Writing in English as a non-native English speaker

Mistakes matter, just not as much as you think

I am a Brazilian software developer working in Los Angeles at the moment. I make a lot of small mistakes trying to translate the thoughts in my native language into written English. Also, I make mistakes simply because I haven’t had a proper education in English grammar. I make mistakes all the time, but I won't try to list and elucidate them all here. I will talk about workarounds.

Before doing that, I want to talk about the consequences of those mistakes. In all cases, it will be distracting. In some cases, the reader won’t understand some parts of your message. In the worst cases, the reader will understand something different from what you meant.

Definitely, the best thing to do is to actually improve your grammar and get professional guidance and feedback from English teachers. Kind colleagues might help occasionally, but they will often be more interested in the message behind those mistakes. Also, they might lack the proper knowledge, will, patience, or empathy that a professional teacher has. That said, your communication capacity should not be completed killed by your lack of language knowledge.

I think the best place to be is to be self-aware, but not embarrassed by your grammar mistakes. Self-awareness will help you learn and improve, will nudge others into having more empathy for you, and will guide you to tactics to overcome your limitations. Embarrassment would prevent you from trying — thus slowing your learning, distract you while writing, and add too much time to your writing process.

If you find yourself apologizing too much for your English skills, that might be a symptom of embarrassment. I only apologize in advance in very formal communication with people that I never met before. In my current team, I did not apologize, I just shared during a meeting that I was very comfortable being corrected for any mistakes or bad pronunciation (in my case, I struggle more with pronunciation than writing). They knew I was not a native English speaker from my first spoken words, so no need to prime them on that.

It helps a lot when you have kind co-workers that are generous in how they interpret the meaning of your words. Your team should understand that you are not a native speaker and make an effort to understand you. If you see no such effort in them, there is probably a bigger issue in place than your bad writing. No matter how good or bad your writing is, communication always requires goodwill from both parts. Lawyers are the ones who specialize in writing for hostile readers. If your team's emails look more and more like legal contracts, you should consider changing your employer, not your writing.

Prevention and Workarounds

In-person check
After sending an important email go out of your way to check with the recipient in person if they understood the message. This double-check can easily be misunderstood as distrust or bossiness, so I would be upfront that you are insecure about your writing skills and wanted to make sure you could be able to transmit the right message. Again, it helps if you are not in a hostile work environment.

Online tools
While writing every important text, like this newsletter, I have always the same three tabs open to help me: Google Translator, Google, and Grammarly.

Google Translator helps you not just with the obvious use case of translating a word from your native language. If you select the first language as English and look for the word that you are planning to use, it will show its definition, synonyms, and examples of use. Very good to check if that is the exact right word for the meaning you have in mind.

Google I use to search for expressions or even entire phrases. Always using the terms in quotation marks to find the exact expression I am planning to use. This helps me identify if it’s a common enough way to say it. Of course, do check where this expression is being used. Reddit, Q&A sites, journalistic articles, academic papers, etc. It provides good hints about using the right tone.

Grammarly is a tool that checks for spelling and grammar mistakes, but also tries to offer an opinion on style and clarity. It is a machine giving you advice though, so it is important to check if a suggestion makes sense for you. Also, there are privacy issues to consider as, in my understanding, you might be sending all your writing to them if you are using their Chrome extension.

Style

Short sentences give you fewer opportunities to make mistakes. They are also easier to read.

Formatting
Compensate fluency with visual indications of what is important in your message.

Extra blank lines between paragraphs help readers orient themselves. A paragraph should encapsulate a unique concept, maintaining coherence and completeness in itself. So it is important for the reader to visually notice this separation of topics.

Use bullet points for lists. Be it topics, to-do items, people involved in a project, present them as bullet points. It will make immediate sense for the reader and you don’t have to try to seamlessly add those to your paragraphs.

Use bold and italic, they make your job easier. I redundantly use both italics and quotation marks to make it obvious when I am quoting someone else. I use bold when I want to emphasize a keyword that would help someone that is just skimming the text.

Do not confuse workarounds with robust solutions. All of these are crutches for your writing. But often crutches are just what you need to get by until you get better.