Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Writers' Lab: Writing Academic English for Non-Native Speakers

Your first abstract has been accepted, and you are feeling overwhelmed with joy as you’ll be able to present your work for the very first time to an interested audience.

But then you stop for a moment and realize that you’ll have to write in English

You’ll have to write in good, academic English

Academic writing is a skill all PhD students need to learn during their program, and writing in English as well as in your institution’s language both are part of learning how to write like a fully-fledged researcher.

1. Take a course

Most universities offer courses to brush up the English skills of their graduate students, as they are quickly realizing that the majority of the high-impact journals require English publications. If your university provides you with this opportunity: don’t doubt for a moment and enroll. You’ll benefit from such a course in many different ways. You’ll thank yourself when your paper deadline is quickly approaching.

If your institution does not offer English writing courses, don’t panic. Your library might have some valuable books on academic writing. If you pick up a book, don’t sit back and relax. You’ll need to actively implement the insights of the book, and learn while you work your way through it. Consider the insights from such a book like a course – and spend time and effort on improving your writing.

2. Master the technical vocabulary

Make sure you are using the correct English terms for all technical concepts you are describing. You might have all your lecture notes in your native language, and not be fully aware of the English subtleties in technical terms in your field. When in doubt, pick up an English textbook from the library and review the technical terms from your field.

3. Know the pitfalls

Avoid the typical grammar mistakes that are used in English – it’s just not acceptable to make these beginner mistakes in academic publications. And while we’re at it, you might consider subscribing to the Grammar Girl to improve your writing.

By the same token, get an understanding of the false friends between your native language and English.

4. Learn from examples

Select some papers from your literature review that you consider good examples of technical writing. Look for examples in which the narrative flows, the sentences are clear and the general concept of the paper becomes clear as it is explained very well.

Study the structure of the sentences, the paragraph transitions, the use of past and present tense, and the use of active and passive voice.

5. Practice makes perfect

Practice your writing in English from the first day of your PhD. Even though these pieces of text most certainly won’t make it into your dissertation, it is important to find your own voice by writing very often.

Here are a few examples of writing in English you can start very early on:
- a summary of a paper you read
- a critique of a paper you read
- a preparation report for your experiments
- an overview of your goals and planning for your PhD studies
- keep a research blog

6. Surround yourself with English

Besides writing, your general language skills will take a wing and soar once you familiarize yourself more and more with the language.

Reach out to the international students for conversations in English. Read papers, online news, blogs, fiction,… – everything you can lay your eyes on. For spoken English, watch the news on an English channel, or watch TED-talks.

7. Ask for advice

When you are writing your first publication, don’t be afraid to ask senior researchers for advice. Inform if your university has a service to support your writing by providing feedback. Sit together with the senior PhD students for coffee and listen to their advice on writing.

We all come in at the beginning of the PhD process with the task of learning how to become an independent researcher – a task that comprises many non-technical skills. Senior researchers are aware of the doubts of their starting colleagues, and will want to give you a helping hand and some advice every now and then.

How are you improving your English writing as a non-native speaker? Share your experiences in the comments section!

This post first appeared on The PhD Lounge


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