Writing In English As A Second Language

Zinsser_CasualTwo weeks ago I wrote about heroes and told you about a few of mine. Sadly, one of them – William Zinsser – died a few days later; he was 93 years old.

Today I want to remember him by doing something that would surely please him. I want to share with you a speech he gave in 2009 to a group of international students about writing in English as a second language. I have used his words as much as possible.

Zinsser said that he was “hopelessly in love in with English because it’s plain and strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise (exact) shades (differences) of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex (difficult), that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English – if it’s used right.”

Good English writing, according to Zinsser, begins with good nouns and good verbs. “The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple…nouns…of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road.… When you use those words, you make contact with the deepest feelings and memories of your readers.” Never use a noun, he said, because you think it sounds more impressive.

“Your best tools are short, plain…active verbs…. If you could write…using only active verbs” – like he wishes, she learns, or they discover –  your writing would automatically be clear, warm, and full of life. “So fall in love with active verbs,” says Zinsser. “They are your best friends.”

Zinsser told the international students that there are four principles (basic ideas) of writing good English:

Clarity. “If it’s not clear, you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”

Simplicity. “Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. ‘Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,’ a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. ‘If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.’ Writing is not something you have to decorate to make yourself look smart.”

Brevity. “Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many…. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman…. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”

Humanity. “Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs (acting better than you are), trying to sound superior (better than someone else).”

If you want to read more of Zinsser’s suggestions for writing in English, read Learning to write – in English on my web site. And if you’d like to learn more about writing from him, consider getting his book On Writing Well.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of Successful English, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo of William Zinsser from his website.

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22 Responses to Writing In English As A Second Language

  1. emiliano says:

    Well, the book is in my kindle just in this moment, thank you so much
    dear Warren.
    For us that simplicity, clearly, brevety, are the subjects that make English language so difficult
    but even they are the qualities because I love the language.

    Years ago I knew and read what you have said us about English, but is nearly impossible for
    me to write or speak so short, clear and with the humanity simple words give to our work.

    Again, a big thank you Warren I´m going to start reading the book at the moment just the same
    as your blog.


  2. emiliano says:

    Another subject of English is that for me it is even more easy to open my heart when I write
    about personal things, it could be because using a different language it is like feeling more
    free to say some things I woudn´t say in my own language.
    Shame it is out of the question writing in this loving English, doing that after some time I have written
    personal subjects in Spanish too.

    First time I wrote about depression, my own depression of three years ago, I have to write in
    English, I tried of describing it and giving hopes to people that could suffering it.
    Doing that in Spanish was too strong for that moment.

    A year after I could write about it in my own language, just incredible but true.

    How difficult is to write in the way Willian Zinsser and you said.



    Good tips. I’ll read the three books suggested in the article for improve my writing skills.

  4. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    The best characteristc in this subject is simplicity. Brevity is also as good as the others.

  5. Dan says:

    Hello everyone.

    I share with Emi the same feeling/experience of being more open when using a second language.
    Probably it’s not just that, it’s also the filter of the monitor and knowing that the others are far far away.
    One other variable to the equation could be some psychological factor I am not aware of.

    I find Zinsser’s suggestion very useful not just for writing, but for everyday life.
    I really like those tips. Simple, to the point, clear, just the opposite of some lawyers, politicians and preachers that are nebulous, vague, puzzling, enigmatic and so on.


  6. leila says:

    In china,at least during my studying ,teachers ask students to write some complex sentences as much as possible in English exams.Because if you do that ,you will might get higher grade.Teachers will think your command of English is excellent. Of course you have to comfirm your sentences are right ,no wrong in spelling or gramma.I know simple thing is strong ,but I need good grade.If I am not ,ok,I need to prepare to my parents nagging.

  7. hayder says:

    thanks a lot it is useful ideas >>>i will try improve my english because i love it ….thanks so much dr.jeff

  8. HILARIO says:

    PRECISE AND CONCISE while keeping yourself within the topic is pure art in motion. Zinsser is precisely that: an artist of the wording.
    If I have well understood Zinsser tips:
    Clarity: You write it as it´s.
    Simplicity: Less writing is more.
    Brevity: Good writings, better when are brief.
    Humanity: First you think about what you are going to write before you write what you have thought about before.

  9. emiliano says:

    Good and short twice good.
    That´s is a saying here.

  10. Dan says:

    Hey everyone.

    If you guys think about it, bad words perfectly fit with
    Zinsser` list.
    Most bad words are direct, clear, simple and short.


  11. Dan says:

    Hi guys.

    I’m not sure about that, but something I have noticed about English, is that it seems weak on the cursing/insulting department.
    Everything revolves around the F word.

    It might not be something to be proud of, but it seems that in Italian and all the dialects/languages we have here there are way many more options for cursing.

    What do you guys think?


  12. Warren Ediger says:

    Cursing and insulting are deeply embedded (buried deeply) in every culture and, therefore, a part of the language. It’s very difficult to understand that part of the language unless you understand the culture; even American English and British English speakers have difficulty understanding each other’s curses/insults.

    This post is not about that part of the language.

  13. HILARIO says:

    It’s hard to find out out if there are people capable of properly insulting someone else, Isn`t?

    Like a lost science that provided once a frame for profiling individual mindsets of people, now only few can discern what a real idiot differs from an asshole, or to edge whether an incautious has nothing to do with a fair person and that evil people can either be stupid or smart. You need to be clever in order to insult the right way.

    Take stupid people for instance, they categorize themselves into neutral normal stupids and unpredictably hazardous people, better not to interact with them. The villains are more predictable and less dangerous than uncategorized stupids because they fall into smartass win-to-lose kinda or the plutocrats to whom you can distinguish in their speeches by the things they avoid to mention, they manage our social fears and aspirations, and they obviously have the pan grabbed by the handle. I study and train a lot in insulting the last ones.

    Continental Anglo Saxon culture is as rich as hidden in this field, britons insult quite well in private but not in public, while overseas Anglo saxon descends from pioneer puritanism that repressed cursing and insult on the ground that God hears them. They use by them the more latin word fornication which shorted it afterwards into the multiuse word we know today.

  14. Moises says:

    Zinsser’s advice is the same that we journalists receive when we start writing in a newspaper. The more clear and direct you write, the more understandable your writing is. Thanks to a post of Warren on his blog, I find the speech that Zinsser wrote several years ago. I really enjoyed it and liked his passion for a simple writing although he was a writer himself. But Zinsser’s words contrast with what you are asked for in exams such as the IELTS, where the only way to get a higher score is precisely using the more difficult words.

  15. Dan says:

    Hi everyone.

    Given Zinsser` age I wonder how much his love for English
    helped reaching that age.
    You know what? Starting today I am going to love it more.
    If that helps, it doesn’t cost anything.


  16. Dan says:

    Hey guys.

    I have thought of someone who follows Zinsser’s tips while talking.
    Someone who says it as it is. That is James Randi, one of my heroes.
    Do you guys know him? I enjoy watching his videos.


  17. emiliano says:

    Dead Lover

    Without you one more day
    endure hell every morning
    in my eternal loneliness.

    I thought you’d be with me always
    and you go, you’re gone
    saying goodbye you left me.

    Not a single word more
    today I woke up without you
    where have you gone love.

    This world was not for you
    so young you left
    not knowing I am not living any more

    Your absence I can not face
    wherever you are soon we´ll be
    traveling together.

    Another new path for walk
    hand in hand forever
    happy to be together again.

    To run a new life, an endless one
    that is my hope that leads me
    to spend the rest of my life without you.

    One day and another
    travelling far away home
    too soon you went away.

    That´s my way of living
    waiting to be at your side
    it is a long lonely run

    Why have you to go
    that´s my question every morning
    when I don´t find an answer

    Not your hand to hold
    not your body to caress
    not your voice to listen to

    Soon will be together
    sure I am about my feelings
    be quite and wait me

    Which ever land
    you could be
    endless love will find you.


  18. lili:) says:

    Thank you very much Dear Warren for letting us know about the passing away of this well respected English teacher William Zinsser.

    I’m very sorry to hear the sad news. But dying at 93 is not too young. Still, no one wants to die.

    Yes, thank you Emiliano for asking where I was. I’m here again now. I’ve read your Love Poem which tells the feelings of a lonely person. Am I right? Come on Emiliano, write something to praise beautiful days in Spain. More importantly, try to go out more often with Cuca. You said your friends said you and Cuca should get out of your house more often. Your friends are right. Don’t let the sun rises and goes down without putting a shadow on you.

    I was a bit sad two days ago because I received my English Assessments result which says I had not attained a pass on the Speaking Test paper.

    I passed the same Speaking assessment four years ago. I had continued to work hard for four years and I failed it this time!!!

    It’s not all sad news. I passed the Writing paper, for the first time. So, it does pay to work hard. I would be sadder if I hadn’t passed this paper.

    Anyway, I’m not going to take this assessment next year. Hopefully I’m still enthusiastic about English later and I’ll try again when I’m ready to take the challenge. The Exam board will become very rich if there are more silly people like me taking its exams every year.

    Please write more everyone.

    Best Regards.


  19. emiliano says:

    Lili, usually poems come better with sad feelings that in cheerful time, even
    good novels have the same rule,
    Being happy it is difficult to find time to write, why? I don´t really know but
    it is just what happens.

    Happy now of seeing you here again and thank you very much for your good
    I don´t know you have read my post telling everybody that I have been in Amsterdam,
    Brussels, and other beautiful cities of Netherland and Belgium.

    Thanks again dear. emiliano

  20. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Warren is right when he says “Cursing and insulting are deeply embedded (buried deeply) in every culture and, therefore, a part of the language. It’s very difficult to understand that part of the language unless you understand the culture; even American English and British English speakers have difficulty understanding each other’s curses/insults.” How can someone say that there is a straight intention when we say curses? It depends on the culture and also on a person who uses curses. I specifically don’t like to say curses especially at home because there are children listening to them and I guess grown up people must to show good exemples to young people. One thing is right: young people learn bad things veery quickly. So we must be carefull.

  21. lili:) says:

    Hi Emiliano

    Thank you for advice about good poems and novels writing. Why hadn’t I thought about that before? Poems expressing sad feelings are much better than those with happy feelings. I’m not good at expressing sad feelings. Perhaps that’s why I don’t get a very good grade for my writings.

    I have read about your happy holidays and a Longines watch that you bought in Amsterdam. I also read about your TAG Heuer watch that you bought at Munich Airport last year. So what brand of watch did you buy in Harrods?

    Emiliano you have very expensive taste in watches. A good watch is a good investment. You certainly know how to invest your money.

    I’m totally the opposite. I only have cheap watches. The last watch I bought cost me £10. It’s quite pretty but it’s not a famous brand watch. The only expensive items I have now are my iPads and my smartphones. However, I saw their prices fall like a stone soon after I bought them. Not good investments, but I can use them to learn English and read news.

    Thank you again for tips about good poems and novels writings. I still have so much to learn.

    Best Regards


  22. emiliano says:

    Lili, it is just incredible that you have not get a good grade for you writting as it is nearly perfect, in fact one of the best
    To me Hilario and you have the top nivel in the ESL´s Blog but may be your nerves didn´t go well when you are doing
    the test.
    It is quite different being here, relaxed and with time to write which ever subject we have in our minds.
    By the way, you have a good memory too remembering my experiences about traveling and watches, but be informed
    that Cuca thinks all these watches are a silly custom of the baby I am inside.
    Women use to be wise, wiser than us that expend our money in silly beautiful things like these watches wich use it is
    similar to the cheaper one.
    For Cuca the best could be one like yours of ten or few more euros that gives everything you could obtain of a nice
    digital watch.

    I have liked watches always till the point I like to buy one being in holidays here in Spain. It was usual that being in the
    beach some persons from Africa sell all kind of things like watches, shirts, summer dreses for women and so forth.
    All my watches were very cheap and after some time they were out of good use.

    Finally I have only one or two, a Seiko kinetic that I have used for more than fifteen or tweenty years. The Seiko being
    one of the first kinetic invented by the Japanese was expensive but very good, these kinetic watch doesn´t need battery
    to work and I was happy with it.
    It was not necessary to open it ro change or remove the battery so I can swim under the water with it, it was just perfect
    for me in all ways.

    When I was in London my economy was quite different, at last I have some money to spend because we have sold an
    apartment we have in the beach as for Cuca was not possible to go and stay in it.
    I sold it before the big crisis that was anounced by all kind of signs, and here yes I was really clever selling the flat
    for a good amount of money. After four years it would be impossible to sell it for just half the amount I received so it
    was a good chance to start the new collection of watches, now more expesive that the first I was doing.

    The Harrows was a “Maurice Lecroix” expensive and very elegant, just to be in the wrist accompanied by good clothes
    like Armany and so forth.
    Never my clothes are elegant so the watch remain in its box waiting a good occasion to exibit it.
    Just the same like the other, as the watch I use now it is another Seiko kinetic, a different one than the first that gives
    me so much pleasure.
    I would like to have now a Rolex (that is impossible by its prices) and a Omega (also very difficult by the same reason)
    Longines, Certina and other are not so expesive. Even Tag Heuer have high prices but there are some not so expensive.

    That´s all dear Lili, thank you very very much, your questions gives me the chance of writing in the Blog what is really
    the best exercise to remember my English.

    Again, I don´t understand why your professors don´t give you the high level of writing English, that´s injustice by all means.

    My best to all of you that have the patience of reading so long speech.


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