Intercontinental Ink: Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English

Audience. It is arguably the most important factor to keep in mind when constructing a document. In a university setting, this could include classmates, friends, professors, future employers, academic communities, or review boards. Although it’s necessary to think of your readers as a whole, do you also remember the audience’s culture? More specifically, their language?

It may not be immediately apparent when considering your audience, but chances are high that someone who doesn’t speak your native language will be reading your writing. Do you write pieces that are posted online? Anyone in the world can access these documents—don’t exclude them because you forgot about them! So if you’re a native English speaker and your readers are Korean or Saudi Arabian or Chinese, you need to be aware that not only is English not their native language, but they also carry along different cultural values associated with his or her ability to understand and process your writing.

Here are some items to consider when writing to international audiences:

  • Be concise. Know what you’re saying; say it clearly.
  • You might get a kick out of idioms, but it’s possible your audience can’t make heads or tails of it. Avoid when possible.
  • Don’t not end your sentence in a preposition if re-arranging it is going to make is sound awkward. If it sounds strange to a native English speaker, it’s going to sound strange to a non-native English speaker.
  • Although the word that can sometimes make English sentences seem wordy, many other languages mandate their equivalent of that to be used in writing in order to make grammatical sense. Just because you can omit it in English and the sentence will still make sense, doesn’t necessarily mean a non-native English speaker will understand the sentence without using that.
  • Literal is safe. Not to discourage humorous or innovative writing styles, but if there’s a possibility your reader doesn’t have as strong of a command of the English language as you, then be precise.

Writing is a part of culture. When taken into consideration, it allows for a more expansive, comprehensible, and accessible document.

Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important”

The Great Grammar Debate

It’s a normal occurrence in a writing center appointment. I will ask, “what would you like to work on today?”  The response typically includes — or starts with — the word “grammar.”

I want to stress, first and foremost, that this is okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting your college paper to contain Standard American English grammar, especially considering how it generally is part of your grade. That said, many writing assignments have grammar and mechanics as part of a paper’s grade, but it often accounts for roughly 10 percent or less of that paper’s grade. That means there’s another 90 percent of that paper to work on, so why wouldn’t we talk about that, too? Put another way, a paper can have absolutely perfect grammar and still fail miserably. Continue reading “Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important””

The Consultant Diaries

pic of Corrine V.My first semester at The Writing Center, I did not have the opportunity to work in Bessey, the main center.  I was only a consultant in the BCC and the Library. This semester, however, I am working a majority of my hours in Bessey and am noticing a big difference in the type of work I do and the clients that come.

For starters, while working in Bessey I have been significantly more involved in The Writing Center activities.  I have now conducted 3 workshops and have been scheduled for Online Consulting, which I never did last semester.  Furthermore, working in Bessey, I am in constant contact with my fellow consultants.  In the satellite locations, I really only saw the consultants that worked within those satellites, and this isn’t to say that I did not enjoy working in those places, but that I did not have the opportunity to get to know a lot of other consultants. Continue reading “The Consultant Diaries”

Need Writing Ideas?

OK…you got the assignment, only you are not sure what to write about.  How do you narrow down ideas, or even get ideas at all?  Do you realize that you are probably holding the brightest idea of all in your hands?  The article 12 Places to Find Awesome Ideas is a great place to start!  Think of your  friends, family, and coworkers, do they have any interesting stories for you to use as a basis for your writing?  Consider your interests and skills…do you like to do anything crazy or unique?  Instructors often get hundreds of essays writing about the same topics, it is refreshing to read something “outside of the box” yet that fulfills the requirements of the assignment. You are special and have a story to tell.  Check out these ideas and then make an appointment at a Writing Center branch today…we would love to hear your story!

hands holding a light
Writing Forward-Writing Ideas Blog


Grammar isn’t the Bad Guy

The Great Grammar DebateOne of the phrases I hear the most from students coming to The Writing Center is, “I’m terrible at grammar.” What’s highly interesting about this phrase is two things: 1.) Generally speaking, students say “grammar,” but actually define that term as including “grammar, spelling, and punctuation,” and 2.) In my experience, 9 out of every 10 people who have said that really aren’t bad at it at all. It seems like, for a variety of reasons, this idea of “proper grammar” has become some sort of multi-headed beast in peoples’ minds; an unconquerable set of rules, punctuation marks, spelling, etc., that they just don’t have a chance at mastering. FALSE.

Firebreathing dragon, with the word "Gramma" in the flames.
Image via, edited by Gines

Being good at grammar isn’t something that everybody just inherently knows; it’s like a muscle that grows over time as you continually learn more about how to strengthen it. Grammar also isn’t this set of rigid rules designed to make writing difficult, but rather the resource that helps you to communicate well through your writing. In reality, it’s no different from the chemist using the right beaker to successfully conduct the experiment, or the violinist who must tune their strings to the correct pitch before a performance.

Additionally, using proper grammar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crafting flourishing sentences of “erstwhile’s,” “thou’s,” and “fortnight’s.” In fact, using it correctly doesn’t even guarantee that it’s a good sentence. What actually makes writing interesting and enjoyable to read is largely based on the content. Grammar, then, is the vehicle that helps you deliver those important words to your audience. Think of it like this: grammar is not a set of strict rules looking for every opportunity to trip you up between subject-verb agreements, or using the proper tense. Instead, it is a set of tools that helps you get your message to the audience. For example, if you have an idea for a fantastic play or a witty short story, grammar isn’t your enemy here. It’s the resource you use that helps you to translate what you see in your mind to words on paper in a way that allows other people to understand what you’ve envisioned.

Ultimately, the term “proper grammar” seems to evoke this idea of rules upon rules that just aren’t easy or enjoyable to use. Then again, what chemist is going to say that his favorite part of experimentation is the beakers? What musician will say that for them, it’s all about tuning up the instrument? This applies just as much to writers. Proper grammar isn’t the reason people write; we do it to tell stories, to inspire audiences, to create something meaningful, and so much more. Grammar is simply the tool that allows us to share our ideas through writing.

How to have the best. appointment. ever.

wordle of writing terms

Whatever writing center location you visit, whoever you choose for your consultant, whenever you come—you are the main component to an effective and efficient session.  The more prepared you are, the better the session will be.  All of our staff have a passion to help you become a better writer.  We are not here to just “fix” your paper or “edit” it.  We are here to work together and apply proven strategies to improve your writing skills.  We can help you at any stage of the process: brainstorming, revising, or fine tuning the final version.

There are a few key things to bring to your appointment:

Your questions: What is your primary concern about your writing?  Please let us know specifically what you would like to address, as well as any feedback you have from your instructor.

Your assignment: You could have the best paper in the world, but if it doesn’t match the requirements of the assignment, it won’t do well when it is evaluated. If you don’t have a copy, be sure to know what is required.

What you have so far: It helps greatly to print out what you have written so far. This gives us something for both the consultant and the student to look at and discuss. We can work together with your document on the computer, but it will be harder to remember all of the things we discuss unless  we save a different version and use the review feature in Word.  Writing notes on a piece of paper allows you to remember revision ideas better and helps you learn the revision process for your next paper.

The best sessions: As a consultant of many years, I enjoy working with students at all levels and have seen pretty much every level of preparation.  Each session and each student is unique and I totally enjoy working with them.  However, to get the most out of the time, the students that are better prepared tend to have much better sessions.  The following is an example of  one of the best prepared- she has brought the assignment and two copies of her work so far.  She usually prints out the sections that she wants to make our focus during the session and comes with specific questions about relevance, word choice, structure, and grammar.  As she reads her copy I can follow along on my copy and make notes.  When she stops to discuss a point we can both make notes of things we talk about.  Through this method we are able to make great progress.

two copies of a student assignment and the assignmentRemember, every session can greatly help your writing– but you are the most important factor in having a GREAT session. Don’t be afraid if you didn’t have time for printing out two copies, or even one copy, or if your computer broke, or if you sent yourself the wrong file– we can still talk about your writing process, brainstorm your ideas, or talk about writing strategies…just be sure to come!

We look forward to having the best session ever…with YOU!

The Great Grammar Debate: An Introduction

The Great Grammar DebateThis is the first post in a series on the grammar debate among consultants and the larger field of writing center studies. Here at MSU we see lots of clients who come to us for help with “grammar,” which we then caution that we do more than grammar and are interested in having a conversation about their writing, versus just pointing out grammatical “errors.”

But, at the same time, grammar IS what we do. For example, a resume or personal statement, high stakes documents, with grammatical errors may restrict a client from getting a job, getting into graduate school, or receiving a scholarship.

We don’t require our consultants to be grammar experts; I, for one, am certainly not. But I did stick pretty closely to grammar conventions of Standard American English for this blog post. Would you have read this far if I had not? What would it mean, or even look like, to not write with these conventions? To not consultant or tutor with these conventions? This series on The Great Grammar Debate considers these questions, and more.

At MSU we have consultants who love grammar, some who dislike grammar, and a lot of folks who are indifferent. As such, in this series you’ll hear from a variety of viewpoints. Our intention is not to arrive at an answer or to come out on one side or the other. We believe there are multiple perspectives to this debate, however it’s important to destabilize a seemingly invincible understanding of grammar in writing centers.