Six Essential Tips for ESL Writers

Six Essential Tips for ESL Writers

As a long-time writer and editor at paper writing service, I work with many, many clients for whom English is their second language. While learning a second language for Americans is perhaps encouraged less here than anywhere else in the world, I admire these clients for their dedication and ability to master another tongue (and oftentimes, two or three other tongues).

In any event, my work has shown me that there are common omissions and errors made regularly by ESL writers. So let’s examine some of these in an attempt to help Tutoriage’s valuable and plentiful ESL clients improve and tighten their writing even further.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

Perhaps the most common mistake I see in ESL writers’ work is the absence of articles – both definite (the) and indefinite (a, an). The use of these articles depends mainly on whether a writer is referring to a specific noun versus a general noun. For instance, an ESL writer will often omit articles in such a way:

I came to United States for job in 2017.

The correct way to write this sentence with definite and indefinite articles intact should be:

I came to the United States for a job in 2017.

Verb Tense

Another common oversight that ESL writers make is inconsistent verb tense throughout a paper. Verb tense often depends on the style of writing required for an ESL writer’s work. For instance, business writing is typically executed in the present tense, while scholarly work in MLA or APA style usually requires past tense, but sometimes professors have their own preference beyond general essay style. In any case, I certainly recommend a double-check of the proper tense of verbs throughout a paper for ESL writers.


While a detailed article on the benefits of outlining also appears in the Edit Avenue article library by this editor, I would like to summarize some of the important points of the practice here that are essential for ESL writers.

A cohesive, smoothly transitioning work is hard to accomplish at times in one’s first language – not to mention trying to make your thoughts flow on paper in another language. That’s why outlining is an excellent method for ESL writers to use.

The purpose of outlining should be to help a writer organize his or her thoughts logically and completely before the writing process begins. Outlining is an important tool for an ESL writer to know exactly what they’ll be writing about in each and every paragraph, as well as to make sure not to leave anything important out.

Outlining also helps tremendously with the flow and transitions in a paper. I’ve seen a lot of work where it is evident that the writer did not use an outline before writing because the paragraphs jump from thought to thought in random, completely unorganized ways with no smooth transitions in between. Without using an outline, some ESL writers tend to forget important points they wanted to touch on in a paper until much later, only to make for a jumbled mess of thoughts that jump around and back to points that were already covered (and should have been done so completely in the first mention, not the fourth).

The process of outlining doesn’t have to be formal or complicated, however. Outlining a basic essay, statement of purpose or even a business letter should take a writer only five to 20 minutes at most, and can be done on a piece of scrap paper. In essence, the outline is only for the ESL writer to see and doesn’t have to be formal – it is a tool to be used for mapping out one’s thoughts before starting to write.

Double versus Single Quotations

ESL writers are often unclear on how to format English quotations in their work. Many other languages (including British English) use single quotations to set off direct quotes, such as:

‘John won’t be back tonight,’ she said.

However, the American English method for citing quotations uses double quotes around direct statements, like so:

“John won’t be back tonight,” she said.

Being aware of the consistent use of double quotations in one’s writing is essential for ESL writers.

British English versus American English

And while we’re on the subject of British English, ESL writers often mistakenly use British English spellings of words in their work when they are writing for an American English audience. If, of course, an ESL writer’s audience is British, then such altered spellings are acceptable. If not, however, American English spellings for words should be used consistently. A dictionary of the chosen English type is always good to have handy for an ESL writer.


A final common error of ESL writers is overcapitalization of words – usually nouns in particular. American English dictates that only proper nouns get capitalized, as well as words that begin sentences, titles of books or other artistic works, official class titles or company department names and so forth. For example, ESL writers are known to often capitalize business titles when it’s not necessary (and English as a first language speakers do the same as well!), such as:

The Vice President will be visiting the Newark office on Tuesday.

There is no need for capitalization of the title “vice president” here, as it is not a proper noun. Conversely, both Newark and Tuesday are, indeed, proper nouns, so they are capitalized.

In summary, if you’re an ESL writer aiming to better your English writing skills, checking this list of common mistakes when crafting your next written work will certainly help you on your way to becoming a better ESL writer.

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