5 Steps To Writing in Your Second Language

Here are a few tips for writing in your second, or third, or fourth language.
Publish date:

As a fourteen-year-old girl in Sweden, I sat entranced in the classroom as my teacher told us that Joseph Conrad, a Polish émigré to England, wrote Heart of Darkness in English, his second language. I was completely blown away, both by the depth and the ambiance of the book, but also by the amazing feat that its author had written it not in his mother tongue, but in English. As I grew up and studied French, German and English, I enjoyed very much reading authors in their original language. Never, ever, would I have imagined though, that one day I would take up the pen and write and have published, in English, a book of my own.

This guest post is by Lene Fogelberg. Growing up in a small town on the Swedish West Coast, Lene Fogelberg developed a love of poetry and reading, nurtured by the enchanting surroundings of her childhood; deep woods, fields, and ocean. Always curious, Fogelberg has embraced opportunities to study and live abroad, in France, Germany and the USA. Shortly after moving to the US it was discovered, by luck of circumstances, that she was in the last stages of a fatal congenital heart disease. Within weeks she underwent two life-saving open-heart surgeries and began the long battle of recovery. Now she is well and grateful for every day with her husband and two daughters. She is currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia. An award-winning poet in Sweden, Fogelberg has always felt drawn to writing in English and switched language when writing the memoir Beautiful Affliction, published by She Writes Press, September 2015.

Beautiful Affliction final Cover

Every child in Sweden starts learning English in fourth grade, and from the beginning the new language pulled me in. Growing up, I read Whitman, Dickinson, Tennyson, Eliot, wide-eyed, lingering over their words. Inspired by these poets I even made attempts at writing my own poems, in English, and I even had a ‘Shakespeare period’ in my teenage years, when I memorized my favorite sonnets and tried to imitate their melodious iambic pentameter. I think that to this day you could wake me in the middle of the night and I would be able to recite: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day… I felt envious of people growing up in English-speaking countries: to be given this treasure for free: a melodious, nuanced and rich language with words as gorgeous as: serendipity, ethereal and epiphany. I often felt that Swedish, in comparison, was blunt and sparse in words. Speaking it was like picking delicate flowers with heavy gloves on.

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

Despite my love affair with English, I barely dared open my mouth to speak this new shimmering language, fearing that I would sound like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show I watched as a kid: hum-di, hum-di, hum-di, seemed to be the only utterings discernable from his mumbling. I could hear my painfully evident Swedish accent in every word I uttered. I loved watching Hollywood movies with Swedish subtitles and listening to my favorite American and British bands, basking in the words of the actors and the musicians, but at the same time feeling that they stemmed from a language that was mysterious and out of my reach.

It took a move to the U.S. when I was 31, to shake me out of this feeling of awe and to start using the language for real, to dare speak it. In the beginning, I had to force every sentence out of my shy mouth, but slowly, my brain and my tongue got used to the strange sounds and I started to feel like maybe this treasure was meant for me too. But this gift, the ability to speak English, was superseded by another gift from the U.S.

It turned out that I had lived all of my life with an undiagnosed fatal heart condition, that doctors in the U.S. discovered, and treated, all within a couple of weeks. The country saved my life, literally, and three years later, I was still so filled with gratitude that I felt the need to offer my own gift, my story, in return. I reached for my new treasure, the English language, and started writing. The words came to me, page after page. I pushed away the fear of failing, of disappointing, of not being enough. I could almost feel Joseph Conrad smiling over my shoulder, encouraging me: yes, now you understand, the story is burning inside you and all we can do is throw in all that we have, our words like flames in the night.

In the middle of writing your memoir or thinking about writing it?
WD’s Memoir Writing Kit is 6 items rolled into
one bundle
at a steep discount. T
his kit gives simple, yet in-depth instruction
on crafting a great memoir
and getting it published.
Order now from our shop and get the huge discount.


This is ultimately what my book, Beautiful Affliction, is. A thank-you note I am sending to the world. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for this life.

Here are a few tips for writing in your second, or third, or fourth language:

  • Throw away your fears! Everything is possible! Look to Conrad, Beckett and many other authors who paved the way, I am sure they’d be willing to lend themselves as muses.
  • Write in your own style, your own words, even in the new language. This is a very rewarding creative experience, as you will need to reinvent your language, instead of “translating” your native tongue to the new one.
  • Find a good editor, whose native language is the one you are writing in. No, find two good editors.
  • Get used to the feeling of constantly swimming in deep water, it’s okay; you won’t drown, you have your wonderful editors holding you up (this is why you need two).
  • Enjoy the sense of accomplishment! Pat yourself on your shoulder often, telling yourself: I did this!

Number 5 is something I am still working on. I tell myself: Yeah, I really did this!It’s Joseph Conrad and me, baby! And even the Swedish Chef is invited to the party. Writing, perhaps especially in your second language, instills a tremendous sense of humility. Swedish, English, German, French, all languages: are at the center of our humanity. To carefully and meticulously, usher people, places, struggle, heartbreak, poetry, joy, stories from the ink is to pave the way to common ground, no matter where we come from. It is a miracle really. A miracle I am tremendously happy to share with you.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian's free Writer's Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 13

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a Lucky and/or Unlucky poem.

What Is a Plotter in Writing?

What Is a Plotter in Writing?

The world of storytelling can be broken into many categories and sub-categories, but one division is between plotter and pantser. Learn what a plotter means in writing and how they differ from pantsers here.

Waist vs. Waste (Grammar Rules)

Waist vs. Waste (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of waist vs. waste on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Bridget Foley: On Writing Psychologically Potent Metaphors

Bridget Foley: On Writing Psychologically Potent Metaphors

Novelist Bridget Foley explains the seed that grew into her latest book Just Get Home and how she stayed hopeful in the face of rejection.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 12

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a six words poem.

What Is a Pantser in Writing?

What Is a Pantser in Writing?

The world of storytelling can be broken into many categories and sub-categories, but one division is between pantser and plotter. Learn what a pantser means in writing and how they differ from plotters here.

Too Seen: The Intimacy of Copy Editing

Too Seen: The Intimacy of Copy Editing

Novelist A.E. Osworth discusses their experience working with a copyeditor for their novel We Are Watching Eliza Bright and how the experience made them feel Witnessed.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: From Our Readers Announcement, Upcoming Webinars, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce a call for From Our Readers submissions, a webinar on crafting expert query letters, and more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 11

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a prime number poem.