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Writing in French can seem like a difficult skill to learn. That’s why it’s important to practice your French writing.
After all, writing is one of the four essential language skills.
The path to polishing your French writing skills is simple but requires commitment.
I assure you that writing in French is only a matter of mental endurance. Stay focused, and you will learn to write in French.
I studied French in college, and I did it in the American South. My all-time favorite experiences were sitting in classrooms with students more skilled and less fearful than myself because I argue this is the best way to learn French.
When I took my first college-level French course, feedback from professors was also advantageous for my writing. Comments and notations from them on homework assignments seemed about as star-worthy as getting a book signed by my favorite author. My name on a paper returned to me smeared in red x’s, all the better if an entire sentence was scratched out with an incisive “I do not understand”﹣all welcomed criticism.
They were making me a better writer.
Four years went by. Receiving a scholarship to work in France at a digital media company stands out among the noteworthy moments. So when I finished college the natural question followed﹣Now what? I’m an American woman who reads and writes in French, but without the constant immersion from classroom discussion and professional work, it seemed like I’d be taking a giant step backward.
Here’s where I am today and why I want to give you practical strategies to nurture your second language: I read, write, and follow the book market in France. Even though I cannot speak and interact with the language as I’d like to every day, I have a vested interest in writing. I calculate the return on investment as immeasurable, by the way, because every time I pound out 300 words without stopping to check my spelling, I know I am growing as a writer.
Before I share the five strategies that enabled me to write more fluidly in French, I want to acknowledge the readers here who did not major in French or even enroll at college for that matter. If you’re a beginner who independently studies French while working a full-time job or raising kids, you can still benefit from these exercises. The gatekeepers of proper French usage, known as the Académie française, will not snub you for an incorrect article or adjective agreement.
You’re showing up to write because you know you make mistakes. And with each one you are turning into a more competent writer.
Alright French writers, let’s head to our notebooks and laptops for writing strategies that will set us up for success!
Strategy #1: Keep a Journal in French
If you haven’t started already, it’s time to hop on the journal train. I cannot stress enough how useful this is for writing commentary about daily life and conversations. Go out and buy yourself a journal, one that fits your personality and visual needs. If you want to write in French, you’ve got to handwrite in French. Later when you can type without fretting about setting off the grammar sirens on Google Docs or Word, you may work on a computer. But it’s best to fall back on pen to paper, because you’ll be less inclined to stop writing in French when you do question a grammar rule.
Are you a lined paper lover or does a blank page stir your creativity? It sounds like I’m asking you to decide if ivory white is better than eggshell white, but the details matter folks. Writing doesn’t work in uncoordinated conditions. Any writing is better writing than words that fly thoughtlessly onto pages in disarray. Do not let an inkless pen or a dingy notebook slow up inspiration. Set the mood, one that makes you feel like a writer with intention.
I recommend dating your entries. This comes in handy later when writer’s block hits. Being able to reference another day when writing ideas were more abundant is useful. Plus it’s always entertaining to read back and hear yourself going through a phase that seemed earth-shattering at the time (it wasn’t).
Now you may be asking yourself what to write about. You and your notebook are together, but making a connection is frightening. You’ve pulled away from the cushy grammar exercises your French teacher guided you through, as well as the language applications which clapped and sang when you tapped the right answer.
When journaling, especially when you’re doing it in French, it’s essential to write what you know. Talk about your mood, activities you enjoy (remember reflexive verbs), what you’re reading, or plans for the weekend (great for working on the futur proche!) Whatever it is, write from the heart and head. You don’t want to journal about topics that aren’t relevant to you.
This is not a graded exercise or a formal email.
Here’s a snippet from a French entry I journaled in 2018:
Caro m’as appris le mot “klaxonner” quand elle parlait des fêtes après le Coupe du Monde.
“Caro taught me the word for “honk” when she was talking about parties after the Word Cup.”
I noted a new word and referenced my friend Caro. Today, I make an association between the World Cup and Caro to remember klaxonner. Remember to journal about your life, interests, and thoughts. If you need to keep a French dictionary alongside you, you will work slower but expand your vocabulary.
Strategy #2: Use Simple French Vocabulary
Maybe you’re writing about how dreary your day turned out because of a snowstorm that swept through your city, and how a trip to the grocery store was the most disturbing scene you’d witnessed in ages. Tinkering with your knowledge of the passé composé and the plus-que-parfait, you manage to write about the snowstorm and the store visit, using action verbs. But say the situation led you to the sentence “The grandma made a mad dash for the milk like a football player’s urgency to the end zone.” Here you might fumble with “mad dash” and “football player’s urgency.”
I present this hypothetical situation to explain what retired French professor Dr. Harlan Patton calls circumlocution skills. These are strategies “you use to describe something when you don’t have the specific word and don’t feel like looking it up, or simply don’t have the chance to do so.”
So when we’re writing in French, instead of narrowing our French word choice to our native language equivalent, it is important to find synonyms.
Imagine that you’re surfing. You look for the best wave before paddling out to catch it, and when you do, the ride is seamless. But if you swim out too early or too late, the wave falls short of epic.
I think this applies to word choice when writing in French. Writers are paddling in uncharted waters, craning their necks for the best word (wave) to compose thoughtful sentences. More often than not, beginner French writers try and take on waves that are too big for them. With continued practice, it is possible to master complex vocabulary, but in the early stage, set your sights on simple adjectives and noun phrases.
Back to the grocery store example above, if I were new to journaling, I’d describe the grandma walking quickly/elle marchait vite for “mad dash,” and that the football player was in a hurry/le joueur de foot a été pressé for “football player’s urgency.” Again, keep it simple. Sophistication comes after discipline.
Strategy #3: The 5-Word Work Method
This strategy rests on writers being diligent readers. If you want to become a better writer, you must read. Nothing new there, but as you read in a foreign language, it can be frustrating to have to stop and start again when confronting unfamiliar words. You read three sentences and then resign yourself to a dictionary, but the back-and-forth eventually leads to distraction, and then the book is face down no longer in your hands. I’ve been there.
Let me suggest that you underline words you don’t know and keep reading. Set a timer or plan to read uninterrupted for 15 pages. You can jot down the underlined words after making progress in your reading.
I love the 5-word work method because it allows me to get to know new vocabulary on a more personal level. Here’s how it works: choose five words from your reading and write them at the top of the page. Learn their meaning and let them be your guide. Vary parts of speech so you feel challenged (try not to work only with adjectives.) How about adverbial phrases like d’une façon jubilant (“gleefully”) or conjunctions like tandis que (“whereas, while”)?
Now write a short paragraph using these new words. It can be about anything. The goal is to work with 5 new words, understand how they’re used, and develop a reservoir of vocabulary.
Strategy #4: Use the Internet Responsibly
I say responsibly because distractions are everywhere. Be mindful. However, if you’re journaling in a notebook, having your computer or phone near you gives you easy access to Wordreference. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Wordreference is a hero for quick word searches. Choose from dozens of language pairs and download the app. A bonus feature is their translator thread where professionals respond to language concerns. I can tell you that Wordreference has come in handy for me when I’m stumped between feminine and masculine articles.
Linguee is another resource for translating longer phrases. Simply type what you’re looking for in the search bar and the site scours the Internet for published articles, speeches, and other written material featuring your search. I like this one because it gives me different translations from varied sources. It’s also useful with understanding the context a word/phrase falls into.
The two sources are not an exhaustive list of French writing tools. They work for me, but if you know of others please feel free to share them.
Strategy #5: Write To-Do Lists, Book Reviews, and Goals in French
This last strategy reinforces the other four. Once you’ve started journaling, learning vocabulary, practicing the 5-word work method, and referencing online sources to amp up your French writing, I impart the importance of regular practice and discipline to you.
Take writing seriously and results will follow. Instead of writing a grocery list in your native language, why not do it in French? This is good practice with food vocabulary. Or read a book and critique it in French. Do it in first-person narration, then move up to third-person to remove yourself from the review. Again, this constant practice is like electrolytes for the muscles.
If there is an exercise worth trying, start by writing out your goals. They can speak to your writing, like what I wrote yesterday: Mon écriture progresse du jour au lendemain. Je lis comme une folle. Je me fixe un but de lire quatre bouquins par mois. (“Overnight there’s progress in my writing. I’m reading nonstop. I’m setting a goal to read four books a month.”)