Academic Writing for Non-Native English Speakers
English has been called the language of modern science, and top-tier journals in many other scholarly fields also publish their content in the English language. Since the publication of advanced research is an important aspect of an academic or scientific career, success requires a command of written English, and not the informal and unpolished kind that is frequently used on social media and personal blogs. Scholarly writing in the English language should be correct and logical, with carefully structured sentences formulated to communicate research procedures and results accurately and express insightful interpretations and conclusions with sophistication. These goals can present significant challenges even for native speakers of English; for those who are still learning the language, they can seem insurmountable. They are not, however, and those who master the art of writing excellent scholarly prose in any language other than their mother tongue deserve admiration as well as the publication and career success their writing will help them achieve.
Unfortunately, there is no one reliable method for developing writing skills that will allow you to report and discuss your research in formal English with the clarity, precision and complexity you could easily attain in your own language. The problems presented when translating words and thoughts into English from one language often differ from those arising when translating from another language. Fields of study and areas of specialisation vary in their terminology and conventional forms of expression, individual documents vary in their structural and stylistic requirements, and individual scholars vary in their writing styles and ways of learning. Despite these differences, however, there are some tried and true approaches to writing well in any language and other strategies that are especially important when learning to write academic and scientific prose in English.
First and foremost is to read English texts – as many and as frequently as you possibly can. Anything that is well written will be helpful, but remember that poorly written prose can teach errors instead of sound practices, so if you are unable as yet to tell the difference, ask a friend or mentor, ideally one who is a native speaker of the language, for advice on your reading choices. Reading the types of documents you hope ultimately to write will prove most constructive. This is not to say that you should avoid English newspapers, magazines and romance novels if you want to write scientific articles or a literary monograph. Any exposure to decently written examples of the language can be productive, after all, and simple prose with a clear narrative may be easier to digest at first, but reading romance novels will ultimately be most useful if romance novels are what you want to write.
Reading academic or scientific articles, on the other hand, will not only help you learn how to write them, but also play a natural part in your research, so the benefits are manifold. Reading research material as close to your own as possible in topic and methodology will provide useful terminology and phrasing as well as structural and logical patterns that can be emulated and adjusted as you design and write your own documents. A notebook in which you can jot down helpful words and their definitions, useful phrases and tricky grammatical constructions as you read will grow into a personal dictionary and prove an immensely helpful resource when you set fingers to keyboard and try to recall all you have learned. If you have a particular journal or press in mind for a document in progress, be sure to include some of its recent publications in your reading and do not neglect the publisher’s website and guidelines for authors. How the information and instructions are written will be as important as what they directly tell you about the kinds of manuscripts considered and how to prepare yours for submission and review.
Extensive reading will help you begin to think in English, which is a valuable skill indeed when working to write well in the language. Many an academic or scientific paper has been conceived, designed and written in another language and then translated into English, and this approach can certainly work. However, some successfully published non-native authors of English documents insist that a more effective approach for producing high-quality English prose is to draft it in English from the beginning. Thinking about your research with the English words and phrases you have encountered in your reading will enable you to adapt those words and phrases and begin writing about your research in short, simple sentences. These may seem formulaic and even rather childish or awkward at first, but editing is always required, so even the roughest English draft of what you need to share about your research is the first goal. If you find that this approach is not for you, however, be sure to keep the patterns of English sentences in mind as you translate to ensure that you avoid mechanically repeating structures appropriate for your own language that will come across as unnatural or unclear in English.
Always take the time to read, correct, edit and otherwise polish each word, phrase and sentence of your English prose with extreme care before you submit it for publication. Yes, some publishers will be kind enough to inform you that your English needs improvement before your manuscript can be seriously considered, but it is better to avoid this sort of delay and make a good impression the first time around. Sharing your writing with mentors, colleagues, fellow students and even friends who know very little about your research is an excellent idea, but do choose at least some of these readers strategically. Native speakers of English, for instance, will be able to help you with natural-sounding vocabulary and phrasing, but be aware that not all of them will be great writers and few are likely to be able to help with the correct use of specialised terminology and the conventions associated with your field of study. Fellow scholars will be able to address these aspects of your writing, and if they have successfully published in English research that is similar to your own, their experience and advice will prove all the more beneficial, whether they are native speakers of English or of your own or another language.
In the end, however, it is you who must use all the models and advice and instructions you can gather to polish your English until you have a publishable research manuscript. Time alone with your writing can be incredibly productive for correcting errors, smoothing awkward patches, refining precise descriptions and developing persuasive interpretations, but that time can be equally frustrating if the means of improvement are unavailable due to language barriers. If you are stuck, reading your writing aloud to yourself can be helpful, particularly if you are more familiar with spoken than with written English. Do keep in mind, however, that constructions used in speech are not always appropriate for formal writing, though they will certainly do for a first draft. Another excellent way to focus attention on language matters is to print your document out so that you can read and edit a hard copy. Many authors find this the most effective way to solve language and stylistic problems, and you can scribble corrections, alternatives and other notes between the lines and in the margins as needed without altering the digital copy until you sit down to the keyboard again.
There are so very many aspects and details of language to attend to while proofreading and revising academic and scientific writing that describing them all, even were I to focus only on those of special concern to authors writing in a language other than their mother tongue, would prove impossible. Most authors working to master English become all too aware of both the major and the minor differences between it and their own language, and also of their own tendencies to make certain errors and introduce particular problems. All of these should be a primary focus when you are polishing your English writing, and the process of correcting and rephrasing will gradually help you improve your English and eliminate those erroneous tendencies. More generally, there are certain errors and issues that tend to arise with great frequency when researchers who are not native speakers of English are reporting their work in that language, so do stay alert for these as you edit:
• The tiny words such as articles and prepositions, which tend to have varying usage patterns among languages, and pronouns, which must always be used with grammatical and semantic precision to avoid confusion.
• Verb tenses, which, when used with care, accurately establish the temporal order of research processes and can also be instrumental in developing the logic of a persuasive academic or scientific argument.
• Agreement in number and person between nouns or pronouns and the verbs associated with them. Collective nouns which can sometimes be plural and sometimes singular are particularly challenging in this regard, as are any nouns that are normally plural in your own language but singular in English or vice versa.
• Words with similar appearances but very different meanings or similar meanings but different nuances. Examples include ‘experience’ and ‘experiment,’ ‘teach’ and ‘learn,’ ‘lie’ and ‘lay,’ ‘say’ and ‘tell,’ ‘access’ and ‘assess,’ ‘affect’ and ‘effect,’ ‘fabricate’ and ‘elaborate,’ ‘remember’ and ‘remind,’ ‘less’ and ‘fewer,’ and ‘much’ and ‘many,’ but there are a host of others as well.
• Punctuation patterns, which should always clarify an author’s meaning. They tend to differ among languages, however, and individual pieces of punctuation are tiny, so they are very easily missed while editing. Do pay special attention to your use of apostrophes and hyphens.
• Capitalisation, special fonts and other forms of emphasis that have been used in accordance with the conventions of your own language, but are inappropriate in formal English or simply produce a cluttered, unattractive and unprofessional text.
• Overuse of adjectives and adverbs to achieve accuracy or precision. Occasionally several modifiers are necessary to describe research conditions and results, but in most cases using a dictionary and thesaurus to choose a more precise or effective noun or verb is the answer.
Sentences will usually need to be rearranged and reworded, the connections and transitions between them will require refinement, and dictionaries, writing guides, phrase lists and your own notes from reading will be put to frequent use in order to repair problems and produce prose that is clear and smooth. The process of perfecting an academic or scientific English text can therefore prove quite lengthy for authors who are new to writing in the language. Be patient with yourself and remember that editing well tends to make the greatest demands on a writer’s language skills. The main point is to avoid confusing errors and unintentional ambiguity so that you can present your research clearly and accurately. Make your statements and descriptions informative but concise, use any discipline-specific terminology that may prove confusing to readers sparingly, and choose language that will be meaningful to the international audience most scholarly publications in the English language hope to reach. Remember, too, that most publishers prefer or request one of the two main forms of English – British and American – so be sure to check the guidelines you are following and use the appropriate spelling, vocabulary and phrasing consistently throughout your manuscript.
Everything about those publisher guidelines must be understood and followed, of course, when you are submitting a manuscript for publication, and doing so can help you ensure that you are presenting your research in accordance with the standards and conventions expected in English academic and scientific writing. A scholarly journal, for instance, will usually outline the required structure for a research paper, indicating the order of sections and perhaps even specifying the format and number of headings and subheadings. In a conventional scientific journal paper, for instance, the title and abstract are usually followed by an introduction, a description of research methods, a report and analysis of results, a discussion of those results and their implications, and a conclusion. Such guidelines can be incredibly helpful as you outline and draft your paper, clarify the story of your research and its procedures, write manageable chunks of information-rich text, separate description and observation from interpretation and speculation, and so much more. If you choose the journal before you write your paper, use these structural guidelines to develop a template for writing your manuscript, and if you choose the journal after your paper is drafted, use them to refine the organisation of your manuscript.
Frustration will definitely rear its ugly head as you work to report and discuss your research in a language as inconsistent and unpredictable as English can be at times, but it is essential to remain confident and persist in your efforts. Rest assured that even native speakers of English occasionally have to resort to a professional proofreader or editor to iron the errors and other problems out of their formal prose, so that is always a viable option if you can afford it. It is also an option that will provide you with expert feedback on your English writing skills via not only corrections, but also explanatory comments and suggestions for further improvements. In addition, such a professional can ensure that you have met all publisher guidelines, used standard measures and internationally relevant terminology, and, if they specialise in your discipline, made good use of the conventional language and expected forms of expression for your field. The sort of qualified assistance an expert in academic or scientific English can provide will increase your confidence in your own writing and help you develop the authoritative scholarly voice required for publishing and career success.
Many academic and scientific proofreaders will also be able to identify and flag instances of inappropriate bias or research practices that do not adhere to the ethical standards common for English publications in your field of study or established by the specific journal to which you are submitting your writing. Some proofreaders who are particularly active in their fields may even be able to identify any chunks of your writing that are too similar to published texts and might be considered plagiarism or at least dangerously close to the borders of this unacceptable practice. English-language publishers will certainly check your manuscript for plagiarism once you have submitted it, so remember that it is always the author’s responsibility to avoid activities and forms of expression that are considered ethically questionable within the scholarly publishing environment he or she is hoping to enter. All your hard work can be negated and your reputation tarnished if you are accused of plagiarism or are guilty of something as small as submitting a research manuscript to more than one publisher simultaneously, so be sure to learn about the ethics associated with your field and always avoid suspect territory.
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