Top 6 ESL Writing Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

I am an English teacher in Korea. Over the past decade, I have read hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages of essays, stories and paragraphs by ESL students. After so much reading, I learned a few things about my students and their writing skills.

  • Students never learned how to write in English.
  • Students repeat the same mistakes.
  • Good English writing needs a different kind of thinking.

Based on this teaching experience, I made a list of the most common writing errors by my ESL students. These errors are listed below.

If you read the list, you may be surprised. There are no grammar mistakes. Of course, my students make grammar errors. But, in my opinion, grammar problems are small problems.

The biggest problems are related to the way students think about ideas, paragraphs, sentences and vocabulary.

Why do I say that? Well, what is writing? My answer is this: good writing is the ability to express one idea clearly.

Mistake #1. No Main Idea

Everything you write needs one main idea. Essays need a thesis. Paragraphs need a topic sentence. The story you write for a speech needs a message. If you don’t have a purpose – or main idea – your writing is not finished.

Here is an example. I asked two students to tell me the main idea of their stories.  Here are their answers.

  1. My story is about fast food.
  2. University students should not eat fast food because it is unhealthy, it does not help them study and it is bad for the economy.

The first sentence is a subject – fast food.  It is not the main idea of an essay. The second sentence is good. It explains the student’s main idea and the reasons.

FIX: After you write a story or essay, ask yourself this question: What is the main idea? If you cannot explain the main idea in one sentence, maybe you don’t have one.

Mistake #2. Bad Paragraphs

Some students write one long paragraph that fills a page. Other students write one sentence and say that is a paragraph. Both ideas are wrong.

What is a paragraph? It is about five sentences (sometimes more) that tell the reader one idea.

Good paragraphs have a pattern. I call it the 1-2-3 Pattern. The first sentence is the Topic Sentence. This sentence tells the reader the main idea.

The next few sentences provide reasons, examples or details. These sentences show the reader why the main idea is correct or true. The last sentence is a conclusion.

FIX: Read a paragraph and look for the main idea.  If you can’t find the main idea, you need to re-write the first sentence of the paragraph.

Mistake #3. Crazy Sentences

Some students write long sentences. Once, a student wrote a sentence with three ‘ands’ and two ‘becauses.’  That is too long.

What is a sentence?  I say a good sentence is one idea.

If you put too many ideas into one sentence, it will be too long.  If it is too long, it will be too hard to read.

FIX: If you use the same word in a sentence, it might be too long.  Look for ways to use other words or make the sentence shorter.

Use long and short sentences in a paragraph. This variety will make your writing easier to write and more interesting to read. Short sentences are good. Believe me.

Mistake #4. Hate Editing

Most students hate to rewrite their stories and essays. I understand why. Their thinking is not right.

They were taught that English writing is like studying math. You finish the assignment, give the answers to the teacher and get a score. Done.

Not done! Maybe that is how students learn math. But that is the wrong way to learn English writing. To become a better writer, you have to change your thinking about editing.

FIX: Even the best writers never finish a story by a story one time. To write a good story, you have to become a good editor.

Mistake #5. Copying Other People’s Writing

Recently, I gave some students a writing project. I asked them to read a newspaper article and write a three-sentence summary of the story.

Next week, they gave me their homework. All of the students had copied sentences from the newspaper. The students did not write anything new.

Here is the problem. They thought copying and pasting other people’s writing is okay. Well, it is not. That is called plagiarism.

FIX: Don’t steal other people’s writing. Learn to write about your ideas. If you write about your ideas, writing will be more interesting to you and to your readers.

Mistake #6. Poor Vocabulary

This problem is a mystery to me. Some of my students are good at speaking English. They can have a long conversation about difficult topics with no problem.

But, when they have to write about a topic, they are lost. They look at the paper and write nothing.

I understand their problem. These students are afraid to write because the words don’t come easily. They are afraid their words are too simple. They don’t want to look foolish.

FIX: Word power is an important writing skill. Build your word power by reading more.  Write more. Try word games like crossword puzzles to increase your memory of knowledge of words. Improve your vocabulary and you will be able to express your ideas more clearly.

Summary

These are the most common writing mistakes which my students make. Maybe you make some of these errors, too.

Don’t worry and don’t give up. When there is a problem, there is a solution.

Keep reading www.eslwriting.org. Download and use the exercises. With practice, you will become a better writer.

I know you can do it.

6 thoughts on “Top 6 ESL Writing Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)”

  1. Great post, teacher! :) If I may add, students don’t always use transition devices. Their essays look more like a patchwork than a seamless whole.

  2. great help …. you are an amazing teacher :d i have test tomorrow and thank u very much, i guess these advice would help me tomorrow :)

  3. Hello, great entry. @AJ = I would warn against stressing transition, my students’ papers are often littered with them… They end up looking like job descriptions or shopping lists…
    1st do this
    2nd do that
    3rd do this…. and on and on…

    It’s hard to find a balance, so I often limit my students’ use of them (and conjunctions)…

  4. Hi there
    I’m writing my thesis about error analysis so i thought if you could help me somehow by providing me with some books, websites, paperworks, etc
    thank you

  5. hi there
    m writing my thesis on errors that students always do when composing informal letters. since english is a second language in my country, i must say that i do agree with some of your comments. somehow your entry do help me in doing my thesis.

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