Do you enjoy writing and learning French?
If so, why not do both? It’s one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the language.
Even if creative writing isn’t quite your thing in English, picking it up as a hobby in French will help fine-tune your language skills.
In this post, we’ll look at how you can start with the basics and work up to practicing writing in the ultimate way: creating your own French short stories.
- The Importance of Solid Writing Skills
- Easy Ways to Get Started on Improving Your French Writing
- The Next Step Up: Writing Short Stories
- Tips for Further Honing Your Writing Skills
- Go Forth and Write with Confidence!
The Importance of Solid Writing Skills
You might be doubtful about how important writing skills really are in the modern world, but it’s important to know that modern French society may test how well you write in many situations. Here are just a couple examples.
The phenomenon of graphologie
Even with computers, writing on paper remains very important in France. It’s so important, in fact, that many employers use it to learn more about their employees. As part of a pseudo-scientific practice known as graphology, prospective employees submit handwritten letters that are analyzed by graphologists to determine psychological traits from their handwriting. The BBC provides a good explanation for the French enthusiasm for graphology.
The French take letters seriously!
Even aside from graphology, it’s not a stretch to say that the French use written correspondence more than English speakers do. Up until recently, it was often considered more polite to submit handwritten letters of motivation than typed letters when applying for a job. Unlike the relative creative liberty given in American business correspondence, French counterparts usually follow tried-and-true templates, such as the one seen here.
Notice the last line:
Veuillez agréer, (Madame, Monsieur), l’expression de mes sincères salutations.
(Please accept, [Sir or Madam], the expression of my sincere greetings.)
This long-winded formality, called a formule de politesse, is one of the mainstays of formal communication in French—a long way from our simple “From” or “Sincerely”!
Easy Ways to Get Started on Improving Your French Writing
To me, written French is a work of art. The flowery templates of French business correspondence above confirm, to some extent, that the French feel the same. Written French has taken on a sort of metropolitan sophistication often not found in other languages. It’s no wonder so many businesses use French words, usually in some fancy font, to advertise.
Assuming you’re more interested in actually writing French than passively appreciating it, though, you need to figure out what and how to write. Before you tackle full-on short stories, here are some ideas to get you warmed up.
Track your progress with a journal
Language instructors often integrate a written journal into their curricula because it lets students see their improvement in real time. The writing is personal, so you can experiment with more complicated structures, knowing you won’t be critiqued. Heck, you can even write a journal about your adventures learning French. It’s like a beneficial kind of circular logic!
Join and participate in French forums
Online forums and comments sections are a great way to practice writing about a subject you’re interested in. The key is to get your message across. Correct grammar isn’t critical (reading other forum comments will confirm that!). Although you (probably) won’t receive constructive criticism on your grammar in forums, you’ll get better at “impromptu” writing by making regular contributions.
If you’re a professional, Francophone forums in your area of expertise are a great way to network internationally and to learn the French lingo in your field.
Try writing poetry
Poetry teaches you to not only write in French, but to become comfortable handling the language. This is your chance to break out of the groove of repetitive exercises and truly experiment. Try reading up on French poetry and then writing some of your own using rhyming, plays on words, etc.
A major part of learning a language is taking ownership of it. French poetry has had a commanding presence since medieval times, making itself known in the same genres as English poetry: Epics, verse, spoken word, etc. So join the ranks of Molière, Baudelaire, Hugo and others. I find rhyming particularly easy in French because so many French words have common endings.
The Next Step Up: Writing Short Stories
If I were to re-learn French, I’d write more short stories. The benefits are too numerous to ignore. It’s definitely a project, but we’ll break it down step-by-step.
Learn how narration works in French
Narrating a story in French involves a complicated weaving of different verb tenses. The same is true in English, but we do it instinctively, so it’s not a problem.
It’s critical to learn to use the right tense at the right time. Otherwise, your writing will lose its meaning.
To set the scene, use the imparfait to describe things that are happening, or characteristics of participants, as the principal action is taking place.
Principal events in a story’s timeline can be narrated in the passé composé or the passé simple. In some cases, this type of narration might even make use of the présent. Narration can be either in the present or in the past depending on the narrator’s point of view.
Let’s look at this sentence as an example:
Alors que le roi se promenait dans son jardin, un gland est tombé sur sa tête.
(As the king was walking in his garden, an acorn fell on his head.)
Notice how se promener is in the imparfait but tomber is in the passé composé. The king walking is “setting the scene,” and the acorn falling is the principal event in the narration. This is just one example of French narration. Entire books could be written on it.
More specifically, learn the passé simple
If we wanted to get picky, instead of using the passé composé, we could use the passé simple when narrating principal events.
Our sentence thus becomes:
Alors que le roi se promenait dans son jardin, un gland tomba sur sa tête.
In written French, the passé simple can take the place of the passé composé (unless it’s a quote of someone speaking). It’s a much more economical way of narrating, although often not taught by French teachers.
Enlarge your vocabulary with active use
Knowing your audience is just as important in narration as good tense use. The way you tell a story, specifically the vocabulary used, differs between, say, children’s stories, young adult novels and Goncourt-worthy works.
Writing a short story is a great way to learn vocabulary because you’re putting that vocabulary into use instead of just reading it. A good writer assigns different vocabulary to characters depending on age, background, etc. Remember, the French language is much more varied than the restrictive glossaries of textbooks.
Use online resources to get started
If you have story ideas but are unsure how to proceed, there are many online resources to help you.
Here are a few ways you can use them.
- Try collaborative French writing forums.
As explained above, the mere act of contributing to forums improves your writing. However, certain forums, such as De Plume en Plume or Le Monde de L’Écriture, allow you to actually post short stories for review in exchange for reviewing other peoples’ work.
Commentary can include anything that helps you finish your story, be it grammar corrections, critiques or ideas of how to continue. These sites also propose written exercises such as collaborative writing or prompts like “Describe a garden in under 100 words.”
- Check out concours de nouvelles.
Many French libraries, universities and municipalities host writing contests called concours de nouvelles (literally “short story competition”) where certain people can submit a text. Some have entry conditions (e.g., participants must be under/over a certain age, live in a region, etc.), but others, like Achève-moi, are open to anyone.
Usually, contests give you specific scenarios, such as writing a story based on a simple picture or completing an unfinished work. Other than that, you can let your imagination take flight. Bonnes Nouvelles provides a list of competitions you may qualify for.
Tips for Further Honing Your Writing Skills
As you write your stories, there are small measures you can take to push yourself. Bear in mind that these are just my personal tips, so they’re not set in stone.
Put new words to immediate use
You’re probably already reading French daily (or you should be!). Once you learn a new word, make sure you utilize it right away in your writing, otherwise it might slip away from your memory. Constant exposure and usage will ensure that new vocabulary sticks with you.
If you’re pressed for time, you can use convenient language learning programs like Duolingo or Memrise to quickly pick up and learn French words. Another option would be FluentU, which lets you see and practice words and phrases in context using authentic French videos equipped with interactive subtitles, flashcards and quizzes.
Don’t use a dictionary too often
It’s okay if you can’t think of a synonym for every word. If you can’t, just use the words you know. I try to “talk around” words I don’t know if I get stuck. After all, it’s what you do when speaking. Only if this is impossible should you use a dictionary.
Keep in mind that even if you know a word, you might not know its gender or spelling. Sometimes it’s possible to guess the spelling from pronunciation, and genders might be inferred from similar words, but often you’ll just have to memorize.
Write out a short passage first, then check your grammar
You don’t want to rely on dictionaries or grammar books to check every sentence, but at the same time you don’t want to wait until you’re completely done with a piece of writing to check it over. Usually I write roughly a paragraph, then check it before moving on. This lets me learn from my mistakes in real time while not using learning resources as a crutch.
Go Forth and Write with Confidence!
Far from being niche, written French has a commanding presence in world literature (and the short story is a very important component of this, by the way).
You’d be hard-pressed to find a French child who has not read “Le Petit Prince,” for example. Writing has been front and center in covering the major changes in French society—everything from mass consumerism in Georges Perec’s “Les Choses” to multiculturalism in “Un papillon dans la cité” by Gisèle Pineau, to the sexual revolution in Françoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse.”
And don’t think that being a non-native speaker will stop you. It didn’t stop Milan Kundera, François Cheng or Jonathan Littell.
With a greater awareness of Francophone writing combined with some confidence from the tips above, the legacy of written French is yours to tap into!