By Ruoqi (Rachel) Li
This personal narrative is a helpful guide for anyone struggling with the writing process, particularly in another language. Ruoqi Li shares how she learned to strengthen her English writing skills, and how a daily journaling practice has helped her become a more confident writer. We admire how she pushes back against common misconceptions about language acquisition and encapsulates the frustrations — and pleasures — of the writing process.
—Joss Lake, editor
Related Writing Guides
- To learn about how to structure your own personal essay, read our writing guide, where Joss walks us through Li’s piece.
As I wrote, I imagined myself living in an underground tunnel, my life surrounded by surprises, dangers, and survivalists. After I finished my first draft of a creative writing paper, “the Mole People,” I felt like I just ran a marathon. My eyes were sore, my neck was in pain, and my brain cells were dead. But I knew that I had accomplished the best piece of work on the planet, and all the hard work was worth it. The next day, I took a look at my draft, shocked. Where did the marvelous essay go? The writing in front of me was like pieces of garbage floating on the sea, chaotic and disorganized. When I first started writing, I was dumping all my thoughts into the paper and typing down whatever came to my mind. It was more like a brainstorming process instead of an essay-writing one. However, I realized that the first draft isn’t garbage. It is this “thought-dumping” process that would become the foundation of my future essay revisions. After I revised again and again, checking for structure and grammar, the final draft was accomplished.
Sometimes, I felt strongly connected to the prompt, like creative writing or some topics I have great curiosity about. However, in most cases, my mind goes blank when I first look at a topic, and this blank feeling remains throughout the process of writing. I often wonder: is my fluency in English the reason I get stuck in the middle of a paragraph? Well, the first thought that comes to my mind is: of course! When I am writing an essay in English, I feel like I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to word it in English. As a result, I often translate the sentences I’m about to write from Chinese to English. However, this creates a lot of problems. Sometimes when native English speakers read my writing, they don’t understand what it means. Certain expressions I use are unfamiliar to them because English and Chinese have completely opposite sentence structures. I recently heard a word that captures this phenomenon perfectly — “Chinglish”. It describes English words written in the typical Chinese sentence structure.
I used to think the “root” of all my problems was my inadequacy in English, so I started reading tons of books and religiously listening to the news every morning. I naively believed that only by becoming a better English speaker, I would be an excellent writer. Well, the practice with listening and reading English did solve some problems. I noticed that I didn’t need to translate words as frequently, and I developed a better language sense. But the feeling of being stuck did not diminish. I realized that speaking and reading don’t necessarily improve writing.
Why? Well, now I figured it out. Think about it in a different case: I am a fluent Chinese speaker. Does that make me an extraordinary Chinese writer? Obviously, not. If people who speak a language fluently became excellent writers only by speaking that particular language, then native speakers wouldn’t need writing classes anymore. In fact, I am fluent in Chinese, and I consider myself a good Chinese writer. But when I dig deeper into the reason I became a good Chinese writer, it is because I have almost six years of Chinese writing training! I wrote roughly 700 to 1000 word essays every weekend for three years in middle school. By practicing writing in Chinese, I became a good Chinese writer. However, English learners often form a belief system about learning languages based on online advice such as learning English by watching TV shows, listening to music, or reading magazines and books. Although these activities will help create an English environment and our brain will become more familiar with the language, it is not the most effective way to improve writing. It is this belief system, based on receptive language learning, that postpones our progress because we are not producing in the new target language. Additionally, English learners tend to avoid writing because it’s more painful to create a sentence or a paragraph from our limited vocabulary or bank of phrases. I have shifted my language learning paradigm from listening and reading to writing practice, which has become a new path to writing fluency.
Even though the road to becoming a good English writer takes more effort because it is my second language, the way to be proficient at writing is the same — to train my writing muscles. Nowadays, I open my journal every morning. Like chatting with a close friend, I confess my mood and all the things going on in my life. Language learning is a slow process, and learning to write well in another language requires consistent effort. But every thought I set down and every sentence I compose becomes an indispensable building block on my pathway.
Published May 18, 2021
Photo credit: photo provided by Ruoqi (Rachel) Li