5 Tips For ESL Writers To Become Successful in Content Marketing
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.”
–Octavia E. Butler, science fiction writer
Just about two years ago, the majority of our marketing team had no idea how to write a blog article. Moreover, we had a bigger problem – English was (and still is) our second language. Nevertheless, as of today, we’ve written for dozens of top-tier platforms including Entrepreneur, HubSpot, Foundr, GoDaddy, Upwork, Search Engine Journal and many more. It helped our company, Chanty, to make a content marketing breakthrough, driving 5-digit traffic numbers to the website.
Today, I’m happy to share everything we’ve learned the hard way along with a few hacks and best practices for ESL writers. We’ve done it and you can too. Let’s go!
Not All ESL Writers Are Made Equal
Being self-confident is good. But you know what’s even better? Being realistic. Surprisingly, quite a lot of ESL folks are absolutely convinced they are great writers. Often, however, it turns out they are hardly aware of the English grammar basics. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happening too many times while hiring copywriters. Their resumes shine with “Advanced” or “Fluent” English, but when they actually get to writing a test article, the result comes as a total failure.
Therefore, I need to highlight that English proficiency is a must to succeed in content marketing as an ESL writer. If you can’t figure out whether you are proficient enough, I hope this open letter by Carol Tice sheds light.
Anyway, I hope that with this article I’m addressing ESL writers who have already validated this “writing in English” idea and are looking for the ways to start out, improve their skills and sound as native as possible in their next piece.
Read, Write, Rinse, Repeat
Writing itself is no walk in the park. Even for a native English speaker. For ESL writers it’s twice as hard. Not only do you have to deliver a well-structured, well-researched and in-depth content. You also need to make sure to keep up with the style and grammar of the foreign language. Oh, and you should seem native too so the readers “can’t tell.”
There are no magic writing courses just like there’s no magic wand to turn you into a great writer. However, there is a direct correlation between how much you read and write and the quality of your writing. It’s pretty clear with the writing part – the more you write, the more you learn how to structure your thoughts into easy-to-read paragraphs. Writing also involves a great deal of research, which lets you dive deep into the word clusters for a specific topic. Practice and consistency are the keys here.
But what’s with reading? What should be on your reading list? Let me give you a few tips based on my experience.
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1. English Classics
Just like great designers derive their inspiration from nature, great writers read classics to improve their writing. Moreover, whenever you think your writing is “great,” give yourself a bracing reality check by diving into Pride and Prejudice or Catcher in the Rye. Realize that you’ve got some big shoes to fill.
2. Well-written eBooks
My favorites are “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck” by Mark Manson and “10x Marketing formula” by Garrett Moon. These books are a warehouse of idioms, phrasal verbs and some interesting word choices. On top of that, they are like an entire “how to avoid writing boring stuff” encyclopedia for me. Just check out some of my notes from “10x Marketing Formula” below:
Abstracts from 10x Marketing formula by Garrett Moon
Just follow the link and sign up if you haven’t already, and pick a few topics. Then enjoy the editor’s picks in your inbox daily. There’s so much to learn from those.
4. Platforms You Plan/Hope To Write For
Aiming to publish on Entrepreneur or Inc.? Get used to the tone and style by consistently reading their top publications.
5. Expert Platforms and Authors in your Niche
If you are in marketing like me, you can’t ignore HubSpot, Buffer, Search Engine Journal, Grow and Convert blogs. Speaking of authors, I can recommend Matthew Barby, Brian Dean, Alex Turnbull and my personal favorite – Josh Fechter, since I frequently write on marketing and growth.
6. Movies and TV Series
I know that’s not reading, but I’m convinced that you have to expose yourself to as much English as possible to become a better writer. Do whatever it takes, even when not at work, whether it’s setting up a Netflix account, listening to Drake or putting on a season of “Friends” on the background while at home. Remember the “bracing reality check” phrase from the #1 in this list? This one is totally from the “Freaky Friday” movie although I haven’t watched it for years.
7. Making Notes
Whenever I read, watch or listen in English, I put notes into a file called “Idioms.” In a couple of years, it turned into a huge document and it’s not only about idioms anymore. It contains neat phrasal verbs, interesting word structures, awesome metaphors – basically, everything that I liked and enjoyed while reading. This way when the time comes for you to write, you have your own cheat sheet with English expressions that appeal to the senses.
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Essential tools for ESL writers
If you are a native English speaker, your life as a writer is pretty easy – you rarely question whether the sentence you put together is the right way to express yourself. When it sounds awkward, you just know it.
On the contrary, being an ESL writer means you can’t completely rely on your intuition. A lot of expressions and constructions need to be checked. E.g., just a moment ago I checked whether I could really use the “rely on your intuition” phrase. Here’s a list of tools and hacks I use every time I’m working on an article that I hope you find very helpful:
1. The Good Old Merriam-Webster
The well-respected printed dictionary has a convenient online version with definitions, synonyms, antonyms and example sentences. Whenever we have an issue while proofreading an article by our writers, a link to Merriam-Webster page comes as a persuasive and, usually, final argument. Now, when you are torn between “old-fashioned” and “old fashioned”, you know where to go.
2. Google Exact Search
I learned this trick a long time ago, as I was making my first steps in SEO. Now it also serves our writing purposes. Remember the “rely on your intuition” phrase I mentioned earlier? Sometimes, ESL writers think of a great phrase and translate it into English from their native language. Most of the time, it doesn’t make sense in English. But sometimes it does. How do you find out? Simply put quotes around this phrase and google it.
Google search results for “rely on your intuition” phrase
You need to look for high-quality publications, which in my case are USA TODAY, NBCNews and Belfast Telegraph. If you spot the top-tier platforms using this phrase, you got a green light.
3. Google Asterisk (*) Search
You have a clear idea of an overall phrase structure you are about to write but are struggling with choosing that perfect word that fits perfectly into that structure? It happens a lot to me. This is when Google asterisk search comes in handy. Similar to a previous tip, put the quotes around your phrase, but this time add the asterisk, replacing “that” word. Here’s an example of me using it:
Google search results for “a tiny * of doubt” phrase
English is full of idioms. You’ve probably come across the Idioms lookup by The Free Dictionary, which is good for reading, but not for writing. I’m sure you know a lot of idioms in your native language. Moreover, when you are writing in English, they are dancing around in your head popping up every now and then. Luckily, Reverso Translation lets you turn them into English idioms. What’s more important, you can see a few translation options in a different context and pick the one that is closest to yours.
This is a tool we use heavily with our ESL marketing team at Chanty. It helps us make quick fixes to our texts while improving grammar, punctuation and spelling. What I find particularly useful is the Grammarly browser extension that highlights potential mistakes and gives you correction suggestions.
Even when you think you’ve polished texts in every way possible, Grammarly usually finds a handful of flaws you’ve missed. But beware! I have it on good authority from native English speakers that it isn’t 100% reliable.
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Climbing to the top of the content marketing ladder is no piece of cake for an ESL writer. At the same time, it’s not rocket science and you have a good chance to succeed. I’ve shared a few tips that helped turn our ESL marketing team into senior writers. It’s time to summarize:
- English proficiency. In my country, when IT companies hire SEO interns, sometimes all they are looking for is “good English”. Why? It’s much easier to learn SEO than learn how to speak English fluently. Same goes for writing. If you are far from being proficient, maybe it’s not the career for you.
- Write consistently. The more you write, the better you get. It’s that simple. Don’t cling to “I’m not in the mood today” or “I need some inspiration” thoughts. While you may think you need some right music or a right coffee shop to get to writing, remember that all you really need is a laptop and ten fingers.
- Surround yourself with English. Whether it’s reading classic books, articles by industry experts or watching a good English or American movie, it’ll keep your mind busy digesting new vocabulary. English should become your lifestyle, not just your work. Do you have dreams in English? If not, you don’t have enough English in your life.
- Make notes. Put a file together with everything worth noting while you read, listen or watch in English. Use it as a cheat sheet every time you are working on an article.
- Leverage tools for writers. Surprisingly, Google could become the #1 tool for ESL writers. Apart from the traditional Google translator, you can make use of Google search by applying quotes for an exact phrase search or asterisks for replacing a word. Moreover, don’t underestimate online dictionaries and modern tools like Grammarly and Reverso Translation for finding the right idioms and checking grammar.
Our team knows from experience – becoming a great ESL writer is a challenge. But we also know it’s worth it. Give it a try and share the tips that help you grow as a writer.
Over To You
Do you have any tricks not mwntioned above, that you feel are helpful for ESL writers? Please share them with your fellow readers. Thanks!
Olga Mykhoparkina is the Chief Marketing Officer at Chanty – a simple AI-powered team chat. This powerful and free Slack alternative is aimed at increasing team productivity and improving communication at work. With 10-years of digital marketing experience, Olga is responsible for Chanty’s online presence strategy. She manages an amazing team of marketing experts, changing the way teams communicate and collaborate. Follow Olga on Twitter @olmykh or feel free to connect on LinkedIn or Facebook.
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