Improving Academic Writing Skills: My Personal Perspective as an ESL Researcher
There are tons of advice on the internet on academic writing, and even some pop up, unsolicited, in your mailbox. But most of them assume you have some writing skill, like you know how to write a short essay or a letter. If that is the case, then the advice may help to hone your writing skills to the formality and structure of academic writing.
But what if, English, the presumptive language of communication of STEM fields, is not your mother tongue and you’re still struggling with putting words together to form a coherent sentence or not quite sure about the usage of pronouns such as ‘these’, ‘those’, ‘a’, and ‘the’.
Here, I like to share my experience on how I have been improving my academic writing skills as an ESL researcher, as English is not my first language, or second for that matter. Since I’m not an expert on academic writing, this is not one of those ‘how to …” advice; It is a personal perspective.
Thus, I’m not going to tell you to do this and that. Because, most often than not, generic advice does not work. Otherwise, there would not be many ‘Self-help’ and ‘How to’ books; If they’ve worked as advertised, I would have become a billionaire, sitting on the deck of a superyacht, basking in the turquoise waters and salty breeze of the Mediterranean, out for a coffee break from an advanced physical chemistry lab located in the basement. Because, I have read many books, including one on becoming rich, and thought hard, but did not grow that rich. Sorry, Napoleon Hill.
I’m sharing this perspective in the hope that you may find bits and pieces that you, an aspiring postgraduate or Ph.D. student, like to adopt and tailor to your unique situation.
Academic writing is a skill that most of us have to develop by ourselves since most universities do not offer classes on it. And if you’re lucky, your advisor may help. I’m not talking about the advisor completing your draft & submitting it; I’m talking about he/she asks you to revise, revise, and revise again while providing meaningful and concrete suggestions to improve.
But let’s be honest, most advisors do not care much for our personal development. They want us to align our goals and interest with theirs. So generally speaking, they do not want to spend time guiding us through how to write and improve our skills. For them, it is much efficient when we do the experiments and prepare a draft, while a more experienced senior Ph.D. student or postdoc completes the writing. That way, he/she can publish more papers and presumably get more funding. Even though publishing more with your name on it is tempting, at some point, you will realize that it is much more fulfilling when you do the whole process by yourself, at least for one paper. It is like baking muffins; even if you can buy it, for less money and time, it tastes much better when you pick the blueberries, mix the ingredients, and bake to your preference.
Luckily, my first advisor, professor David Anderson was one of the few that willing to spend time and energy on helping students to improve their writing skills. I still remember the first paper I wrote. I sent him a draft and waited impatiently. A few days later, I was excited, though cautiously, when he said it was good but needed a bit of improvement. I was devastated when he handed me back the paper filled with red marks and questions. After recovering from the crash a few hours later, I started working on the revision. Then another revision on top of the first revision, then further revisions. After more than 10 revisions, we finally able to submit it.
If you’re as fortunate as I am, and had the chance to study in an English-speaking country and had a caring advisor, then you have many opportunities, such as classes, seminars, homework, and projects, through which you can improve writing skill. But most people don’t have that luxury, and even if they had, it is still challenging to write in English if you grow up speaking another language, especially if the language has totally different grammatical rules.
So, what has been helping me to improve my writing skills?
By writing, I mean writing anything, like a few words or sentences. By writing something, you have started and at least have something to work with. You know what they say, beginning is half the battle. With regard to scientific research, I write down ideas that come to mind, in simple words and sentences. I also plan experiments in paper, by writing down major steps and the reason for it. When reading papers, I like to write down a summary of the paper. Besides, I talk to myself by writing from time to time, like when I got upset, could not get to back to sleep, because a neighbor woke me up at midnight to ask if I saw his cat. I write myself to sleep by writing down why I am upset.
One can’t become a good writer unless he/she reads. I read a lot: I read before going to bed, I read in the weekends and reading holidays. I read while waiting for a tram and again on it on during a one hour commute. I have four modes of reading. I read for fun, it could be newspapers and books, and mostly not scientific in content. I also read to stay up to date with my field of research. This is a quick mode, and it takes about 30 minutes to read a paper. In this mode, I choose the most recent papers, read the abstract and then figures one by one, and check the experimental section if some figures do not make sense. The third one is intensive and critical reading with the aim to find weak points and flawed arguments in the paper. To do that, I choose a good paper, read carefully from introduction to conclusion while also checking references. Sometimes, I had to read other papers to better understand the target paper. In the end, I write an extensive reading report that includes the main findings of the paper, unique or novel approaches that the authors used, and most importantly, highlights of weak arguments and uncorroborated claims. As you can imagine, it can take quite some time; for me, it takes two to five hours. So I read in this mode less frequently, usually a paper a month.
Last but not least is reading aloud. In this mode, I read out a short and nicely written paper that is also easy to understand and read. These types of papers are easy to find in Physics Today and Physics. Science and Nature also have some good ones, especially among the Perspectives and Editorials. I read aloud a paper almost every day, in the early morning or after dinner, and it takes about 10 minutes. However, when I started this practice almost ten years ago, I used to read one paper out loud multiple times, sometimes on different days, to the point that I almost memorized it word by word. I think this practice helped me familiarize myself with the rhythm and grammar of the English language, even if subconsciously.
These are my personal experiences and practices in academic writing, which is hard, takes time, and one gets better at it only by practicing.
But there is a niche: scientific articles have a clear structural organization, from introduction to experimental, then to results and discussions, and at the end, the conclusion. This template helps organize ideas and arguments into sections. Furthermore, if we rewind the process of writing, we realize that an article is written in words, making up sentences, and paragraphs, as the coherent connection of sentences. We also notice that there are lots of ‘erases’ and rewriting, and rearrangement of sentences and paragraphs.
So one could follow the same process, start with organizing the structure of the article, then start writing down words and connect them into sentences. With regard to organizing ideas (or topics), an essay written by George Whitesides could be used as guidance.
The idea is that first construct an outline, then write down one sentence in each paragraph to describe what it is about. For example, let’s say we are writing the introduction, and it has three paragraphs. The first paragraph should be an introduction of the topic using a few sentences and then stating the existing problems in the field. How the community has been trying to solve the problems comes as the second paragraph. In the third paragraph, one lays out how she/he proposes to tackle the problems.
Once we have divided a section into paragraphs, we can then focus on the theme of each paragraph, by first writing down some words or sentences to describe the main theme of that paragraph, then adding words and sentences. At this point, the sentences do not have to be grammatically correct nor smoothly connected. The idea is to write down something, anything. Then, it is easy to work on it.
Then comes the task of editing. Here, one checks the words, corrects the grammar, and connects the sentences smoothly, paragraph by paragraph. Here, sentences also need to be reordered.
So, we have completed a section. The process of writing the next section, or any other sections, follows similar steps. In the end, we will have a draft, from introduction to conclusions, however rough it may look. I find it is best to stay away from the first draft for a few days, then come back to it with a fresh eye and replenished mind. Then work on it. The second draft, hopefully organized and comprehensible, can be sent to a more experienced person, be it your advisor or senior group member, to look at the organization of the article. Once the structure is fixed, more improvements should be done about the language and readability.
So, that is it. Some of my practices may sound unorthodox, but they are helpful, at least for me. Please leave a comment and let me know you think.