Technical Writing Tips for Non-Native English Speakers

This article was originally published in the DEV Community.

I was born in Brazil so naturally I wrote my first articles and blog posts in Portuguese.

Back then, the idea of being able to write a complete and easy to read article in English felt distant and pretty much impossible. Even though I could read them pretty well.

As I started gearing my career toward international opportunities it felt inevitable to develop my English skills even further. So I started writing content in English.

Now, I'm far from perfect, but I'm pretty happy with everything I've learned so far. And even happier to share it.

(I also like to think that my middle school English teacher would be proud, it helps a lot).

So, without further ado, here's some tips that helped me along the way:

Overcome the mental barrier #

Writing in a language that you didn't grow up speaking can be hard by itself. But one thing that makes it worse is thinking that you need to be fluent to even start writing.

You don't. If you don't feel confident with your current English writing skills, write anyway.

One thing that can happen is that after you're done you may not feel comfortable publishing it, and that's ok. You can always come back and rewrite it after your writing skill improves.

Worst case scenario you'll have a draft, and a slight increase in your English composition skills. Win-win!

Your first paragraphs will suck #

They will. Mine did, it takes some effort.

I read somewhere on the internet that the only way to write a good article is to write 1000 crappy articles. The same applies to any skill you'll want to develop, learning goes hand in hand with repetition.

You need to be patient, focused and keep writing. Set a small time frame for writing every day, try to make it a small habit.

And whenever you feel down and think that you're not moving fast enough, remember the teachings of this funny yellow dog.

Plan your text, but not too much #

Remember that you are writing in a second language and oftentimes you will be translating and writing at the same time. Which can be quite tiresome.

Things get much easier when you start to actually think about your text in English. But until then you need to improve your writing experience in other ways.

Try writing down the core idea of your text and how you'll expand it. This will help you anchor down your train of thought and help you focus on that specific subject.

But also, do not overplan it, write down some initial structure but don't get paralized by it. You can always change it if it doesn't sound right anymore.

Write first, correct later #

Writing takes a considerate amount of mental energy. Save some brain bandwidth and try not to worry if your grammar and spelling are perfect in your first draft.

Try your best to not be insecure while writing, focus on transferring the ideas from your head to the paper. No one but yourself is judging you right now.

After you're done then you should do grammar and spell check. There are quite a few free online tools that help you with that. I prefer writing in Google Docs as its native spell check is excellent.

"Quote" search when unsure #

Have you ever written a sentence that, despite being grammarly correct, sounds a little bit off?

Whenever that happens I search it between quotation marks on Google.

Example gif of a quote search

If it returns lots of results it probably means that the sentence is right. Bonus points if that sentence appears in a reputable source like a book or dictionary.

Simple is best #

Try not to be too flamboyant, ostentatious or overelaborate.

English has fantastic words that roll out of the mouth and sound incredible.

Like flabbergasted, I love that word.

But remember that you're writing a technical piece and the subject is much too complex already.

And I'm not talking fancy words only, try to keep your paragraphs simple and easy to understand. Keeping it simple also lowers your surface area for grammatical errors.

A good rule of thumb is that if after a single read you can't capture the paragraph's core idea, it is too complex.

Remember that your goal is to transfer your knowledge to an audience, so try and make it as easy as possible for them.

If it is serious business, find a proofreader #

People usually don't mind small mistakes if your content is good enough. If someone points out a grammar fix in the comments, thank them, fix it and move on. It's not personal.

Now, if the piece that you're writing is for some kind of hiring process or it will be featured at a medium that has no EDIT button, you better find a good proofreader.

I've had great experiences with proofreaders on Fiverr in the past. It's not expensive if you're not in a hurry and the peace of mind is definitely worth the money.

And that's it, thanks for reading!

Which one do you think is the best tip?

Share yours in the comments!

Cover photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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