Tips for improving Korean essay writing

After more than a year of attending advanced Korean classes and regularly writing and reviewing 500-800 character essays with my teacher, I’ve accumulated a few useful tips for improving long-form writing that I thought I’d share here.

I’ll preface this by saying few people write well in any language, even among native speakers. I’m a writer and storyteller in both my professional and personal life and I know just how hard it is to build compelling rhetoric using effective, engaging language on any topic. So, following these “quick tips” won’t make you a good writer in Korean — that will take years of practice reading and writing, just as it would in English. But it may help you get started on the road to sounding more natural.

Caveat: This is only one language learner’s experience (mine) and one language instructor (my teacher)’s advice, so take with a grain of salt.

Master written language

This means practicing and getting comfortable with plain speech. Plain-style Korean, or 해라체, is used in books, newspapers, blogs — basically any form of writing where you’re not directly addressing someone else. For example, you’d use plain style to write a blog post in Korean, but use proper politeness (i.e. -요 or -ㅂ니다) levels when responding to comments. Sentences in plain-style Korean end with -(ㄴ)다 (present/future) or -ㅆ다 (past).

There are a number of useful textbooks out there that cover Korean grammar; I’m personally a fan of 빈도별 토픽 for more advanced learners and the Integrated Korean series for beginners and intermediate learners. When going through these books, keep in mind that not all verb endings are appropriate for written Korean. Endings like -지요 and -잖아요, for example, only make sense when you’re talking to someone else.

Use inductive reasoning

Obviously not a hard and fast rule (depends on the discipline, writer’s style, etc.), but after reading a number of Korean op-eds and personal essays, the biggest difference between Korean and English essay writing that I’ve noticed is the underlying logic of the work.

Korean essays are mostly built on inductive reasoning: they start out with anecdotes, examples, and research to draw the reader step-by-step to the main point of the essay. If you’re reading a long opinion piece in Korean, you might make it through 50% or more before you realize what exactly the author’s trying to say.

This is counter to the typical “five paragraph essay” taught in American high schools, where you’re told to state a main point for each paragraph and then support it with evidence (more deductive than inductive reasoning).

Tip! I’ve found that because of this logic structure, skimming long chunks of Korean prose — especially during TOPIK — is challenging for me.  If you’re pressed for time, read the last couple sentences of every paragraph to get a decent tl;dr.

Memorize transition words and phrases

These are words like 그런데, 그리고, 게다가, 반면에, etc., that link one sentence to the next or one paragraph to the next. When you’re reading essays, news articles, or even TOPIK passages, take a second to identify and write down these transition words/phrases. Memorize them and practice using them in your own writing, so you won’t default to the boring ones I listed as examples above.

Put the most important part of the sentence first

One of my favorite things about Korean writing is the flexibility of word order within a sentence. That said, I often get told by my teacher to not be so careless about it when writing essays. A writing tic of mine, for instance, is to include every relevant detail that I possibly can into a relative clause that modifies the topic or subject of my sentence; that means my sentences are “top heavy” with the most important part usually coming near the end. In longer compositions, though, it’s important to make sure your key point shows up at the  beginning of the sentence for clarity.

For example, take a look at these two sentences. The first is what I wrote and the second is a revision.

(1) 마지막으로 직장 관련 이야기가 듣기 싫다는 대답을 선택한 여성들에 비해 2배 이상 많은 남성들이 있다는 결과가 나왔다.

(2) 마지막으로, 여성들에 비해 2배 이상 많은 남성들이 직장 관련 이야기가 듣기 싫다는 대답을 선택한 결과가 나왔다.

I was trying to describe that, according to the results of the given survey, more than twice the number of men versus women said they did not want to discuss work [with their extended families during the holiday]. In sentence (1), the key point ‘여성들에 비해 2배 이상 많은 남성’ shows up at the end of the sentence; in sentence (2), it shows up right after the transition word.

Use! The! Right! Particles!!

Believe me when I say that it is worth investing time into understanding the difference between topic particles (은/는) and subject particles (이/가). For a lot of beginners, this is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, especially if English is your native language. If you’re only writing a couple short sentences at a time, to a limited (!) extent, you can get by mixing up the two without dire consequences.

For example:

(1) 그 남자 나를 좋아한다고 고백했다.
(2) 그 남자 나를 좋아한다고 고백했다.

Both sentences have differences in nuance but more or less mean the same thing.

When sentences get long with different topics, subjects, and clauses, using the wrong particle can really mess up the meaning of your sentence. And when you’re introducing different points in an essay, mastering 은/는 and 이/가 will help direct the logical flow of your writing and lend it clarity. The best way to grasp particles? Write a lot, but don’t just write disparate sentences. Write a paragraph or two on one idea and then have your writing reviewed by a native speaker.

Synonyms are your friend

This is good writing advice no matter what language you’re writing in. No one wants to read the same adjective or verb over and over again, so it’s good to pay attention to different ways to say the same thing. This is particularly important, I think, for the analytical writing part of TOPIK, which asks you to describe the results of a survey or research study. You’ll be using a lot of phrases like “X increased by Y%” or “A decreased by B%” or things like “it was revealed that XX,” “the results showed,” “the participants chose,” etc.

Tip! Compared to the longer essay in TOPIK II, the analytical essays are actually where you can improve your score the fastest, in my opinion. One easy way to do that is by diversifying your sentences with different synonyms and phrases related to analysis and trends. On one of my early practice tests, I used the word 증가하다 three sentences in a row — don’t do that.

Last but not least: read actively

An obvious one, but worth mentioning. Now, when I read non-fiction in Korean, I don’t just read for comprehension. I read for writing style. And I mean, I really break down the structure of the composition. I start out by picking out where the main idea shows up in each paragraph and then jot it down. Then I try to pay attention to how the sentences are connected to one another, noting specifically how the author shifts topics and subjects from sentence to sentence and how transition phrases/words help build the logic of the narrative. And then I try putting in any new words and sentence structures/phrases I’ve learned into practice.

In order to build your vocabulary, it’s important to read widely. But in order to become a better writer, I think it’s important to read closely.

Closing thoughts

I think being able to write naturally, using standard grammar, is an important tenet of fluency. But I don’t think you have to be a “good” writer to consider yourself fluent — though, of course, it depends on what your ambitions and/or goals are.

In English, writing is like breathing for me. So it’s important to me that I can write something that would be considered generally good writing in Korean, not just comprehensible or “good for a foreigner.” That’s what I’m working toward, at least.

To that end, I do have a ((new)) blog in Korean, up on the interwebs somewhere. I’m waiting until I write a few more posts before I officially share it here, but if keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested!

[Photo by Deanna Tan on Unsplash]

8 thoughts on “Tips for improving Korean essay writing

  1. what do you think about the hanguel-only thing as it relates to writing?? do you find it limits your writing ie changing a word because there’s a lot of homophones?

    Like

    1. That’s an interesting perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever felt limited by Hangeul as a writer. If I’m worried about being misunderstood because of a homophone issue, I just look up the hanja and put it in parentheses. As a reader, though, I can see how Hangeul might seem limiting, e.g., looking up hanja is an extra step I have to go through to understand whatever I’m reading, or worse, if there is no hanja, I expend more mental energy trying to figure what the author means.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. also have you noticed bad writing in Korean in korean newspapers, articles etc now that you’re more skilled in writing?? Or are there certain things you see korean writers do that annoy you ??

    I was reading the japanese internet about reading korean and of course there’s negative stuff. I would love to hear your thoughts about it. if you use rikai-chan or some pop-up dictionary i’m sure you can understand it… i’ll paste it…

    漢字を無くしたから意味を文字で伝えるのが難しい
    なので平易な言葉で伝えないと読み手に書き手の意思を伝えられない
    冗長になり論点がぼけるのはハングルの特徴だから仕方ない

    書くための文字→ハングル
    読むための文字→漢字

    これが言語や単語にまで影響及ぼしてるだけ

    ++
    南朝鮮の新聞記事は長文駄文意味不明が多いよね
    文章「表現力」以前に、思考回路に何かしらの障害がありそう
    目の前の事象を「しあわせ回路」や「反日回路」に入力し、「願望」の粉かけて、ビビンパのようにまじぇまじぇしないとあんな文章は出力できないよ

    なんかの調査で韓国人は平均IQが高いと言われてホルホルしてたけど
    (1位香港 2位韓国 3位日本・・・・)
    IQテストのためのテスト勉強させてる国がどこかにあるとかw
    IQ高くてもあんだけ非論理的だし
    自前でロケットさえ飛ばせない
    ノーベル賞なんか皆無だし(金で買える平和賞は除く)
    ああ、むしろIQなんて全然意味ねえじゃんて気づかせられた件でした

    Jk

    ++
    韓国の新聞の社説を読んでると、論旨が不明瞭で様々な故事を出した後に何の論理的な展開も無く○○が悪いという結論で終ってる事が多くて何を伝えたい文章なのかさっぱり分からない事が多い。

    普通の新聞記事でも、感情的な言い回しが多くて、記者はニュースを伝えたいのか、怒り嘆きを伝えたいのかよく分からない文章になってる事が多い。

    そんな文章を日常的に読んでいたら、文章を読むのが苦手になっても不思議ではないし、論理思考が出来なくなっていくのも無理は無い。

    ++
    だからなのか、韓国の新聞て論説委員からして文章力がない。ただダラダラ長いだけで何が言いたいのかさっぱり伝わらない。記事タイトルと書いてる内容がズレてることも多々ある。こんなレベルの低い文章ばかりなのに、読解力を求めらても何の意味もないから、そのままで良いと思う。

    +
    韓国の新聞のコラムでも
    読みたくなるような、読ませる文章ではないよね。ドヤ顔でどこかの国の引用から始まるのが
    ほとんど。
    ++

    童貞 同情   同志 冬至   史記 詐欺
    紳士 神社   郵政 友情   首相 受賞
    火傷 画像   市長 市場   風速 風俗
    映画 栄華   戦死 戦士   歩道 報道
    犬喰 見識   日傘 量産   数値 羞恥
    お腹 お船   烈火 劣化   主義 注意
    読者 独自   団扇 負債   停電 停戦
    大使 台詞   諸国 帝国   諸島 制度
    声明 姓名   無力 武力   全員 田園
    定木 定規   全力 電力   代弁 大便
    捕鯨 包茎   地図 指導   素数 小数
    対局 大国   誇張 課長   インド 引導
    初代 招待   朝鮮 造船   駅舎 歴史
    発光 発狂   定額 精液   火傷 画像
    反戦 反転   反日 半日   武士 無事
    大便 代弁   無力 武力   電車 戦車
    連覇 連敗   恨国 韓国   祈願 起源
    競技 景気   放火 防火

    ハングルでは全部同じ。
    同音異義語というのみならず表記も全く同じ。
    前後の文脈で区別するしかない。

    例:
    釣船の操船で有名な朝鮮人たちの祖先が造船した商船に率先して乗船し商戦に挑戦

    チョスンのチョスンで有名なチョスン人たちのチョスンがチョスンしたチョスンにチョスンしてチョスンしチョスンにチョスン

    http://u1sokuhou.ldblog.jp/archives/50389367.html

    ++

    kaikaiの他所でも書いたが、
    文章のプロである朝鮮日報・中央日報・等々の文章が下手で驚く。
    コラムを書く役職の有る記者ですら、無駄な前振り、論点が行方不明など酷い。

    さらに酷いのは新聞記者ではない何かの教授や研究員・学者の類が描く時だ、
    目が回るほどに下手だ。
    日本のそこいらの素人のblogの方が上手い。

    他の国ではそういうことは無い、朝鮮だけの大きな特徴でとにかく文章が下手糞だ。
    翻訳の問題ではない。
    文章の構成能力や論理的な組み立てが出来てない性質のものだ。

    一言で言うと「馬鹿」としか思えない。 いや、馬鹿なんだろう。

    ++

    62名無し1年前ID:QxMDg2NTE(1/2)
    >>59
    >>58
    >>60
    向こうの記事読んでそれ感じる。漢字捨てたせいか専門的な単語を使うのにためらうというか使えないというか。そのために意味を分かりやすくしようと変な例えを出してやたら文章が長くなってしまう。
    その変な例えの殆どが詩的なんだが自分からすると状況が一致しないか書いた記者自身の文章酔ってるかのように感じてしまい気持ち悪い。

    起承転結の起に入るまでが長かったり承が訳が分からなかったり転に至っては絶対間違ってない自信なのか存在しない、それとなぜかなんの脈絡もなく日本が出てきたりと。
    ここに来る韓国人の文章は機械翻訳ではあるが変な比喩が無く言いたい事が分かる読みやすい文章なので全然記者よりも文章が優れてるように見える。

    Like

  3. i FORGOT THIS
    この人の発言は、韓国人の文章(新聞記事等)に通じるものがありますね。言い訳と希望的観測を交えて、整合性のない事を平然と悪びれる事なく(息を吐くように)言う。

    2018/04/02
    [05:52:03] jk
    一方、韓国の新聞記事は、的を得ているとは思えない故事や格言、故人の言を引いて、中身の薄い内容を難しく伝える。

    Like

    1. Whoops your last two comments got flagged as spam so I’m seeing them just now. Hmm, I wouldn’t say that I’m skilled enough to differentiate between good and bad journalistic writing just yet. I /can/ tell the skill difference between, say, a newbie writer who publishes web novels on Naver and more experienced novelist.

      In terms of annoying things Korean writers do… hm… I don’t think I’m widely read enough to make too many sweeping judgments here but I have noticed that in a lot of literary writing, Korean authors tend to use adjectives that are near synonyms of each other, one after the other in the same sentence. e.g. “her face was pale and white” or “the rain fell heavily and strongly.” Sometimes I think the slight nuance helps add atmosphere but when it happens sentence after sentence it becomes tedious to read (and translate). The other thing I personally like in my fiction is varying sentence lengths. It changes up the . cadence of the prose and keeps things interesting. I find that a lot of Korean sentences are similar in length (longggg) one after the other.

      Interesting… I’ll take a look at those Japanese comments (let’s see how far I get before the Kanji kicks my ass and I need to use a dictionary lol). Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. WelL theres lots of cool popup dictionaries to save you time like rikaichan and yomikun.

        From my limited experience of reading Korean articles I have to agree with the Japanese people lol. They were just describing what I was thinking but wasn’t confident enough to say since reading Korean isn’t that comfortable at times. Like you I don’t think I’m good enough to decide whether someone’s writing is bad or good

        Liked by 1 person

        1. here’s one of the original sites in case you were curious
          https://kaikai.ch/board/2377/

          this is 58

          韓国の新聞メディアや教授のコラムって、その論文全体を通して主張したい1つの軸が不明瞭で、一貫性がなく、要点がないんだよね。
          だから「韓国人の書く文章は無駄に長い」「読むだけ無駄だった(重要な事が書いてない)」という感想持つ日本人は多い。

          “起承転結”あるいは“起転結”
          これを韓国人は文章として成立させてない。
          日本だと、大学で論文の書き方は骨身に叩き込まれるんだけど、韓国は何をやってるんだろ?

          this is post 60
          韓国の新聞のコラムとかって
          内容の核心に入るまで長くて
          余計な知識披露が多い、文字スペース
          考えろよ。

          they were the posts that post 62 responded too.

          Like

  4. I love this! My long term goal is also to write as well and with as much confidence in Korean as I do in English, so this was extremely helpful. Can’t wait to check out your Korean-language blog — I started one a few months ago but only have three posts so far ㅎㅎ 화이팅!

    Liked by 1 person

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