23 Tips All ESL Writers Need to Know

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23 Tips All ESL Writers Need to Know
Brought to you by Luke Palder, Founder of ProofreadingServices.com
Copyright © 2014 ProofreadingServices.com. All rights reserved.
Hi!
Luke Palder here, Founder of ProofreadingServices.com.
Thanks so much for downloading this guide for ESL
writers. As the founder and CEO of the world’s largest
proofreading service for ESL writers, I’ve learned a lot
about what it takes to produce great writing when
English isn’t your first language.
In this guide, you’ll find 23 of my top tips for ESL
writers—some for beginners, some for advanced
students—based on my experiences working with thousands of ESL writers across the world. Once
you’ve mastered these tips, you’ll be well on your way to writing like a native English speaker.
As you’re reading this, if you have any questions, please reach out to me and my team or comment on
our blog, The ESL Inquirer. I’d love to hear from you. Also, feel free to share this guide with your friends
and family members who are ESL writers. The more the merrier, as we say in English!
All the best,
Founder of ProofreadingServices.com, the world’s leading proofreading service for ESL writers
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Contents
#1: Capitalize proper nouns—but not common nouns ................................................................................ 4
#2: Learn count and non-count nouns ......................................................................................................... 5
#3: Beware unclear pronoun references ...................................................................................................... 6
#4: Identify stative verbs .............................................................................................................................. 7
#5: Maintain a consistent verb tense ........................................................................................................... 8
#6: Make sure each sentence contains a complete, independent thought ................................................. 9
#7: Modify the right word .......................................................................................................................... 10
#8: Avoid over-nominalization ................................................................................................................... 11
#9: Know SVOPT ......................................................................................................................................... 12
#10: Tell us who’s doing what .................................................................................................................... 13
#11: Learn the four main sentence types................................................................................................... 14
#12: Learn more advanced sentence types................................................................................................ 15
#13: Don’t start multiple sentences with the same word or phrase ......................................................... 16
#14: Avoid faulty parallelism ...................................................................................................................... 17
#15: Avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing ...................................................................................................... 18
#16: Avoid plagiarism by quoting ............................................................................................................... 19
#17: Get to know idioms ............................................................................................................................ 20
#18: Learn commonly confused terms ....................................................................................................... 21
#19: Read your written words aloud .......................................................................................................... 22
#20: Shorter is better ................................................................................................................................. 23
#21: Select the right dictionary for your audience ..................................................................................... 24
#22: Search for examples on Google .......................................................................................................... 25
#23: Expand your writing horizons ............................................................................................................. 26
BONUS TIP: Double-check your spelling and grammar checker ................................................................ 27
You made it! ............................................................................................................................................... 28
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#1: Capitalize proper nouns—but not common nouns
A common ESL writing error is overcapitalization, particularly with nouns. Let’s clearly go over what needs to be
capitalized:

The first letter of a new sentence

The word “I”

Weekdays, holidays, and months of the year

Proper nouns
So what exactly is the difference between a proper noun and a common noun?
A proper noun names a specific, often one-of-a-kind item. Proper nouns include the names of people, states,
cities, streets, rivers, oceans, countries, companies, and institutions.
Below are a few examples to help you understand the difference:
PROPER NOUNS
COMMON NOUNS
Charles Dickens
writer
Texas
state
Taco Bell
restaurant
Brazil
country
Google
company
Best Buy
store
One common mistake that people make is capitalizing business titles, such as “chief executive officer” or “vice
president.” These terms may seem like proper nouns, but they’re actually common nouns and should be written
in lowercase. Why? Because many people can hold these positions at various companies.
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#2: Learn count and non-count nouns
Typically, count nouns are things that are easy to
count.
For example, you can easily tell me exactly how many trees you
see, apples you’ve eaten, or pencils you’re holding.
But how easy is it to count things like water or progress? Not
very. For that reason, these terms are considered one
undividable whole. Non-count nouns such as these often
include abstract ideas or substances in liquid or mass form, and
they’re always written in the singular form—never plural.
Practice is the key to mastering this tip, and it’s important to
note that there are regional differences in how count and noncount nouns are approached.
Check out the count/non-count grammar exercise in this ESL
Inquirer blog post to test yourself on a few common words.
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#3: Beware unclear pronoun references
Pronouns help to prevent repetition in writing, but they have to be used carefully. When using pronouns in
writing, you should make sure each has a clear antecedent, which is just a fancy way of saying that it should be
clear what the pronoun refers to.
You can ensure this clarity by always identifying a person or object before using a pronoun. Here’s an example of
what not to do:
His leg hurt because George fell down while running.
The sentence is confusing because it’s not clear whether the leg belongs to George or to someone else! This
would be much clearer if it were rewritten in one of the following ways:
George’s leg hurt because he fell down while running.
George fell down while running, so his leg hurt.
Generally, people will assume that a pronoun refers to the closest noun or other pronoun, but this can still lead
to confusion, particularly if there are several nouns or pronouns in close proximity.
Here’s another example of pronoun confusion:
Fred told his friend that his car was broken.
Whose car is broken, Fred’s or his friend’s? Fix the issue by rewriting the sentence like so:
Fred told his friend, “Your car is broken.”
Below is a list of pronouns that are commonly
problematic. Use this as a reference when evaluating
your work.
Watch Out for These Pronouns
It
Those
They
Which
Them
She
This
He
That
Him
These
Her
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#4: Identify stative verbs
You need to master two main categories of verbs: stative and action. Confusing the two types can lead to errors
in your writing since action verbs can be used in the continuous tenses, while stative verbs cannot.
CORRECT: The boy is walking the dog right now. [action verb: walk]
INCORRECT: She is believing in true love. [stative verb: believe]
CORRECT: She believes in true love.
So what’s the difference?
Action verbs describe actions or things that occur,
whereas stative verbs describe a status, which is an
object’s appearance or someone’s state of being.
There are four main categories for stative verbs:
Thought/Opinion
Possession
Sense
Emotion
believe
belong
hear
hate
know
have
feel
love
think
own
see
need
understand
possess
taste
want
Check out this grammar exercise you can use to master stative verbs.
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#5: Maintain a consistent verb tense
Many writers bounce back and forth between tenses, which is not only incorrect but confusing.
So what tense should you choose?
Scholarly work in MLA or APA style
usually requires the past tense, while
business writing is usually in the
present tense, and the tense used in
creative writing varies widely. In short,
verb tense is tough to keep track of.
If you’re submitting your writing to a
specific publication, check the tense of
their published articles. For a school
assignment, you can always confirm
your professor’s preference.
Worried you might be jumping back and forth? Circle every verb in your paper, and check each one. Most should
follow the same format. For example, each may have “-ed” written at the end, so if you run across one that ends
in “-ing,” read the sentence that contains the word. Be aware that the verb still may be correct, though, since it
may be part of a dependent clause.
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#6: Make sure each sentence contains a complete, independent
thought
If it doesn’t, then it’s not a sentence, it’s a sentence fragment. For a sentence to be complete, it needs to
contain three things:

A subject

A verb

A complete thought
So how might your sentence be missing one of the three?
The boy liked sweets. For example, raspberry donuts.
In this example, the second sentence is actually a fragment since it doesn’t contain a verb.
And jumped up and down in excitement.
This fragment doesn’t contain a subject. Who or what jumped?
After she went to the recital.
This fragment contains a subject and
a verb, but it’s not a complete
thought. What did she do after the
recital?
Sentence fragments are easy to fix
once you’ve identified the issue.
Figure out which of the three
elements is missing from your
sentence, and add it in.
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#7: Modify the right word
A modifier is a word or group of words that provides description. It’s an optional element, which means that if
you remove it, the sentence or phrase will still retain its meaning.
The brown horse ran a race.
(“Brown” is a modifier describing the horse.)
The horse ran quickly.
(“Quickly” is a modifier describing how the horse ran.)
The horse wearing the blue saddle ran.
(The phrase “wearing the blue saddle” is a modifier
describing the horse.)
When a modifier is misplaced, the subject of the modifier is unclear,
and this can change the meaning of the sentence. Look at these two
examples:
The horse almost won every race.
The horse won almost every race.
Did the horse come close to winning every race, or did the horse win all but a few races? When advanced ESL
writers make this type of mistake, you can usually figure out what they intended, but it impacts the rhythm of
the writing, making the reader stop and think for a moment to figure it out.
While enjoying some hay, the owner brushed the horse.
The writer intended to say that the horse was enjoying the hay, but because the modifier is closer to “the
owner,” the sentence is confusing. This can be fixed in several ways:
The horse enjoyed some hay while being brushed by its owner.
The owner brushed the horse, which was enjoying some hay.
YourDictionary.com offers multiple examples of misplaced modifiers to help you master this concept.
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#8: Avoid over-nominalization
In an effort to sound more academic, many writers use a technique called nominalization. Put simply, it means
using a noun that’s created from a verb or adjective.
Examples of Nominalizations
Influence
Transformation
Clarity
Expectation
Receptivity
Destabilization
Evaluation
Investigation
Understanding
Impression
Arbitration
Regulation
While nominalization is common in academic writing, and may be expected, overuse tends to make writing
clunky and difficult to understand. If you have several instances in a single sentence, find ways to eliminate
some.
Here’s an example:
Sentence with nominalization:
“An evaluation of the water quality was undertaken.”
Revised sentence:
“We evaluated the water quality.”
You can read more about how to master nominalization in this ESL Inquirer article.
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#9: Know SVOPT
SVOPT stands for subject, verb, object, place, time.
This is the typical structure for sentences in English. If someone tells you that a sentence is confusing or doesn’t
sound natural, go back and check to see whether it follows this order. Often, this simple fix can make a big
difference.
In fact, you can use SVOPT as a game to improve your grammar. In any completed piece of writing, go back and
write S, V, O, P, or T over each word. Then fix any sentences that aren’t in the right order.
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#10: Tell us who’s doing what
Many ESL writers go out of their way to avoid the first-person point of view, particularly in academic writing. As
a result, it’s unclear who is doing what.
Let’s look at one example:
This paper will discuss the results of the study.
The problem is that the paper cannot discuss anything. It’s an inanimate object.
Instead, use the third person plural:
In this paper, we will examine the results of the study.
Go through your writing and look for instances where it may be unclear who’s taking a particular action.
However, don’t make the mistake of overusing the word “one.” For example,
One’s culture shapes one’s identity.
In English writing, even professional and academic writing, it’s much more common to use the general and
impersonal “you.”
Your culture shapes your identity.
When in doubt, choose the option that makes
the sentence clearer.
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#11: Learn the four main sentence types
Most writing is made up of declarative sentences, but not including any other sentence types can leave you with
dry, boring text. Add variety by including different sentence types when they fit. This will liven up your work!
Declarative Sentence
This is the most common sentence type. It makes a statement and is punctuated by a period.
Examples:
It’s a nice day out.
I took the dog for a walk.
Interrogative Sentence
If a sentence poses a question, it’s an interrogative sentence. These sentences are easy to spot since they always
end in a question mark.
Examples:
Do you want to go to the park?
Is it raining?
Exclamatory Sentence
Not surprisingly, these types of sentences always end in an exclamation point. They express excitement or
heightened emotion.
Examples:
The house is on fire!
The party is going to be great!
Imperative Sentence
This is a command or request, and it can end in either a period or an exclamation point. Imperative sentences
often start with a verb and may contain the word “please.”
Note: It may seem like imperative sentences don’t contain a subject, but they actually all have the same
one: “you.” This is called an understood subject. Even though the word “you” doesn’t appear in the
sentence, the reader understands that he or she is being addressed, so the sentence is complete.
Examples:
Close the door!
Please be quiet.
It’s a good exercise to go through a piece of writing and identify each sentence type. On just this page, all four
of the sentence types are used. Can you spot them all? Give it a try!
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#12: Learn more advanced sentence types
Once you’ve mastered the four basic sentence types, take your writing a step further by including more
advanced sentence types. Let’s look at how you can combine these two simple sentences to form a more
advanced sentence.
The girl wanted to eat ice cream. She had to finish her dinner first.
Compound Sentences
The following sentences combine the previous two sentences using



A coordinating conjunction, such as “and,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” or “so”
A semicolon and a conjunctive adverb, such as “however” or “therefore”
Or just a semicolon.
The girl wanted to eat ice cream, but she had to finish her dinner first.
The girl wanted to eat ice cream; however, she had to finish her dinner first.
The girl wanted to eat ice cream; she had to finish her dinner first.
Complex Sentences
These sentences use one dependent clause and one independent clause. Here are a few punctuation patterns
that can be used:




Dependent clause, independent clause
Independent clause, dependent clause
First part of an independent clause, nonessential dependent clause, second part of the independent
clause
First part of an independent clause, essential dependent clause, second part of the independent clause
Although the girl wanted to eat ice cream, she had to finish her dinner first.
Compound-Complex Sentences
These sentences are a combination of compound and complex sentences. They have two independent clauses
as well as one or more dependent clauses, and they must follow the rules of both sentence types.
Although the girl, who loved sweets, wanted to eat ice cream, she had to finish her dinner first.
Again, it’s a good exercise to identify these sentence types in your own and others’ writing. Looking for more
advice on how to move to more advanced levels of English? Check out these tips.
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#13: Don’t start multiple sentences with the same word or phrase
You should strive to avoid repetition in your
writing. In particular, you want to stay away
from writing multiple sentences that begin
with the same word. Ideally, you want every
sentence in a paragraph to start differently.
Luckily, this tip is fairly simple to implement.
Write down the first word of each sentence
in a paragraph you’ve written. See any
duplicates? Focus on trying to begin those
sentences differently.
Can you change the sentence structure to move the word elsewhere? Can you find a synonym for the word? At
the very least, you should try to move the contents of the paragraph around so that the two sentences starting
with the same word are farther apart.
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#14: Avoid faulty parallelism
When writing two or more matching ideas or items in a series, make sure each is parallel or grammatically equal.
This means the ideas or items must be constructed similarly. Let’s look at an example of faulty parallelism:
The dog liked to play fetch and eating treats.
This series includes two items that are not grammatically similar, “play fetch” and “eating treats.” The sentence
can be corrected in a number of ways:
The dog liked playing fetch and eating treats.
The dog liked to play fetch and eat treats.
The dog liked to play fetch and to eat treats.
Sometimes a parallel isn’t incorrect but can still
make your writing feel clunky. Let’s look at
another example:
She drove slowly and with care.
While this sentence is not grammatically
incorrect, you can improve it by making the
elements more strictly parallel:
She drove slowly and carefully.
This general principle of consistency should be applied across your entire document. Make sure you follow the
same conventions throughout your work with headings, spelling choices, paragraph formatting, spacing, and
other style choices.
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#15: Avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing
Particularly in academic writing, it’s common (and often necessary) to incorporate information from published
sources into your own work, but you have to be careful not to plagiarize, which means to steal another’s work
and pass it off as your own.
So how do you walk this fine line? There are two main methods you can use to refer to someone else’s work.
The first is to paraphrase or put their writing in your own words. Here are a few guidelines that can help:

Don’t take notes as you read. Instead, focus on understanding what is written. Read it over several
times if necessary.

Be selective. You don’t need to paraphrase everything you’ve read, only the points that are relevant to
what you’re writing.

Explain it to someone. If you’re having trouble putting information into your own words in written form,
try doing it verbally first. Share the information with a friend or family member.

Don’t refer to the source as you write. When you’re ready to start paraphrasing, put the source work
away and just go from your own memory.
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#16: Avoid plagiarism by quoting
Sometimes it’s difficult to paraphrase, or perhaps you want to include a very specific argument or piece of
information in your work. In these cases, quoting your source is a good idea.
When you add a quotation, make sure you explain why it’s there. Readers should be able to understand how the
quoted text connects to the rest of the piece. Generally, you want to include a signal and an assertion.
A signal lets readers know that a quotation is coming, and it usually includes a reference to the author and/or
the work. The assertion lays out the relationship between the quote and your work.
The proper use of quotation marks is crucial when referring to sources [assertion]. Writing Tutorial
Services for Indiana University notes [signal], “Using another person’s phrases or sentences without
putting quotation marks around them is considered plagiarism even if the writer cites in her own text the
source of the phrases or sentences she has quoted”
(http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/plagiarism.shtml).
When writing for an American audience, make sure you put everything that comes directly from the source
work in double quotation marks (“), not single (‘).
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#17: Get to know idioms
Many ESL writers make the mistake of focusing solely on expanding their vocabulary, but improving your
knowledge of idioms is just as important, particularly at more advanced levels.
Watch for outdated or foreign idioms.
What makes idioms so tough is that they’re constantly evolving. They grow stale and are often tied to a specific
location. An idiom that is very popular in England may be totally unfamiliar to an American English speaker.
Make sure the resources you use have recently been updated and are written for your intended audience.
Read the newspaper.
The newspaper is local and very
current. In it, you’ll find frequent
use of colloquial language, which
means more idioms. If you run
across a phrase or word you don’t
know, take note and look it up.
Ask.
Native speakers are the absolute
best source for idioms, but you won’t learn if you don’t take the time to ask. When someone uses a phrase
that’s unfamiliar to you, ask him or her to explain it and use it in another context. Write it down so you can refer
to it later.
Here are two great resources for studying idioms:


Idiom Site
TheFreeDictionary.com’s Idiom Dictionary
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#18: Learn commonly confused terms
Many words in the English language have similar spellings, sound alike, or have very close definitions. As a
result, these words are commonly misused, particularly by ESL writers. As with idioms, it pays to add them to
your efforts to expand your vocabulary. Learn commonly confused terms in pairs, and practice using both terms
correctly.
Here are a few examples to get you
started:
Effect vs. Affect
This isn’t always true, but “effect” is
most often a noun (as in “the
effect”), while “affect” is a verb. By
keeping that simple rule in mind,
you’ll be correct in most instances.
Here’s a more detailed explanation.
Lead vs. Led
“Lead” is a present-tense verb as well as a noun in many instances (such as “the lead on a project”), while “led”
is a past-tense verb and is never used as a noun. Click here for more info.
Accept vs. Except
These two words sound very similar, especially to ESL speakers, so it’s no surprise that they’re often confused in
writing. “Accept” is a verb that means “to consent or receive.” “Except” is a preposition that means “excluding
or apart from.” Here’s a great list of example sentences using “accept” and “except.”
That vs. Which
Both words are pronouns and are used in similar situations, but here’s the difference: When writing in American
English, “that” is used before restrictive clauses, and “which” is used before nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive
clause cannot be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning, while a nonrestrictive clause can.
Learn more about how to correctly use “that” and “which” here.
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#19: Read your written words aloud
Good writing has a natural rhythm. Often, it’s easier to tell if your writing flows well when you hear it out loud. If
you find yourself tripping over a sentence, it’s likely your readers will, too. Does a paragraph seem to drag on
forever? Find ways to cut it down. You’ll get a sense of how your writing works overall.
Reading aloud can also help you pinpoint problems you might not notice on the page. You may read a paper a
dozen times and still fail to notice that you’ve left out a key term or made a grammatical error. This is because
your brain is too efficient, reading what should be there instead of what is. Luckily, this kind of autocorrecting
doesn’t happen as much when you read your words aloud.
You can also improve your writing by reading others’ professional work out loud. What does it sound like? How
does it feel as you read it? This will give you a better reference point for assessing your own writing.
Check out these additional tips on how to read to improve your writing.
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#20: Shorter is better
Your goal is to be clear and concise. The longer the sentence, the more likely it will confuse your readers or have
subject/verb agreement problems. Sentences with many equally weighted phrases and clauses are difficult to
understand.
In most cases, you want to keep each sentence to three lines or less. If you write a sentence that is more than
four lines, look for a way to break it into two sentences.
The same is true for paragraphs. On average, you want four to six sentences per paragraph for academic writing,
and you can use very short paragraphs of one to two sentences to draw attention to something. Remember,
paragraphs are designed to organize your writing for readers, making it easier for them to tell where a point
begins and ends. If you start a new idea, start a new paragraph.
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#21: Select the right dictionary for your audience
There are regional spelling differences between English-speaking countries. For example, the word that’s spelled
“labour” in the UK and Canada is spelled “labor” in the US.
So how do you keep up with all these minor differences? Easy! Just change the dictionary your spellchecker
uses.
In Microsoft Word, you can set one language as your permanent preference. First, select the “File” tab. Then
click “Options.” A pop-up box will appear, and in the left column, select “Language.” Here you'll find the option
to choose editing languages. You can select the language you need and then hit the “Set as Default” button.
Microsoft Word is updated often, so search “set Microsoft Word language preference” on Google if these
instructions do not appear to match your version of Microsoft Word.
It’s even easier to
change the language for
a single document or
even just a paragraph.
First, open the
document, and then
select the text you'd like
to check. Then look at
the very bottom bar.
Next to the page and
word count, you'll see
the language. Click on it,
and you'll be given the
option to select a
language. Hit “OK” and
you’re good to go!
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#22: Search for examples on Google
With so many variations and exceptions to the rule in the English language, it’s hard to master them all.
Unfortunately, there’s also not always a resource available for the specific question you have in mind. So how do
you figure out what’s correct?
Use Google to your advantage.
With just a quick search, you can find hundreds, thousands, or even millions of examples about the specific use
of terms and phrases. Do a search for an exact match for the phrase (or phrases) you’re considering, and then
read through the results to determine whether your wording is correct. To do this, put quotation marks around
the phrase to ensure Google only shows you exact matches.
For example, let’s say you’re wondering whether you should write “at Purdue University” or “in Purdue
University.” Do a search for both phrases.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Google returns over 23.7 million results for “at” and only 1.5 million for “in,”
so you already have a good indicator that “at” is the correct choice. If you’re still not certain, you can click on the
results to read multiple examples that may guide you to the right choice.
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#23: Expand your writing horizons
Most ESL writers focus on mastering the rules and conventions of one particular type of writing, often academic
writing, but learning and practicing other forms of writing can arm you with new strengths and tools that you
wouldn’t have developed otherwise.
So what types of writing should you try? Here are just a few ideas:

Letters

Business proposals

Reports

Short stories

Articles

Presentations

Essays

Music lyrics

Poetry

Screenplays

Blog posts

Jokes

Children’s books

Memoirs

Journal entries

Love letters
Research has found that language learning is affected by your attitude and feelings. If you’re feeling anxious,
stressed, or discouraged about your abilities, you may actually be inhibiting your growth as an ESL writer.
Finding a way to make writing fun again can help you get back on track, so find a format that you’re excited
about and get started!
Check out these fun prompts for essay writing for more ideas.
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BONUS TIP: Double-check your spelling and grammar checker
Don’t rely solely on the guidance of your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker. It can—and will—lead
you to make mistakes.
When you misspell a word, the spellchecker will
offer suggestions, but sometimes it doesn’t know
what word you intended to use. As a result, it can
offer close but incorrect recommendations. The
Internet is full of funny autocorrects from texts and
emails. Don’t let your writing fall prey to this
phenomenon.
Also, your spellchecker may overlook a mistake if
the word is spelled right but used incorrectly. For
example, you may have written “interesting” when
you meant “interested” or “accept” when “except”
was correct.
Grammar is very complex and often subjective, which makes it difficult for computers to correctly assess your
writing. To make matters more complicated, there are regional variations and other differences depending on
what style you follow. At ProofreadingServices.com, we know this all too well. As the world’s leading
professional proofreading company for ESL writers, we help people correct their grammar in important
documents all the time. If you’re interested in learning more about what we can do for you, click here.
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You made it!
Congratulations! You’re on your way to better ESL writing.
This guide is based on hands-on research into which tips and techniques are helpful to ESL writers, and I hope
you’ve found it to be a useful and valuable tool. There’s a lot more to learn, but if you read this guide and come
back to it every now and again, you’re off to a great start.
What’s next?
Most of these tips aren’t easy to master in a single study session, so dive into them more deeply one at a time. I
also encourage you to regularly visit my ESL blog, The ESL Inquirer, for more helpful tips, exercises, and
information that can help you become a better ESL writer. There’s an email signup box on the blog if you’d like
to receive regular updates when I publish something new.
Need more help?
Contact me at ProofreadingServices.com to find out more about the editing services we offer to ESL writers just
like you. (Or just contact me to say hi! I’d love to hear from you.)
Before you go . . .
Do you know people who might benefit from reading this guide? If you have friends or family who are struggling
to improve their ESL writing skills, why not send this to them? They’ll appreciate that you’ve taken the time to
think about their needs and help them improve.
I’d like to thank you ahead of time for spreading this free ESL resource. I hope it will benefit you and other ESL
writers!
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Copyright © 2014 ProofreadingServices.com. All rights reserved.

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