If you’re an academic working in English and you are a non-native English speaker, you have exceptional skills. Not only have you mastered an academic discipline and a set of professional academic standards, but you have also acquired intercultural talents that few native speakers have.
Despite all that, you may still struggle with academic writing, whether you’re composing job and grant applications, publishing academic journal articles or with a university press, or creating presentations in English. You may feel that writing professional-sounding English takes you more time than it should, or that your writing isn’t as good as it ought to be.
You’re not alone. Many accomplished international researchers and scholars find it difficult to work in English.
Let’s talk about why this is the case, and what you can do about it.
The Problem Isn’t You
First of all, the problem is not you. Increasingly, institutions are recognizing that international research is too focused on English. If we want the best ideas from around the world to circulate freely, we need to include more languages.
In addition, it may seem too obvious to say, but academic English is nobody’s first language. Everyone has to learn it. Everyone can improve their writing, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a native speaker or not. But academics make it harder for themselves by acting as if all language learning is natural. Once we accept that it’s hard work, it’s not so surprising that it’s tiring and time consuming.
Academic English is a set of conventions, that is, arbitrary rules that developed over time. There is a logic to the way academic texts in English are structured, but like driving on the left or the right side of the road, there’s nothing inherently more logical (or more natural, or better) about one system or the other.
Yet academic editors and peer reviewers often take a narrow view of what is acceptable in an English-language publication, and they may reject work that doesn’t exactly fit their idea of good academic style.
To make matters worse, many ESL academics torment themselves with the idea that they should speak and write flawless English. No one’s English is flawless. The expression “practice makes perfect” is just not true. The more you write, the more mistakes you’ll make. Scholars should be expected to have good ideas and sound research, not write grammatically perfect sentences.
Seek Out a Support System to Succeed
So how do you learn to master academic English, become more comfortable with its conventions, and accept your mistakes as a sign that you’re getting better?
There’s a simple answer: get support from people who understand your challenges.
Many academics assume that success means doing everything on their own, but that’s not true. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, both informally from friends and colleagues, and formally from professionals.
A supportive and collegial mentor, someone who meets with you regularly to advise you on your academic career, can be an excellent resource. A mentor in your program or institution can help you set priorities and offer guidance about where to spend your writing time and energy.
If your institution doesn’t provide mentors to students and faculty, look to your professional associations. Maybe your writing is perfectly fine, but you’ve been submitting to the wrong journals or conferences. Maybe you’re spending too much time writing campus committee documents and that’s taking time you need to spend on your publications. A mentor in your field or discipline can help you see the big picture.
You can also work on specific problems with an academic writing group. Start your own group or join one on your campus or online. This is a place to talk about your writing, ask specific questions, and maybe find a friendly reader or two for your next paper draft. Group members can share ideas, talk about the writing process, and share tips for being more productive. Most importantly, your writing group will help you set realistic goals and offer personal encouragement as you try to meet those goals.
Academic Editing for Non-Native English Writers
If you have a focused goal or if you’re writing with a deadline, you may want to work with a professional writing coach or academic editor. Editors can help you do everything from structuring your writing more effectively to improving the clarity of your sentences. And of course, editors can copyedit and proofread your work and make sure it adheres to the style guidelines of your preferred journal or publisher.
You aren’t taking the easy way or being unprofessional by hiring an editor. In fact, some universities state directly that faculty can use professional development funds to hire a copyeditor, developmental editor or writing coach. Working with a good editor will give you more time to focus on the content of your work.
Whatever you choose, remember that you don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to go it alone.
About the author
Maria Snyder, PhD, is an editor and a translator from French and German. She admits to making mistakes in multiple languages! As a former tenured professor, she has researched, published, and taught in the US and Europe. She enjoys helping scholars bring their research to an English-speaking audience.