Writing a Novel in a Second Language

Writing a Novel in a Second Language

by Ofelia Montelongo

Being a writer means that a passion for writing grows up from your inner soul and doesn’t stop until you create something worth reading. But what happens when, by twists of fate, you end up living in another country where the language spoken is your second language?

Well, that happened to me, and I can only imagine that I’m one of thousands of people in this situation. After years of writing in Spanish, I suddenly had to switch to English so professors and other writers could read my work.

HELLO in eight different languagesAll writers have infinite writing struggles, but writing in a foreign language exacerbates the tussles. But nothing is impossible in this life, so here is a list of things to consider if you are writing a novel in a second language. In this case, I’ll offer some examples as a Spanish speaker writing in English.

  1. Rough translations: Not only the language is different, but the cultural aspects and the humor also vary. Watch for those slang or common phrases and avoid translating them literally, or your reader may get lost in the translation. For example, the Spanish phrase algo es algo; menos es nada is translated in English as “half a loaf is better than no bread.” The translation is completely different, but the meaning is the same. If we want to literally translate the Spanish phrase to English, it would be “something is something; less is nothing,” which loses a bit in English. Also remember there are words in Spanish that simply don’t have an English translation, like desvelado, which translates in English to “sleep deprived.” Or estrenar, which means to wear something for the first time.
  2. Prepositions: In Spanish, a preposition can be used in different ways, just as in English. But the rules are different. I’ve been told numerous times that prepositions are the last thing you master when learning a new language. Just pay close attention to these. There are books and help online that can give you specific examples of how to use more than 100 prepositions.
  3. Order of adjectives: In Spanish, the order of adjectives varies, and it is not as strict as in English. In English a particular order is generally followed: quantity or number, quality or opinion, size, age, shape, color, material or nationality, and qualifier. An example would be: “I love those three rambunctious tiny brown puppies that live down the street.” Some other resources can tell you that shape comes before age, but this can vary by country.
  4. Punctuation: In English, exclamation and question marks change to only one at the end, and none at the beginning of a sentence, as in Spanish. Also commas, periods, and hyphens are used differently. For example, when you are ending a dialogue sentence in English, you need to put the comma or period inside of the quotation marks: “Right,” he said, or “Right.” In Spanish (and U.K. English, for that matter) the commas and periods are outside of the quotation marks: “Perfecto”. Or “Perfecto”, dijo el hombre.
  5. No accent marks: Something great about English is that there are no accent marks! So, you don’t have to learn all the theories those writing in Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc. have to learn.
  6. Contractions in dialogue: In real life, English speakers usually speak with contractions, like “She wasn’t home when I stopped by” as opposed to “She was not home when I stopped by.” As a Spanish speaker, we are not used to this. We have other types of contractions, but nothing that includes an apostrophe. Make sure to include contractions in your dialogue to make it natural sounding.
  7. Grammar: Grammar in every language is different, and even though we could believe we are experts, we always need help because there are always words or phrases that are grammatically incorrect, and when we read our work we just don’t notice them anymore. For this, I’d recommend finding an expert who can review your work. Work closely with that person in editing your novel and getting feedback as to which phrases or paragraphs are not understandable to an English speaker.
  8. Learn to love your own style: One of the things I sometimes feel I’m missing is the beauty of expressing in a Latin language. So, I added into my writing some Spanish words, here and there. At the end, what makes us different is what we are willing to risk in our writing. But of course, always remember the golden rule: Learn the rules, and then break them.
  9. Read as much as you can: The best way to get better at writing in any language is to read in that language. There is no better way to improve your writing. Read, read, read! And while you read, write down all those new words you Googled for translation and create a list of new words and their meanings that you can use in your own writing
  10. Enjoy the journey: You may receive what feels like constantly criticism for your Spanish (or whatever language’s) way of writing. But remember that you are creating your own style. Always treasure your first language, as Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his essays, “No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.” And if you are tired or giving up on writing on a second language, remember your first language is not a curse, it’s a fine-looking gift you need to learn to use properly.

These are some quick bits of advice for my fellow writers who are writing in a second language, but there are probably hundreds of recommendations other that can be useful, too. Just remember to be true to yourself and don’t get discouraged.

Happy writing!


Ofelia Montelongo is an
aspiring published author. She is writing her first Ofelia Montelongonovel, Pilgrims or Something Like That. Originally from Mexico, she has a Bachelor’s in accounting and finance and an MBA. She is currently working on her Bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing. Ofelia is also a freelance photographer and has her own business in Scottsdale (Chocolate Tour of Scottsdale). Read more at Writing My First Novel. eMail Ofellia here or “like” her on Facebook.

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