Good Habits for Research Writers

By Valeria Pozdnyakova, Ph.D., tutor at HSE School of Foreign Languages & Svetlana Suchkova, Ph.D., director of the Academic Writing Center at HSE University.

Are you preparing a research article for publication? If you are, here is a yes-no checklist for you:

  • I’ve chosen the journal.
  • I’ve carefully studied the journal’s scope and decided that my topic is a good fit.
  • I’ve read the Writer’s Guidelines carefully and highlighted what to focus on.
  • I know the required style (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc).
  • I’ve read articles from this journal and analyzed how the journal requirements are executed in these articles.
  • I’m familiar with the terminology that is conventional for this journal.
  • I can contribute to the on-going journal discussion.

How many yes-answers have you got?

It is obvious that analytical reading comes first on the way to better writing; however, it is what authors often overlook. Indeed, reading exposure is just as important for writers as music exposure is for musicians. That is the experience of others which can be helpful: it helps avoid frequent mistakes and take your writing to the next level if you do read with a purpose in mind.

Why should we study journal’s requirements thoroughly?

A short answer is to avoid paper rejection. The most common reasons for paper rejection are the ones closely connected to the journal’s requirements, such as (1) inappropriate formatting, (2) the manuscript does not fall within the aims and scope of the journal, and (3) poor language.

Inappropriate formatting

Examine the formal requirements before you start. Your manuscript should adhere to the ‘’in-house-style’’ of the journal, which involves titles and subtitles, paragraphing, reference formatting, etc. Spelling also counts. According to Shaikh’s publishers report (2016), one paper in five does not follow the style and format requirements of the target journal, which might specify requirements for figures, tables, and references. You do not want your findings to be rejected due to inaccurate formatting, do you?

Failure to comply with the aims and scope of the journal

Paper rejections are often caused by the author’s failure to be in line with the journal’s scope and readership. Only you as a researcher can decide whether it is your research community or not, whether you can contribute to the discussion or not, and why your research can be interesting to the journal’s audience. Therefore, study the journal description carefully and play a matching game to make sure your research is closely related to the journal’s focus.

True meaning behind “poor language”

Have you received comments from reviewers like “language should be edited” or ”poor language”? Does it mean grammar, vocabulary, or spelling? Usually not, though it is of course better when the language is accurate. Usually “poor language” means poor text readability, failure to meet readers’ expectations. These may include an overall chaotic structure of the paper, implicit or insufficient descriptions, or general flaws in reasoning and unsupported conclusions.

Here there are no general recipes, unfortunately. Reading articles in your field and analyzing them may help you improve your own writing over time. And also writing multiple drafts and rewriting can help to express ideas clearly, make your writing more well-organized, articulate, and effective. While reading/writing you need to ask yourself:

  • Is the main idea in each paragraph clear?
  • Is it supported by evidence?
  • Are the ideas explicitly connected with each other?
  • Is the article structure in line with the journal’s recommendations?
  • Is the text easy to follow?

What are the good habits?

I’m sure you have your own habits for reading/writing. I just want to share mine. Hopefully they’ll be useful:

Read with a pen or use computer highlighting.

Physical interaction with the text, making notes in the margin can help you focus both on content and language much deeper. Highlighting key elements, identifying supporting arguments, and summarizing main ideas can be very helpful for annotating articles as the first step to writing a literature review. It would be useful to also note how the paper is generally organized, what linking devices are used to achieve coherence.

Build your own sentence templates

Reading can be a great source to develop your academic vocabulary skills. Some typical language cliches, content-related academic vocabulary would be more useful when studied not independently but as a part of the whole system of a research paper. For example, Thompson and Kamler (2013) suggest selecting a passage of writing from the article and deleting its content for a so-called “reading template.’’ It makes “the content and the ways of arguing visible without plagiarising.’’

Let me illustrate this effective technique.

Original sentence:

A comprehensive review of the performance of the floating exchange rate system over their first ten years, and its comparison with a less flexible regime, is provided in Obstfeld (1985).

What you get is:

A comprehensive review of … and its comparison with … is provided in [Author (year)]

While reading published articles in your field, apply this strategy. Write out selected sentence templates, categorize them according to their function, and store these “building blocks” ready to be used in your paper.

Search for terms and keep them in your glossary.

To avoid inaccuracy in the use of terminology, pick up your professional vocabulary while reading academic articles on your topic. It is a lot more effective than translating from Russian into English. Make your own field-specific glossary with Russian equivalents and context examples, if necessary. Very often journals provide lists of most frequently used terminology, using them would help you avoid ambiguity and confusion.

Reading and writing are like two sides of the same coin. As Mary Tedrow stated, “Reading is the inhale; writing is the exhale.” From analyzing papers of other researchers you can learn about effective structuring and proper formatting of the paper, ways of logical text organization and reasoning, as well as improve your academic vocabulary. Reading of published works, applying critical reading techniques, would let you make the most of your practice and master the skill of academic writing. Go for reading!

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HSE Academic Writing Center

HSE Academic Writing Center

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.