Creating content in English when you’re not a native speaker can be intimidating and challenging.
Trust me, as a native German speaker, who decided to focus on writing technical content in English, I know how demanding it can sometimes be.
Nevertheless, English is probably one of the most used languages on the Internet. You can find thousands of blog posts, tutorials, and e-books by non-native speakers online. Isn’t it just great that we can share our ideas and knowledge with the world so easily?
Today I want to share with you 5 tips and some handy tools that can help you improve your technical content writing skills as a non-native speaker.
#1 Let go of your inner nay-sayer
We all know that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. But naturally, most of us do anyway. With so many excellent writers out there, it’s no wonder that we sometimes doubt ourselves and our abilities – especially as non-native English speakers. As a result, we often don’t even dare to sit at the desks to write.
- Do the thing anyway.
- If you doubt your ability to write, let me assure you that the only way to improve your writing is to actually write.
- Be patient with yourself when you make mistakes or when your writing sounds terribly strange. Learn from your mistakes and experiences.
Practice makes perfect, and over time, you’re sure to get better.
Being a non-native speaker also doesn’t mean that your content is worth less than content from other authors. If you understandably share your knowledge, people will usually be happy to overlook spelling and grammar mistakes. They may have to concentrate a little more to understand your article, but in the end, when the message is clear, they’ll be glad they learned something from you.
So don’t let your inner critic stop you from sharing your thoughts and knowledge!
#2 Write in English and only in English
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s crucial to write your English blog posts and such in English. Stay away from writing in your first language and then using translation software to translate the text into English. I believe that the learning effect is relatively low if you do it this way.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you want to learn how to make pizza. Instead of making one yourself, you order pizza to go. While you can see what ingredients they used on the pizza, you have no idea how the chef made the dough, what tomato sauce they used, or how long the food stayed in the oven. Ultimately, you won’t be much wiser on how to make a good pizza.
The same is true for excessively using translators. Sure, the software is getting better at producing accurate translations – even in context. But it won’t help you improve your technical content writing skills as a non-native speaker.
Instead, write in English and only in English. For your first draft, get everything you want to say out of your head and onto your screen without worrying about spelling or grammar. Then, edit that draft and focus on refining your language, correcting spelling and grammar mistakes, and so on.
If you get stuck at this point and need help, you have my official permission to use translators. Again, though, limit your use of translation software by translating only one to three sentences rather than lengthy paragraphs or entire blog posts. Of course, you should also always look closely at the translation to a)learn from it and b)not blindly copy any errors.
If your native language is German, I recommend you read my blog post about the most common mistakes Germans make in English. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about it!
#3 Keep it short and straightforward
You don’t need to impress anyone with sophisticated and verbose language when you can just keep it short and simple (see what I did there?).
If you spot a word in your writing for which you know a simpler alternative, go for it immediately. Your users are usually reading your technical content because they want to learn something, so writing too complicated can backfire. Plus, you’re probably writing for an international audience – not everyone understands English fluently. Why make it even more difficult for them to understand your content?
The longer a sentence is, the more the reader must concentrate on following your train of thought. Besides, suppose the sentence contains spelling or grammatical errors. In that case, the reading flow is further impeded, confusing, or even frustrating the reader.
This does not mean that you should avoid long sentences altogether. But try to focus on writing short and medium-length sentences to make your text more readable.
How long is too long, I hear you ask? The Oxford Guide on Plain English suggests limiting the average sentence length to 15–20 words.
Reading your paragraphs aloud can help you find passages where you need to shorten and simplify your writing. Also, use the Hemingway writing app to help you quickly identify these phrases and words. We’ll talk a bit more about this app in a moment.
#4 Brush up on your grammar and vocabulary
As mentioned earlier, your readers will surely forgive you for some spelling and grammar mistakes. Nevertheless, this probably still interrupts their reading flow. Naturally, you want to provide a pleasant and seamless reading experience!
It can be tricky to find errors in your own writing (I’m speaking from experience here …) – but there are a few ways you can still end up with an (almost) error-free blog post:
- Take long breaks between writing and editing your text. I like to come back to my content only after 24–48 hours to reread it with fresh eyes.
- Use the built-in grammar and spell checkers in your writing software. However, always look closely at your mistake and the corrected version to learn from it.
- Ask a friend to proofread your text. As the saying goes: four eyes are better than two!
A rich vocabulary adds more variety to your content and helps you get your ideas out of your head and onto the screen. If you know many words, you’ll be able to write more fluently and quickly. After all, you don’t have to keep stopping to type because you can’t think of a word. Also, use a thesaurus when writing to learn more synonyms for some of your overused vocabularies to get variety in your content.
Finally, focus your media consumption on English content. Read books, watch movies and T.V. series, listen to music, read its lyrics, chat with people, etc. Find a good mix of listening, reading, talking, and writing to improve your English writing skills as a non-native speaker and ultimately your confidence.
#5 Adjust your writing to the content type and audience
Technical content comes in many different forms, all of which need to be written a little differently. For example, a blog post may sound more casual than a whitepaper. Your target audience also requires that you adjust your writing style accordingly. For example, you write an email to a colleague differently than to a client.
Therefore, you need to learn how to create different styles and tones in your writing. The better your content fits the medium and the better it appeals to the reader, the more successful it will be.
Regularly write different types of content for different audiences, and you’ll get the hang of it. At some point, you won’t have to think twice about whether something sounds too casual or not. Naturally, reading a bunch of different content types from others helps you learn as well.
Tools to help you improve your technical content writing skills as a non-native speaker
Remember that while these tools can help you improve your technical writing skills as a non-native speaker, you still need to use your brain (obviously). Sometimes the algorithms behind the software can’t provide accurate results. This can be for many reasons – most of the time, it’s because they don’t get the context right. And context can sometimes make a big difference when it comes to translating text or detecting grammatical errors.
Note: I use these tools myself daily – this is not a sponsored post, just my honest recommendations to you!
I used to rely on Google Translate but found DeepL to be much better at translating tricky sentences into something understandable and readable. It also captures the context of a sentence quite well and shows synonyms when you click on a translated word, which I find particularly handy!
Chances are high that you are already using Grammarly to find spelling and grammar errors in your text. Due to my freelance work as a technical content writer, I invested in the premium version a long time ago. Nevertheless, I think that even the free version can help improve the quality of your content quickly.
What can I say? I just love using Google products. So it’s no surprise that I prefer Google Docs over other writing software. I love working with the tool because it is easy to use, and I can quickly share documents with clients, most of whom also use Google. But what I like most about it is that it offers a sort of auto-suggest/auto-complete feature. For some sentences, the tool detects my intentions as I type and provides a corresponding suggested spelling that I can quickly accept by hitting the tab key. This can be such a time saver, especially when writing my drafts!
The Hemingway web app helps you improve your content’s readability by highlighting complex sentences, complicated words, adverbs, and passive voice. I use it mostly to get another “opinion” on my text and to put the finishing touches on my writing. It also tells you how readable your text is using a grading system – the lower the number, the easier your content is for most readers to understand.
Learning a language is a long journey – I even discover something new about my native language regularly!
Follow the tips presented in this blog post and check out some of the suggested tools to effectively improve your technical content writing skills as a non-native speaker. And most importantly, don’t let your inner critic stop you from sharing your thoughts with the world!
P.S.: Let’s be real – there are certainly some mistakes in this blog post. You’re welcome to let me know about them in the comments. And please don’t think that just because I give you tips on improving your English writing skills, I don’t need to work on mine. 😉
It’s a lengthy journey, my fellow coding writers!
This post’s featured image is by Dan Dimmock.