Collecting collocations: how to take notes to improve one’s writing skills

I am concerned about how to improve my writing skills and I have tried a method that seems to work well.

The idea is to thoroughly study an article in order to collect collocations and expressions that we can use for writing.

Until now, I have entirely relied on Anki to learn new words. This method works like magic to me, but I realised recently that Anki only helps me recognise the words and mainly allows me to improve my reading skills. Which is fine by the way. But the problem is that I don’t always know how to use the words I learn. I don’t want to enter too much information when I create a new card in Anki. First, it would take a lot of time to do so and second, I don’t want to spend too much time studying Anki and I am sure that I would not even bother reading the complementary information when studying my deck. That is why there are a lot of words that I don’t know how to use but it’s only when I started writing in Japanese that I became aware of this problem.

To remedy this problem, I have started to take vocabulary notes relative to articles I read. This is a little different from the news articles I have been studying on this blog because the goal of this was to be able to read the news more comfortably and I focused on understanding the words, not on how to use them. The difference is that, whenever I come across a word that I think could be useful for my (future) writings in Japanese, I spend some time in the dictionary and I note all kinds of useful information about this word: in which context it can be used, what are its different meaning, how it is used and so on. Of course, I don’t write word for word the dictionary contents, I select only information that I think might be useful to me.

Concretely, this is how it works (in blue, examples from articles I have studied so far)

  • First, choose an article not too long and not too difficult. I would say that an article about a social issue is a good choice, but it could be whatever you like. A blog post, an article found on the web about a subject that interests you, etc. I personally print it and stock it in a loose leaf folder.
  • On a loose leaf that I will place face to face with the article in my folder, I write down all the unknown words of the article. When I read something, I usually try to reduce the number of words that I am looking up and try to guess the meaning of unknown words. Here, on the contrary, we are studying an article, this implies spending time on it and be thorough. I write down the words with their definition in English, an A4 page is usually enough. I always let a margin on the left side of the leaf so that I can use “signifiers” before the words I am writing down. The concept of signifiers come from the bullet journal method: a mark that can be added to a task to prioritise it for example. I am using them a little differently to hierarchise my words. There are different types of words:
    • Very difficult or specialised words that belong to a certain field and that I will probably not use myself. I just write down the definition because if they are jargon from a field that interests me, I might come across them again later. But that’s all, I don’t try to remember them and I don’t draw any signifiers. In fact, to gain time, you could just skip these words. For example, I came across the word 加工肉・かこうにく which means “cold cooked meat”. I am not trying to learn it, but I still write it down because it helps me remember that I came across such words in this article, in case I happen to read them again or hear them somewhere (who knows). 
    • Words I think that I may have the opportunity to use when writing. In front of these words, I draw a triangle, it’s my signifier to say “this word is important and might be useful someday, don’t skip it when you re-read your notes”. For example, the word 肉眼・にくがん that I found interesting and funny. It means “the naked eye”. I also wrote down the expression 肉眼で見える. 
    • Words that can be used in any situation, that is, words not particularly specific to this article and its contents and that I will certainly want to use one day. They can be adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions or of course, verbs and nouns. For these words, I draw a star, which means “to learn and remember” and I devote a little more time to them. I don’t simply look for their definition and write it down, I also read through all the example sentences given in my dictionary. I write down 2 or 3 sentences that I think might be useful. It can be sentences that show how the word can be used or even expressions that I know I will use later when doing writing exercises. These words are the most interesting words so let me give two examples. The word 割り切る・わりきる appeared in an article I read last week, it means “come to a clear decision”. This is the definition I would write on my Anki card, but to be honest, it does not tell me how this word is used. That’s why I also wrote several example sentences like “仕事は仕事、遊びは遊びと割り切る” or “割り切った考え方” (a practical approach) or “割り切った態度” (a business-like manner). Another typical example is the word 倍・ばい. I have this word in my Anki, with the definition “double”… So this time, I wrote down sentences like “倍にする/なる” and even very useful expressions like 金が倍かかる (cost twice as much) or 時間が倍かかる (take twice as much time).
  • If I decide to enter some of these words in my Anki deck, I just underline them.
  • From time to time, I re-read this list, but only the words with a signifiers.

The idea is really to create a stock of expressions that are ready to use when I need them. This is the best way that I found so far to start collecting colloquial associations. As I saw them either in the article that I read or in my dictionary (in the example sentences) I am sure that they are correct and I can use them with confidence when writing. I don’t know if it applies to everyone but knowing that one expression, one use of a word is colloquial makes me happy and helps me attach some value to what I wrote.

That’s it, I think it’s time to me to leave the comfort zone of passivity to start using the knowledge I have accumulated so far and become able to produce something in Japanese, not just understand it. (I am only speaking of my personal resolutions here, I do consider that understanding a language without speaking it or being able to write it is a highly praisable goal in itself).

おしらせ: Next week is finally the long-awaited Kyoto trip (my second time in Japan). This blog will also take some holiday. There will be no new post next week and I will be back for the Wednesday post on December 27th.

Kyototrip 1