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I have a long-term goal to write a non-fiction book: a critical book about the current state of humanity's moral methodologies and how humanity is better off dead. Much like Friedrich Nietzsche but with a persuasive writing style.

To this end, how do I learn new words? What kinds of books should I read to feed more knowledge into my brain to improve my knowledge of English? Should I be reading books about English (like style guides)? Should I read examples of the genre I want to write? General English-language writing like newspapers, magazines, or blogs? Something else?

Note: I was referred from the English forum to here. English is my second language.

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When I was learning another language, it didn't matter what I read (well, ok, I avoided the tabloids). Books, textbooks, magazines, and good newspapers all contributed to my vocabulary and comfortable feel for the language. Everything helps! Just read as much as you can, as often as you can.

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To improve your mastery of a language, you need to immerse yourself in it, as much as you can. This doesn't necessarily mean travelling to a location where the language is spoken, though that would certainly help. Here are some other things you can do. The more you do, and the more often, the higher your proficiency will be.

  • Read newspapers. This would provide you with vocabulary related to everyday subjects, as well as expose you to modern-day language. With rare exceptions, you can trust newspapers to use correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Read literature. Literature offers a wider vocabulary and a wider range of registers. It can, however, be more flexible with standard grammar, and the usage of some words, structures, or figures of speech might be antiquated.
  • Read nonfiction. That is what you want to write, so read it. See how people express their ideas.
  • Watch movies. It's important to hear the language, not just to read it. Even if your goal is writing rather than speaking.
  • Listen to songs you like. Find the lyrics and sing along. This helps you remember both individual words and larger structures.
  • Play computer games, if that's your thing. Being exposed to a language through fun activities doesn't feel like "work", but you're learning the language just the same.
  • Communicate in writing. There's Stack Exchange, there are forums, there's Reddit, there's Facebook and Twitter... Find whatever platforms suit you best, express your thoughts, get responses. Passive acquisition of the language is insufficient - you need to actively use it if you wish to write.
  • Find people you can talk with, preferably native speakers. For the same reason as above, only now faster - you cannot open a dictionary to find the right word, you need to find it at the speed of thought.
  • Learn the grammar rules. This shouldn't be your focus - grammar should come naturally, same as it does in your native language. But if you find yourself in doubt, you can always fall back on the rule.
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Consider watching movies, interviews, listening to podcasts... A feel for spoken language will give your written language a fluidity you might not acquire through reading alone.

Reading poetry is another good exercise because good poetry stretches the possibilities of syntax and grammer. Song lyrics, too.

  • 1
    You make a good point about poetry. Reading poetry aloud in particular has been very helpful to me in learning foreign languages. Among other things, it helps me grasp the musicality of the language. Welcome to Writing.SE! I hope to see more of you here. :) Here are the links to our tour and help center pages - take a look. :) – Galastel Aug 17 at 4:56
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English is my fourth language and the three things I can recommend are (1) learn the grammar rules, (2) learn sentence structures and (3) expand your vocabulary.

Watch these aspects as you read different forms of writing. Words create image. There is a tone in everything.

With the basics taken care of, you can write anything.

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