Orientation to College Writing for International Students

“I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.” 
--Author William Zinsser  

How will you have to write at Elizabethtown College?

Because writing remains a key means of communication in many fields, American colleges require students to write frequently. Many professors require research papers in their classes, but some classes call for different forms of writing, such as argumentative papers or literary criticisms. Other classes call for a more creative or specialized form of writing—there are short story classes, for instance, and business classes where a professor may assign a written sales pitch. The length of assignments can vary from one or two pages to twenty or more, but there is one common thread in all of these assignments—they all require proficient English skills.

What are some common problems in writing by international students?

While some international students are solid writers in English, others exhibit varying degrees of difficulty. Many of the problems that professors see in papers from international students stem from the fact that the student has not yet mastered English grammar, which can have different traits than the student’s first language. Some students make mistakes with plural nouns in English, while others may make mistakes with articles and prepositions. Some write in the wrong verb tense. Sometimes students struggle with choosing the best words in English—sometimes their word choices are inaccurate, and sometimes they are overly simple.

Author William Zinsser offers this summary of English as compared to other languages: “It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong.”

What can you do to prepare to write well in college here?

First of all, read books or magazines, in addition to research articles, written in English. Reading familiarizes us with the language, often in ways we don’t realize, and even reading something for pleasure can be helpful.

Second, get in the habit of writing more often in English in your daily life. Even writing things such as post-it notes or emails can be a form of practice.

Third, take advantage of any English class you are offered. Even though you may be feeling good about your speaking skills in English, writing in English requires a more detailed knowledge of the language, and any class can help you make even more progress.

What can you do to improve your writing during the semester?

First of all, start your assignments early. This will allow you ample time to draft, revise and proofread your paper to ensure you have caught any errors and it is well written in English. It will also allow you ample time to get feedback from someone else, such as your professor or a writing tutor, before you hand it in for a grade.

Second, get in the habit of doing all of your pre-writing assignments in English. Writing notes on sources, an outline and a draft in English can help you practice and improve your English skills. It also allows your professor or tutor to give you better feedback on those assignments.

Third, sign up for sessions with a writing tutor at The Writing Wing. Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing has friendly and qualified tutors who are comfortable working with international students. Appointments are easy to make in BSC 226. We strongly encourage you to make an appointment early in the writing process so your tutor can help you improve your writing rather than just proofread your paper before it is due.

Can a friend help me with my writing?

Yes, as long as they don’t write for you. Any writer can benefit from feedback from others, because others can point out mistakes and problems with our thoughts and content. But it’s important that you be the person who wrote the initial work and then be the person who improves your work after getting feedback. If someone else writes your work for you as a perceived favor, you both may be participating in a case of plagiarism. Plagiarism occurs whenever someone passes off someone else’s work as their own. Regardless of whether you seek help from a friend, it's a good idea to see a writing tutor for more help with your writing.

Where Can I Practice My Writing Skills in English?

Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing has prepared online tutorials for grammar and punctuation that you might find helpful. Access them at The Writing Wing’s Web site, which is listed below.

Helpful Links

Students who speak a first language other than English sometimes need to improve their proficiency in English grammar and punctuation. Please review these online grammar and punctuation tutorials. These exercises are aimed at helping students practice several concepts that often show up as errors in student papers—articles, verb tenses, plural nouns, apostrophes, commas, semi-colons and colons.

The Writing Wing at Elizabethtown College

Author William Zinsser, an expert on writing in English, penned this article, “Writing English as a Second Language,” in The American Scholar: http://theamericanscholar.org/writing-english-as-a-second-language/#.UaTmc1_D-70