Aiming at Publication: Tips from a Non-native English Writer like You

By Bernardo Eugenio Pincheira Sarmiento. He is from Chile. He did his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Nottingham in the UK and after that moved to Moscow to work as Research Fellow at HSE University. He also ran a workshop at the Academic writing center.

Are you a non-native English speaker like me? Then, chances that you will find writing very hard are very high. Writing is difficult per se, but we, non-English speaking writers, face some additional difficulties: it is a challenge to express ideas clearly in a foreign language having limited knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and writing conventions. That is why, despite the high quality of our data analysis or lab-experiments, we tend to postpone writing a paper as much as possible. But eventually we need to make an effort and put our research results into words. I would like to share a few Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind when writing for publication. I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and papers of non-natives can be publishable in English.

First draft

If you are a perfectionist, you are likely to be unhappy with your very first draft, and you will keep deleting and rewriting what you have written, starting all over again and staying for a long time in this loop. Even though I am not a perfectionist myself, I have been there — writing two sentences and deleting three. So, my first advice is: do not aim for perfection at the beginning and just start writing! As my mom says (and Voltaire before her): perfect is the enemy of good. Anyway, there will be plenty of time to improve it later.

Here are some strategies that I try to use all the time. One strategy that may help us develop the first draft is to give some thinking to the structure of the paper before writing. If we (broadly) know what the sections are, then it is easier to fill them in with information. Also, keep in mind that, depending on the discipline, sometimes we may start writing the introduction at the end. In empirical economics, for example, it is common to start writing either about the methodology or the data (or a single section which contains both parts). Then, we write up the results and robustness checks. This makes the body of the paper. Once the body of the paper is ready, we proceed with writing the introduction and the conclusions.

Another strategy that may help us at this early stage is to read papers from good journals to get ideas and pick up language. This may be especially useful if you have some journal in mind where to submit your paper.

The one thing that we should avoid at all costs is to start writing in our native language first, and then translating it into English. This may be tempting, especially when we are not experienced in writing research papers in English. We may feel that writing in our native language will make things easier. However, there are at least two big problems with it. The major one is that, since we are not professional translators, we are likely to make a word-for-word translation that sounds odd in English. The second problem is that translating is time consuming. We may spend a lot of time doing the translation, the time that can be better used for polishing the text. In addition, the way of developing ideas or structuring the text may be different in our academic culture from the conventions in the English-speaking world.

Main writing stage

Well, we have our first draft, it is not perfect of course. I remember that my supervisor, when I showed him my first draft, mentioned that the sentence structure “could be improved,” which was a polite way of saying “throw that draft into the bin.” Discouraging, but I kept writing.

The thing is, even if we write directly in English, we tend to use the structure of our native language. This may lead us to writing like Master Yoda. Since most referees seem to sympathise with the dark side of the force, this is unlikely to help us with our publication aims. In some cases, Google can help us with getting the right structure of the sentence. Use it!

Another issue to keep in mind is whether to use active or passive voice. As we, economists, like to say, the right answer is “it depends.” In several disciplines, the passive voice is treated as more formal, but in others it is a killer. For some reason, economists prefer the active voice. Again, read journals in your discipline to have a better idea about this issue.

Polishing

We have a full draft, yay! Brace yourself because polishing may be the most boring part of the process. However, it is an essential stage if we want to publish an article in a good journal. So, prepare to polish and polish the text again before booking a consultation with the AWC. Some of you may be wondering: “Why should I polish the text before the consultation? Is it not supposed to be their task to do it?” Well, the consultants will help us improve the paper. But it is our paper, isn’t it? Also there are some time limits for consultations, and we want to have a more productive session, don’t we? Therefore, we may, for example, check spelling and grammar using a spellchecker. This way at the consultation, we can focus on other issues beyond simple typos. Also, be ready to discuss the logical development of ideas to achieve clarity. Especially, when we are the single author of the paper, it is always helpful to have external eyes to read it. Also, before you have booked the consultation, check the journal guidelines! There may be some requirements about British vs. American English, reference style, certain rules about sections, etc. Ideally, after the consultation with the AWC, the text should be ready to be submitted without any further delay.

When polishing, various software and dictionaries can help*, but they are not perfect. For example, when I am writing in a rush or not 100% focused for whatever reason, I tend to mix where/were or this/these. These mistakes may go unnoticed. So, I strongly suggest that you read the text out loud (this also applies for the consultation itself). It helps us go slower, spotting more mistakes. A warning: sometimes, we read what we think should be there instead of the actual text.

Finally, consistency is the key. Some journals may not have a specific requirement about British vs. American English. However, it is important that we stick to one type of spelling. Just to give a few examples of the typical differences between British English vs. American English, I can mention:

  • Single vs. double l: cancelling/canceling
  • ou vs. o: colour/color
  • s vs. z: organising/organizing
  • Single quotation marks vs. double quotations marks.

Can you tell me which type of English I have been using throughout this post?

Takeaway

If you have reached the end of this post, remember the following:

  • Write in English from the very start
  • Do not aim for perfection in the first draft
  • Try to polish the text on your own before going to the AWC
  • Read out loud when polishing the text.

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