I want to talk about ESL writing skills and how you can improve the quality of your writing.
I'd like to share my method of making my writing sound more natural and idiomatic. It works best when you have enough time on your hands and can do the necessary research. The more time you have, the better you can polish your sentences.
Step 1. ESL Dictionary
Find a good learners' dictionary with clear definitions and a lot of examples of the word usage. This is a very important step. A lot of cases of incorrect usage of a word can be avoided if you have a good understanding of what the word means in English and how it works in a sentence. This information can usually be found in all modern ESL dictionaries, like Longman, Oxford, Macmillan, or Webster. All of them can be used online for free. Don't rely on bilingual dictionaries only. It's okay to use them, but always double check with some of the above dictionaries.
Step 2. Google, google and google
It's the easiest and fastest way to check if the sentence or phrase you are going to write sounds right and natural. Just put your phrase "in quotation marks" and see how many results will be returned. A lot of results mean that the phrase is very popular and likely idiomatic and will sound natural to a native speaker's ear.
However, you should be aware that a simple Google search is only a very rough tool. There are a lot of ESL learners or sloppy writers on the internet that make a lot of mistakes. And Google will count them in. To make sure you are not including broken English, you might want to try a more reliable search with Google Books.
Step 3. Google Books
It works the same way. Wrap your phrase "in quotation marks" and see what you get. A huge number of books written by (hopefully) educated speakers will be scanned for you to show if the expression you want to write in your essay or letter is actually a widely used one.
Step 4. Text Corpora
Finally, if you want to feel really good about yourself, take a look in the online corpora to ensure you use the most idiomatic and natural language out there. I prefer to use the Corpus of Contemporary American English (also known as COCA). There are some others both for American and British English. You can google to find out more about different corpora.
Why is this all so important?
It might be obvious for some, but not very obvious for others. All human languages are made up of millions of <em>collocations</em>. These are words that go well together and sound idiomatic in particular combinations. For example, try researching the phrase "make a mistake" and "do a mistake" and see what you get in each of the above steps. Make sure you read the results carefully to understand where they actually come from because “make/do a mistake” is an oft-abused example.
It might be fine sometimes to use a less common expression, but as an English learner, you will always be better off if you play on the safe side and utilize more commonly used expressions both in your writing and speaking. After all, we, ESL speakers, often lack this magical feeling of the language that native speakers have.
If you have any ideas or your own tips and tricks that help you with your writing, I'd like to hear about them.
I agree; this is wonderful advice. I suggest that you submit this information as an article on italki.
This is all good advice. I learned a new word, <em>collocation. </em>
I am going to have to look into<em> </em>
<em>text corpora: http://corpus.byu.edu/ ,
<em></em>especially the Spanish one.
As far as a "magical feeling that native speakers have", I don't know. I do mistakes all the time.