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Cover image for Technical writing tips for non-native English speakers

Technical writing tips for non-native English speakers

vtrpldn profile image Vitor Paladini ・4 min read

I was born in Brazil so naturally I wrote my first articles and blog posts in Portuguese.

Back then, the idea of being able to write a complete and easy to read article in English felt distant and pretty much impossible. Even though I could read them pretty well.

As I started gearing my career toward international opportunities it felt inevitable to develop my English skills even further. So I started writing content in English.

Now, I'm far from perfect, but I'm pretty happy with everything I've learned so far. And even happier to share it.

(I also like to think that my middle school English teacher would be proud, it helps a lot).

So, without further ado, here's some tips that helped me along the way:

Overcome the mental barrier

Writing in a language that you didn't grow up speaking can be hard by itself. But one thing that makes it worse is thinking that you need to be fluent to even start writing.

You don't. If you don't feel confident with your current English writing skills, write anyway.

One thing that can happen is that after you're done you may not feel comfortable publishing it, and that's ok. You can always come back and rewrite it after your writing skill improves.

Worst case scenario you'll have a draft, and a slight increase in your English composition skills. Win-win!

Your first paragraphs will suck

They will. Mine did, it takes some effort.

I read somewhere on the internet that the only way to write a good article is to write 1000 crappy articles. The same applies to any skill you'll want to develop, learning goes hand in hand with repetition.

You need to be patient, focused and keep writing. Set a small time frame for writing every day, try to make it a small habit.

And whenever you feel down and think that you're not moving fast enough, remember the teachings of this funny yellow dog.

Plan your text, but not too much

Remember that you are writing in a second language and oftentimes you will be translating and writing at the same time. Which can be quite tiresome.

Things get much easier when you start to actually think about your text in English. But until then you need to improve your writing experience in other ways.

Try writing down the core idea of your text and how you'll expand it. This will help you anchor down your train of thought and help you focus on that specific subject.

But also, do not overplan it, write down some initial structure but don't get paralized by it. You can always change it if it doesn't sound right anymore.

Write first, correct later

Writing takes a considerate amount of mental energy. Save some brain bandwidth and try not to worry if your grammar and spelling are perfect in your first draft.

Try your best to not be insecure while writing, focus on transferring the ideas from your head to the paper. No one but yourself is judging you right now.

After you're done then you should do grammar and spell check. There are quite a few free online tools that help you with that. I prefer writing in Google Docs as its native spell check is excellent.

"Quote" search when unsure

Have you ever written a sentence that, despite being grammarly correct, sounds a little bit off?

Whenever that happens I search it between quotation marks on Google.

Example gif of a quote search

If it returns lots of results it probably means that the sentence is right. Bonus points if that sentence appears in a reputable source like a book or dictionary.

Simple is best

Try not to be too flamboyant, ostentatious or overelaborate.

English has fantastic words that roll out of the mouth and sound incredible.

Like flabbergasted, I love that word.

But remember that you're writing a technical piece and the subject is much too complex already.

And I'm not talking fancy words only, try to keep your paragraphs simple and easy to understand. Keeping it simple also lowers your surface area for grammatical errors.

A good rule of thumb is that if after a single read you can't capture the paragraph's core idea, it is too complex.

Remember that your goal is to transfer your knowledge to an audience, so try and make it as easy as possible for them.

If it is serious business, find a proofreader

People usually don't mind small mistakes if your content is good enough. If someone points out a grammar fix in the comments, thank them, fix it and move on. It's not personal.

Now, if the piece that you're writing is for some kind of hiring process or it will be featured at a medium that has no EDIT button, you better find a good proofreader.

I've had great experiences with proofreaders on Fiverr in the past. It's not expensive if you're not in a hurry and the peace of mind is definitely worth the money.


And that's it, thanks for reading!

Which one do you think is the best tip?

Share yours in the comments!

Cover photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Posted on by:

vtrpldn profile

Vitor Paladini

@vtrpldn

A software engineer that really likes working with user interfaces. Writes mostly JS at a small (but mighty!) Danish startup. Loves cooking.

Discussion

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Hello Vitor! Thank you for the great article! I am also non-English speaker (Russia), so it is really helpful for me :)
In your profile you say that you love cooking. I am a developer, and we’ve created an app called RecipeFinder (Twitter: @RecipeFinderApp). We are just students, and it is our first iOS app that we want to publish in AppStore. Could you check out its demo video in Twitter and give feedback on functionality? Thanks!

 

Sure! It looks very promising, I can see that you guys are using that fancy new button UI. Where do you get the recipes feed?

 

Oh, thank you very much! We use Edamam API for recipes. Do you think that application is worth 1$/month subscription? Sooner we’ll add Discover tab, where users will be able to create and discover recipes.

Fantastic. And a really cheap API indeed, let me know when you guys ship an Android version 😄

 

I also do the same by searching on Google if a sentence I've made up has been used by other English fellows 😁
A great tool is translate-shell that lets you translate directly from the terminal: github.com/soimort/translate-shell

 

As a non-native English speaker, that posts regularly in English myself, I've really enjoyed reading your post. I have to say I agree with all your points - and even would like to add a couple:

  1. Use your browser's spelling corrector. It seems so obvious to me so I thought you might have left that out because it's too obvious.

  2. Once I've finished writing my post, but before I publish it, I like to click the preview button - and then copy and paste the content, paragraph by paragraph, to translate.Google.Com - and translate to your native language.
    If the translation seems half-decent, you're probably doing something right. As a bonus, a lot of times you'll be able to spot common mistakes like writing "then" instead of "than", "though" instead of "thought" or "through" and stuff like that.

 

Hey, Zohar. Thanks for your collaboration!

Regarding number 1, I always write in Google Docs first and found that the spell checker there is much better than in the browser, might be some configuration problem on my side though.

Number two is a great suggestion! And with Google Translate you can even make it say your text out loud, that helps you find errors that you could've skipped by simple reading it.

 

Absolutely.
Whatever criticism we can make of auto-translators, if it gets it right twice in a row, that indicates it gets it right the first time!
I always reflect important paragraphs back from my target translation to double-check the meaning was clear. It can even lead to me improving the clarity of the original sentence. So much so that I wish that "translate back again" was a third pane on google translate! Luckily the browser-sized google translate has a one-click reverse translation.

Still, beware of colloquialisms that may survive the round trip. "Smack your ass" still comes back as "smack your ass" => "beat your donkey" => "beat your ass" in many languages.

 

"Try not to be too flamboyant, ostentatious or overelaborate." I teach English to non-native speakers and that is really good advice. Some of my learners do great writing but spoil it by over complicating not just the vocabulary but punctuation too. I see lots of over use of commas, semi-colons, and speech marks which makes good text hard to read. Simple is definitely best if you don't have the benefit of a proofreader nearby!

 

If you don't mind please check one of my articles and give some advice thank you.

 

Thanks for the article! It's really helpful! Though I`m a native speaker, sometimes I feel confused, when writing some important papers. Recently I was preparing a letter of recommendation, and I decided to apply to this service lorservice.com/letter-of-recommend... they were advised to me as the best in this field. I must say they are really experts in letter of recommendation editing, and they did a good job for me.

 
 

Great article. I use the "quote" tip a lot. My wife is an English teacher, and she proofreads most of my writing, so guess I'm spoiled. It's surprising the amount of errors and suggestions she makes on pieces that I thought were ready to go.

Tools like Grammarly or LanguageTool are godsend. I also found that printing the text also helps a lot during proofreading YMMV.

EDIT: I'm based in Argentina, so message me when you get here if you want :)

 

Thank you for your good advice. I'm a non-native English speaker. Most of the time, I'm a little bit shy about English.

I felt shy because of a comment. dev.to/aligoren/javascript-reposit....

But I didn't stop. Because people can understand whatI'm saying.

Programming is like music. It is universal. I know, the language barrier is hard to do something easily. I'm still looking for friends to make practice in English.

I believe, my English will be good :)

I like your advice about "quote search".

Btw, in Turkey, there are people judging you if your English grammar or pronunciation isn't good.

Thanks :)

 

Hey, Ali.

Great mindset, man. Turkish language is very different from English and you're still putting in the effort, that is fantastic.

Btw, in Turkey, there are people judging you if your English grammar or pronunciation isn't good.

That also happens around here. Funnily enough non-native speakers can be much more judgemental than natives. 🤷‍♂️

 

Cool @vtrpldn , that was a one more gratefull article here.
Your tip that could help me a lot is that:

Try writing down the core idea of your text and how you'll expand it. This will help you anchor down your train of thought and help you focus on that specific subject.

I'm always unsure about write or speakin english with others, some times is because I really overplan my idea, so if I do it more simple, maybe I make me to be understood.

I'm also a brazilian, and I don't have many friends or parents that speak in english, so for improve my knowledment with english I try to do the most activities using english in my days, and it has been working for me.

I've tried a course too, but it has been much boring and I feel that I can learn more using my own methods, like reading, writing and speaking too.

Thanks for that.

 

Hey, André! Glad I could help.

English classes also didn't worked well for me. What really worked was listening to podcasts, watching tv shows with subtitles and reading articles on subjects that I'm already familiar.

Hit me up on twitter @paladini_dev if you need to practice sometime 🙂

 

Thank you for the incredible article! I found it so helpful, I made an entire video about it: youtu.be/J-HvCPaCLj0

Hope that's okay!

 

Whaaat 🤯

That's more than okay, Amruta, that's fantastic! Thank you very much, I'm super happy now 😄😄😄

 

Also, I'm super biased but I really liked the video. Great job!

Oh, I am so glad to hear that!!

 

Thank you for the article. I expected more about non-native but got how to start.
I consider that article would be better if it had a title that mirrors the content.
So I would give your article name: "Technical writing tips for beginners" or something similar.
Because:

  • 'Overcome the mental barrier' doesn't relate to non-native nature. You have barriers even when you native. But they are different
  • 'Your first paragraphs will suck' doesn't relate to non-native nature. We all sucking when start something new. etc.
 

I like the “Overcome the mental barrier” because I was in such a situation and it is pretty important.

The other one is “Simple is best”. If it is possible to explain the topic in very simple terms, this means for me that the understanding of the topic is pretty good.

 

Love it! I like your writing style. Do you consider sharing it with a broader audience? Diverse communities such as FreeCodeCamp would benefit from this knowledge, in my opinion.

 

Remember that your goal is to transfer your knowledge to an audience, so try and make it as easy as possible for them.

Writing is not about showing how much you know or conveying your ideas to an audience. It's about changing ideas of your audience and the amount of value you can bring in to the community. Nobody cares what ideas you actually have.

youtube.com/watch?v=vtIzMaLkCaM

 

For grammar mistakes use Grammarly 👍

 

"Quote" searching is really good advice. Great article!

 
 

Thank you very much, also very useful for people who suffer from dyslexia to.

 

Thanks for 'flabbergasted' ))) Cool word! I will remember it) Another funny word is 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' )

 
 

They can add a Google Translate plugin.