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.
(1) 그 남자는 나를 좋아한다고 고백했다.
(2) 그 남자가 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.
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!