do.) So what’s missing?

I think Maria has already intuited it, which is why she feels stuck. She doesn’t yet have the flair that a fiction reader will be looking for.

Skills, craft and style

I think Maria’s off to a good start, developing her critical skills and craft at writing workshops. But this probably isn’t addressing her writing style.

Funnily enough, she’s in the opposite situation of most writers. The majority concentrate on honing their language and sentences, and have to be taught about the invisible mechanisms that make a novel work – characters, structure, pace etc. Here’s a post about that from my Guardian masterclasses.

It’s as if the machinery of a book and its language belong in separate mental departments. Indeed, I once had a ghostwriting assignment to rewrite a memoir by an expat who could no longer express herself in her original tongue. My role was to restore her to publishable English.

So, Maria, I wouldn’t worry about getting an editor yet. I think you could do a lot if you read authors in your chosen genre and study their styles. Develop your ear and your eye; notice how word choice and sentence structure makes you feel excitement, or tension, or fear or tenderness. The authors aren’t just writing what happens; they are performing the story with every syllable.

Spend a few months with this as your mission. Then go back to your manuscript – and you’re sure to find ways to express the story more stylishly. You could also try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase. This might let you explore finer nuances, which you can then search for in English.

Not just literary

Are you wondering if language is a consideration only for literary fiction? Not so. The best genre writers also have to be deft and dazzling. Look at the verve in the verbs of a thriller writer. Look at the meaning and menace in the sparse dialogue of a noir. Look at the warmth and propriety in a cosy mystery.

Also beware

Here’s another set of alerts. Notice which words and sentence constructions may be funny, or push the reader away. Use them only if you intend that effect. Writers who are still learning to control their voice often produce passages that sound unfortunately humorous, ponderous, melodramatic or detached. Even when their native language is English.


This method I’m proposing is not fast, but it will get Maria to a good place eventually. Here are some other posts that will help.
Reading like a writer, and a discussion on the same topic in an episode of my radio show.
How to develop something special in your writing.
Maria also mentions that her day job doesn’t give her much opportunity for creative writing, but there probably isn’t a day job that would give you the style you need to write fiction well. Here’s a post where I talk about that a little more.

Babel fish pic from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, courtesy of Jonathan Davies on Flickr

What would you say to Maria? Are you writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? Whether you are or you aren’t, how have you developed your style?


18 thoughts on “How to write well in a language that isn’t your mother tongue

  1. Hi, there’s now 19 years I exclusively write and try to read in English. I always say I am an ESL writer for ever.
    One suggestion is to join a writing group, and say upfront that English is not your mother tongue. Add that to people’s constructive comments about your story (i.e. what is good, and what can be improved), you do not mind your English being edited. It helps tremendously.
    Books suggestions: A good English dictionary and the permanent research of synonymous, of course. The Art of Fiction (John Gardner), Reading like a write (Francine Prose) and Self-editing for fiction writers. And do not worry if you do not write fiction, the frontier between genres is getting thinner and thinner.
    Lastly, four websites’ translations comparisons on line:
    I hope this helps.
    Good luck.

  2. Maybe instead of looking to write as if English were her first language, she could embrace the “second languageness” as part of her style. Also, authors such as Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe and Murakami wrote in English though it was not their first language and might be good go-to references for encouragement and ideas regarding ways to integrate or oppose cultural/linguistic aspects.

  3. Reading a ton in the language you want to write in is essential. I’m trying to develop my style in a foreign language (Russian) and I’ve found that to be helpful so far. I’m nowhere near as good at writing in Russian as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it. Best of luck to Maria!

    1. Natalie, you’re learning to write in Russian? Gosh. Your remark that you’re nowhere near as good as you’d like to be is the thing that would put me off. I so value what I have in English, and even then I frequently feel it’s a struggle to say things precisely as well as I’d like. Anyway, I’ve no wish to put you off. You must be demonstrating extraordinary persistence. Good luck to you too!

      1. It’s a long journey. I’m mainly doing it because I want to–publishing in Russia is not nearly the same as it is in the Anglosphere. Basically, there are a lot fewer opportunities to make money when publishing in Russian. And like it or not, we’ve got to at least attempt to earn something from this, I think. 😉 I also write in English. I’m still learning how to craft a novel and all that, but I’m much better at doing that in English than in Russian. 😀

  4. I’m pretty bilingual when speaking French, though I’ve never attempted any sort of creative writing in the language (even writing an email in French takes me a goddamned age). With that proviso in mind, some thoughts: –

    a) I highly recommend learning a second language to any writer. I feel it vastly increases your awareness of your native language use – the etymology and implication of a word, the rhythm of a sentence, and a whole slew of other things.

    b) I’d guess that writing in English, compared with other languages, must be particularly hard for non-native speakers. There are so many synonyms or near-synonyms that the precision of the language that native speakers take for granted makes for a muddy, confusing mess.

    c) My inclination, were I a non-native writer working in English, would be to find a style in which a stripped-down vocabulary, and a very simplistic approach to grammar, is a strength rather than a liability.

    One notable example of such a style – and a book I often recommend to non-native readers – would be Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. It’s an excellent book, for adults, and yet its style – indeed, its narrator – is eminently simple, direct.

    1. Paul, I didn’t know you were fluent in French. I love it when people reveal hidden talents.

      You make such an interesting point about a second language enriching the first that you could almost tempt me to have a go. And I think I recognise some of this from memories of studying French and German at school. I hadn’t thought about this for years, but when I was taking O levels, and had all the languages relatively fresh in my mind, I’d notice parallels in the vocabulary, and how some languages made distinctions that others did not. An obvious one is the way French and Germans are keen to separate the two ways you could use the verb ‘to know’. I used to wonder why it didn’t bother us in English.

      I like your Mark Haddon recommendation. Although its style is simple, it has a lot of verve.

    2. Another author who has a spare style is Robert B Parker. He manages to convey tons of emotion and setting without a spare word.
      I wish I was bilingual in French, but I’m just a beginner. I agree that learning it, has been immensely helpful in understanding English sentences and meaning. In someways I feel that I really didn’t understand my native language until I saw it through the lens of a foreign tongue.

  5. I write in English, although it’s my third language after Finnish and Swedish. I’ve lived in the UK for over 30 years and took a MA in Creative Writing some ten years ago, just because I needed to know if my language skills were good enough to be a novelist. (I passed 🙂 ) I’ve been since told that my writing has a Nordic quality, which is helpful as all of my novels are set in Finland and Sweden. I now think that this is my USP as an author.

    My advice to Maria would be to read extensively (in English obviously), and try to avoid reading in her native language. Attending writing courses are good for confidence as well as inspiration. I use several native English speakers to read through my manuscripts before I send them to my editor, so that there are no ‘Finnishisms’ left in them…

    But essentially writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue is as much about language skills as it is about confidence.

  6. Just saw your article today. I travel writing in English, even it is my second language after Chinese. Add to Helena’s comments, I recommend Maria to think in English as if it is her native tongue, instead of ” try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase”. U tried to do that and it ended up terrible (prob because of the differences of the sentence structure between English and Chinese).

    1. Hello Julie! Thanks for finding your way to this post and for stopping to say hello. And what an interesting point about the differences in setnence structure. Language is thought and thought is language, isn’t it? I admire anyone who can split themselves linguistically and find a way to feel at home in a new tongue.

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