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Writing in English : How to Defeat your Mistakes

The Scotsman Robert Bruce had a small army. Five times he attacked the English, and five times he was beaten. After his last defeat he fled from Scotland and took refuge in a hut on an island off the north coast of Ireland.  He stayed here all alone one winter.

One day, while he was very down-hearted, he saw a spider trying to spin a web between two beams of his hut. The spider tried to throw a thread from one beam to another, but failed. Not discouraged, it tried four times more without success."Five times the spider has failed," said Bruce. "That is the number of times the English have defeated me. If the spider has courage to try again, I also will try to free Scotland!" The fifth time the spider succeeded."I thank God!" exclaimed Bruce. After this, he went on to defeat the English in the Battle of Bannockburn.

This popular tale of the benefits of perseverance is told to schoolchildren in the UK, along with the motto ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’

The lesson is a simple one, and it can be applied to many areas of life. It’s particularly useful when it comes to improving your English writing skills.

Favourite Mistakes

An obstacle which many English teachers encounter is that a number of their students’ basic writing mistakes often have not been corrected earlier e.g. while they were still at school. After years, these mistakes have become ingrained and are difficult to remove or correct.

Lack of accuracy costs points in the IELTS exam, and it’s unfortunate that many students are allowed to continue on to higher levels of English study whilst they are still writing grammatically incorrect basic sentences. The same errors often persist even in higher-level students. A student may have a good  level of overall English writing e.g. at band 6 or 7 level, but because of these small, persistent errors, their grammar level will always stay closer to a band 5. In these cases, no matter how much the student broadens their vocabulary or works on more complex ways of writing, their grammar level will always remain closer to band 5.

An example of this in Thailand is the use of the 3rd person singular. Many students will write (and say) ‘He go to the market’, rather than ‘He goes to the market’ or ‘My Dad like cooking’ rather than ‘My Dad likes cooking’. It’s a very small error, but it costs marks.

If a student is trying to get a band 6 or above on the IELTS writing, the majority of their basic sentences must be error-free: this is where ‘Try, try, try again’ comes in.

Try, Try, Try Again

If there’s an error that you’re aware of, work on it, hard. If putting the‘s’ in your 3rd person singular sentences is a problem, then it’s better to do everything you can to correct it now. Write sentences using the 3rd person singular 100 times a week if you need to, or 1000 times! As many times as you need to until the error is fixed. A student may know how to use a wide-range of compound and complex sentence structures, but if the subject-verb agreement is incorrect, it’s impossible for their sentences ever to be error-free.

The Basics

If you’ve ever studied music, martial arts or any other activity requiring skill and practice, you’ll remember that getting the basics right is absolutely key to learning successfully. It’s exactly the same with writing in English; the basics need to be learned properly before moving on to higher levels.

Get Feedback

If you have an English teacher, it’s an ideal opportunity to get the feedback which is vital for the writing process. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Keep trying, and if you learn of a mistake, work hard to put it right.

It’s usually better to get feedback at the time that you’re writing, which is easier and much more effective than writing a long piece and handing it in. With the second method, your teacher will have to go through the whole piece, and when giving you feedback, will be giving you lots of information and advice to take in all at once. If it’s been a few days since you wrote it, you may have even forgotten parts of what you wrote. With the first method, you’re getting feedback as you write; which you can then use when self-checking.


A useful method of self-checking is to make a list of common errors in your writing and check for these every time you write something. A typical list might look like this: -

1. Check nouns- plural ‘s’?

2. Check subject-verb agreement on 3rd person singular

3. Check capital letters for new sentences

4. Etc.

This list will act as a constant reminder to check for these things when you are writing. Eventually these will become internalized and you’ll find you don’t need to use this list anymore (although you might by that time have created another list with more advanced errors to check for!).

Meeting Your Teacher Halfway

Lots of effort and lots of writing is required to improve your writing, and even the greatest teacher in the world will not be able to improve your band level by 1 or 2 bands without you putting in regular, sustained effort. If a teacher points an error out, or if it’s one you’re aware of yourself; it’s crucially important that you try, try, try again to correct it. Ask for feedback to make sure you’re on the right track, and remember to check your writing every time you write; after every sentence if possible.

It’s a small, easy task which gets easier and shorter the more you do it; and it can make a BIG difference to your English writing level.



Updated :May 02, 2013
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