Writing English as a Chinese speaker

Several interesting patterns have improved my technical communication in English. This post explains these patterns. They reflect feedback from several English speakers that helped me write in the past.

Sentences

Always write short sentences.[1] The goal is to allow readers to parse each sentence in one pass. This pattern is different from Chinese, where it is common to connect a handful of clauses with commas. When writing English, break down long sentences into short sentences. Aim for at most two clauses in each sentence, except when enumerating.[1] Then, connect related sentences with transition words and pronouns. Do not cheat here by substituting clauses with parentheses, since parentheses would decrease readability.

Avoid using single pronouns such as “it,” “this,” “they,” and “one” to refer to things in previous sentences. Instead, spell out “the X,” “this X,” “these X,” “X,” etc.[2]

Use active voice and spell out the subject.[3] For example, replace “the problem was solved” with “we solved the problem.” Replace “the error is nullified” with “the system nullifies the error.”[2]

Be concrete. For example, replace “better” with “faster” or “more concise.” Replace “hurt” with “reduce.” Replace “cause X troubles” with “cause X to crash if X has a bug.”[2]

Logical structure*

After writing down ideas for the first time, reverse the order of the entire writing. The goal is to convert the pattern of Chinese story-telling into the pattern that English readers expect. In my experience, Chinese culture prefers describing the cause before concluding with a convincing argument. On the other hand, English speakers expect to see the argument before reading the evidence.[4] In practice, switch the clauses in each sentence and change the transition word. Reverse the order of sentences in each paragraph. Even consider reordering paragraphs.

An exception to the previous pattern is when readers cannot easily agree with your argument.[2][5, page 183]

Make the first sentence of each paragraph the take-away point of that paragraph. It should be possible for readers to summarize the article by glancing the first one or two sentences from each paragraph. In the same spirit, try to make the first paragraph self-explanatory.

Reality

Practice whenever possible. For example, try to write readable emails every time. Practice communication skills until they become your second nature.

Bring your articles to the Writing Center. They can spot specific problems in your writing and help you improve.

Do not be afraid to speak or write, even if you feel pessimistic about your English. People can often tolerate problems in grammar, vocabulary, and accent. The underlying ideas and logical structures can be more influential.

Footnote
* See Explain how facts are connected logically.

References
[1] The first lecture from course 21F.225 at MIT, Fall 2013.
[2] Feedback from my research advisor.
[3] Strunk, William. The Elements of Style.
[4] Feedback from course 6.UAT at MIT, Spring 2015.
[5] Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. University of Chicago press, 3rd edition, 2008.

Updates
Moved punctuation inside quotation marks. I struggle with punctuation.
Added references.
Added an exception to the logical ordering.
Added footnote.

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