Voice in Academic Writing

Every summer I take a break from editing/translating and teach academic reading and writing at a UK university as an English for academic purposes (EAP) tutor. The course (and wider EAP community) has a few topics it focuses on and promotes. Two of these are arguably Anglocentric – an insistence on “critical thinking” and on “developing one’s own voice”. In today’s blog post I will focus on the latter.

“Voice” is often used in several different ways that easily get confused by students and researchers alike, so it’s worth breaking them down and considering them in turn:

  • Voice as (grammatical) points of view

First, voice can refer to a way of addressing the reader, e.g. through using the first person singular, plural or impersonal forms, active and passive voice etc. For example:

In this paper, I will discuss…

We will now move to consider the main topic…

This paper discusses…*

This topic will be discussed…

Here, voice refers both to its strict grammatical definition (active v. passive), and to grammatical points of view, e.g. first person singular (I), first person plural (We), impersonal forms of addressing the reader etc. In my experience, even really experienced authors sometimes mix and match between these different forms over the course of a book or research paper. Extreme switching breaks the flow and style of the text and makes it difficult for the reader to follow, so it is worth learning to follow these “switches”.

To make things more complicated, what is permitted (e.g. the use of “I”) varies a lot across academic disciplines, so please take care! When editing, the principles I follow here are (i) using any disciplinary knowledge I have to gauge what is acceptable and (ii) applying “regional consistencies” (cf. The Subversive Copyeditor) if the switching is messy.

  • Voice as articulating a viewpoint

The second sense of voice is that of the researcher being able to articulate opinions on paper, using any of the personal or impersonal forms mentioned above. In Anglo-American academia, there is often an emphasis on the author articulating independent original ideas that they reach after individual consideration of a topic. For instance:

This paper argues that climate change denial is a significant threat to humanity

In this paper I argue that Extinction Revolution should not be considered an extremist organization

This is largely the meaning that is taught on the EAP course. Note that using “voice” in the first sense is a pre-requisite for using it in this second sense. Learning this approach can be especially different for students coming from traditions where there is less stress on individual expression (e.g. more collectivist societies).

  • Voice as “creating your register”

Finally, the third sense of voice goes above and beyond the second level. It refers to finding your own personal writing style. This may not be necessary in many disciplines (e.g. scientific disciplines) where a more objectified writing style is commonplace. I would argue that this is a higher level “calibration” and is something that might happen (but not always) over the course of writing a PhD in the arts and humanities. Here, the “personal is political”, and your style – like a good literature review – will link to the body of literature with which you engage, whilst also representing your unique “take” on, and “positioning” within that literature. People who come to know your work will likely be able to recognize your writing style when you get to this level, and of course, it will evolve and develop over time as well. When copyediting books and research articles, preserving the author’s voice is one of the hallmarks of a decent editor. Like the second sense of voice, it is arguably culturally loaded – but that would be a topic for another blog post…

*Some stickleback editors will say a paper can’t discuss anything, so this should be rephrased!

2019 Round-Up: Leaving the Academy, Becoming a Full-Time Editor and Translator!

2019 has been a bit scary, challenging, but most of all exciting. I have lived in three countries (Croatia, Germany, the UK), moved between three industries (academia, teaching English for academic purposes, translation/editing) and lived in five cities (Manchester, Southampton, Regensburg, Zagreb, Pula). Having now returned to Manchester more permanently, 2020 should be a little calmer!

At the end of 2018 I made the decision to move out of the academic sector and into publishing (editing/translating). Back then I was employed in Germany in a part-time research position, running my editing and translation business on the side. The business had been growing year on year and I felt ready to switch to full-time. Looking back, I feel much better for having left the academy – the most difficult part in making the decision was a sense that there was no going back. In the end, there was a strong complementarity and much of the academic editing work I now do comes from people in my former academic network.

As my academic employment ended in July, for the first six months of 2019 I refocused my energies and invested in making my business workflow and services provided more professional. How did I do this exactly?

January – July: Professionalization

I started by investing in software I saw as essential for my business (e.g. SDL Trados for translation, PerfectIt and the The Editors’ Toolkit for editing), joined a professional editing association (the UK-based SfEP) and started my training. Getting stuck into the SfEP forums helped me immensely. As I started to become part of an online editing community, I felt much more comfortable with the different kinds of dashes, punctuation and debates over grammar issues such as over “that or which”, and so on.

I changed the format of my academic website to a professional business website. Looking at other people’s sites and LinkedIn profiles was really useful here. My editing skills also increased significantly over this period. I started off by trying the SfEP’s “taster” courses – Proofreading 1 and Copyediting 1. I learnt how to write a project brief here. I believe my earlier counselling training in transactional analysis helped me with how to deal with clients – often by email. I chose to focus on gaining intermediate SfEP status and on doing as much training as possible.

I was thrilled to become an intermediate member in the early summer and then took some more specific skills-related courses. The Editing in Word course took my skills to a new level and opened up MS Word to me in a new and exciting way as I love looking for ways of solving problems creatively, and each text I received for editing posed new problems.

August – December: Going Full-Time, Finding Clients

As the summer approached, I began to get more nervous about the move to full-time self-employment, as well as the challenge of relocating my business from Germany to the UK. In the end, this was fairly smooth. I registered for, and learnt extensively (!) about VAT as several of my business clients in Europe stated the necessity of a VAT number for doing business with them. As VAT can get complicated, I invested in FreeAgent accounting software, which has been a massive help – especially as I deal in multiple currencies. I had a summer job teaching academic English at the University of Southampton, which cushioned my arrival back in the UK both emotionally and financially.

One really useful resource, connected with my former employment, was business coaching organized by the Leibnitz Association. Roughly once a month, (in German), I had a Skype meeting at which I discussed my business’s needs and where to focus my energy.

From September, the business was my only source of income! The first two months were fairly quiet and my main business focus was on finding work. I learnt more about online marketing and chose to use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn professionally. Then the workload rapidly increased – by the end of November I was booked up for all of December and most of January! I also excitedly joined the SfEP social media team, helping with Twitter. This gave me a welcome break from the solitary work of editing and the feeling of being part of a team.

And that is it for 2019!

The final question, then, is where to next?

Bring on 2020!

Over the next few months, I plan to work on expanding my UK client base – this is important so I am less at the whim of currency fluctuations in these uncertain times. I have decided to join the SfEP Manchester local group and will attend the 2020 SfEP and MET conferences in Milton Keynes (SfEP) and San Sebastián (MET).

In terms of training, I intend to finish the PTC Basic Proofreading course I have just started, and improve my Trados skills by taking their certification course. I also plan to further improve my legal translation skills.

At this stage I am still experimenting – I enjoy doing a mixture of editing and translation. While I mostly do academic editing and translation, I am also enjoying exploring other fields, including legal and business-related projects, and hopefully editing fiction in a few years’ time. Here’s to 2020, whatever comes next!

Copyediting from start to finish

In today’s blog post I will cover the workflow I use for copyediting. This will give you an overview of the process and the tools that I use. The information here is for short- and medium-sized jobs (up to roughly 30,000 words). The information is geared towards academic copyediting, my main specialism, but much of it will also apply to other kinds of documents. For large jobs, such as book projects, I will write a more detailed project brief and style sheet.

Click here for the style sheet

  • First, I will ask you to fill in your style preferences (e.g. UK/US spelling; -ise/-ize endings), via this form. The options are basic, but you can add any extra details you wish in the final section. I will also ask you if there is a specific style guide you would like me to follow (e.g. the Chicago Manual of Style) for all other decisions.
  • Next, I will run a macro (something like a miniature computer program) called DocAlyse to analyse your document. This will help me make other style decisions, such as the use of —em dashes— or – spaced en dashes – in your text.
  • I will then prepare your document for pre-editing. If necessary, I will make use of Word Styles, before using editing software (PerfectIt and the Editors’ Toolkit) to ensure consistency in line with the style sheet. I will also run a spellcheck at this stage. There are some other macros I often use here to improve my accuracy, such as CompareWordList to highlight issues that the spellchecker does not see. This includes common errors such as form/from, causal/casual.
  • The text is then ready for the main edit. I make one pass through the entire text. After this pass I run PerfectIt again to pick up any remaining inconsistencies and I may run some more macros, if necessary, to pick up on other inconsistencies (e.g. in names mentioned in the text).
  •  For my standard service, this is followed up – preferably at least a day later – by a read through to check my work. Even the best editors miss a small number of errors and this second check through helps improve my accuracy.
  • Finally, I will send you the copyedited text to check through. There will likely be several author queries (questions or comments to the author), whenever a word, phrase or sentence is unclear. If you have any other questions at this stage or would like me to reread any sections, I ask you to send a copy of the manuscript with the sections highlighted. I ask you to reply to all the author queries and other questions/text to be read again in a single email, as I am usually busy and cannot respond to several emails with different questions.

For larger jobs, such as monographs, most of the workflow is the same as above, but I will work with you to put together a more detailed style sheet and project brief at the start, and I will permit two or three rounds of queries at the end. The project brief may also include formatting references (typically charged separately – see this explainer). If the job you require involves formatting references, I will complete this at the start, before the main edit.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch!

Academic Translation from Start to Finish

Translating can seem rather opaque. The author/client will often simply send a file and receive a translated version back. Even with a decent level of language proficiency, it can be difficult to gauge whether a translation into a foreign language is average, good or excellent. In today’s blog, I seek to demystify this process. I do so by discussing the “workflow” I use for academic translation when dealing with direct clients. Translation agencies may divide the tasks up differently.

Understanding authorial style is key to academic translation in the social sciences and humanities. This is because there is more diversity in writing styles than in, say, legal translation. These styles are often intimately tied up with the arguments that authors wish to make and they often link to wider intellectual schools and projects too. Special attention must therefore be paid to accurately translating not only concepts and ideas accurately, but also authorial style and voice.

In my experience, the best academic translations emerge from a direct collaboration with the author, in which there is space to discuss the interventions made to a text. This is because the author knows her style best and is often better versed in the relevant academic literature and jargon than the translator. If the translator has subject knowledge, this is a great help, but translation experience and training are also crucial.

What, then, do I do exactly?

Part 1 – translation

After I receive a text, I use translation software (SDL Trados) to work on the file (see below). This software breaks the text up into manageable segments. It also reformats the translated segments, so I don’t have to mess around with fonts, styles and footnotes in MS Word. I can also highlight specific jargon in the text. E.g. kulturni kapital (HR) – cultural capital (EN). This is then stored in a terminology database and suggested as an accurate translation next time I come across the same term. Note: the following screenshot is of a non-confidential translation.

Trados is also useful because it lets me store a databank of translated phrases: a translation memory. Translation memories are useful for academic translation but indispensable in legal and technical translation where there is even more repetition and an even greater need for conceptual precision.

If I am unsure of a word or phrase, I insert an author query, as the author often has a deeper knowledge, through reading in English, of subject-specific jargon and conventions. It is worth remembering that the translator’s knowledge and expertise is in language and general academic conventions, not in the minute details of each academic sub-discipline. This is why collaboration is so important! I base my schedule on (comfortably) translating 2000 words a day.

Part 2 – bilingual revision

After the first round is completed, I then crosscheck the translated segments in Trados with the original ones, correcting any errors. This is sometimes called translation revision. After the first round, some translated sentences are still ordered in a “Croatian” or “German” style. For example, quite a few Croatian sentences begin with the construction “Zbog toga” (lit. Because of that). This is comprehensible in English, but it sounds clumsy and unwieldy. While this is an obvious example, there are more subtle sentences that can pass through undetected. After this round, I send the text to the author to review. At this point, I stress that the author should focus on the precise translation of concepts, ideas and style: not on a literal, precise translation of every element in each sentence.

Part 3 – monolingual editing

Finally, assuming the text will be sent to a journal or academic publisher for preparation, after receiving the corrected text back from the author, I do a final edit (typically in MS Word) of the translated text for consistency and remaining syntax issues a week or more later. This break gives me a fresh view on the text. All the consistency issues that copyeditors focus on (e.g. -ize/-ise endings) can also be tackled at this stage. I use editing software: PerfectIt and The Editor’s Toolkit to ensure a high level of consistency. This is not achieved during the translation phase as it is impossible to focus on all the different levels of language at the same time. It can also be useful to have another round of copyediting/proofreading completed by someone else before final publication.

The Long and Short of It: Academic Style for B/C/M/S Speakers Writing in English

The problem of long and unclear sentences frequently comes up in the editing process. Long sentences create numerous problems in English that are not problematic in B/C/M/S, at least partly because of the case system. The case system makes it easier to identify how each noun links to each verb. It also creates a wonderful flexibility in word order. This flexibility can also make sentences unclear when translated, as word order is much more fixed in English.

A certain kind of academic writer everywhere can be found guilty of indulging in long, verbose sentences. Yet there are certain issues with word order and objects that are specific to B/C/M/S speakers. Chopping sentences up is almost always required in every translation I do, and in many copyedits.

Style or grammar issue?

Academic style in B/C/M/S, in the humanities and social sciences at least, has been strongly influenced by continental traditions. These traditions (especially the French ones) often include long sentences. The eloquence of many such sentences in the original language does not always work in English. Such sentences often need simplifying and transforming in English – and this can be a matter of grammar and clarity as well as of style.

Here’s a sentence with three issues all rolled into one:

“Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstrual of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

Now let’s try and make some sense of it. Have a go at rephrasing the sentence yourself and then I will offer a possible solution at the end. There are at least three issues present here: dangling modifiers, ambiguous objects and incorrect parallel constructions.

(1) Dangling modifiers

This is when a gerund (an -ing form, such as dancing, pondering) is used ambiguously, leaving the meaning of the sentence unclear:

“After researching the secret archives, the movie based on the historical evidence found there is purported to be controversial.”

Here the subject is unclear: a movie cannot research archives. In this case, it makes the sentence sound clumsy, but some dangly sentences are clear and sound OK too.

(2) Ambiguous objects

When very long sentences are translated into English, there is often a pronoun (e.g. it, him), demonstrative (e.g. this, that these) or possessive adjective (e.g. hers, theirs) whose object is not clear to the reader. Remember that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to the reader.

In the example sentence, their is ambiguous:

“which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

In academic English, subjects and objects need to be stated more frequently, as their relationships with verbs etc. are not implied by a case system. Academic English in general uses a lot more “obvious” connecting words and phrases to explain links between ideas. This is likely a consequence of English having become a lingua franca in recent years, and so academic English needs to be intelligible to speakers from a variety of language backgrounds unfamiliar with Anglo-American contexts.

(3) Incorrect parallel constructions

The example sentence includes an ungrammatical parallel construction. The second clause does not fit together with the first clause. A much simpler example might be the following:

“Although the rain, we went to the party.”

In this example, although requires a verb phrase. To retain a similar meaning while using a noun phrase, despite can be used: Despite the rain, we went to the party. While this example is simple, academic connectors (Moreover, Furthermore, Namely) and their usage can get quite complex in long sentences. Consider their use carefully and learn from the corrections your editors and proofreaders make!


So how might we rephrase the above sentence? There is no one solution in editing, and context is important.

Original: Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.

Possible solution: A general justification for such comparisons, (1) the sources indicate, is that present-day archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written. (2) The “misconstruals” of these theories are increasingly disproportionate in influence to (3) the theories themselves.

  • No ambiguity remains over who is “researching” the sources
  • A new second sentence avoids an incorrect parallel construction
  • “Their” has been replaced with an object

In this case, the solution is not particularly elegant. Further rephrasing would help if a heavy edit was demanded, but the various issues have been resolved.

Editing English, academic hierarchies and “native-speaker” bias

There have recently been several articles circulating about peer reviewers chastising academic writers from non-English speaking backgrounds for their use of English. One wonderful reply from an editor argued that peer reviewers should solely judge works on the merits of their arguments. Sorting out the technical proficiency of the English is the editor’s job, and this is a task to be approached in a kind and non-judgemental way.

Scholars in many countries are under significant pressure to publish articles in Anglo-American journals. This is increasingly the case in Croatia and Serbia, as the following initiative from an area studies journal noted. Learning to write in an academic style, expressing a voice, and honing arguments takes time and requires high-level language skills. The demand to do so in two or more languages means a lot more effort is required than for scholars publishing in one language alone.

Yet the support authors receive varies considerably across institutions and countries. In Germany, there is often considerable funding available for editorial work and some research institutes have an in-house editor. In other countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, I found academic English language editing was sometimes done by editors from those countries who had studied English at university. Here, this was a “good enough” solution as the authors’ messages were communicated, even if technical issues remained with the English. But this meant that such texts were often overlooked by readers who saw the language errors over the arguments and concepts.

Various “foreign-speaker” errors are sometimes used as strategies to gatekeep academic privilege. My own previous experience as a peer reviewer and academic author was revealing. As an author, I noticed that when I wrote about Croatian linguistic topics and had a Croatian academic affiliation, I received more peer review critiques of my use of language. This suggests some reviewers had made assumptions about my language background. In situations where I was involved in peer reviewing texts, I noticed other reviewers on several occasions emphasize “problems with the use of English” at the start of their reviews.

These forms of bias and prejudice typically affect scholars more intensely when they start to publish. During the PhD or as an early postdoc, scholars are often more sensitive and susceptible to negative peer reviews. Such scholars are just beginning to publish and often work in precarious conditions. They are also more likely to receive negative peer reviews on the content of their work as they have not yet had time to internalize the deeper, unspoken conventions of their discipline(s).

Every article that is rejected, or for which extensive corrections and a “language edit” is demanded, takes time away from other activities. Finding a solution obviously depends on both funding available and wider resources within academic networks. Where little funding is available for English language copy-editing and proofreading, more academic solidarity is required. But there is no section of the academic CV giving explicit credit for proofreading and copy-editing skills completed while helping colleagues. This could be recognized, as could the amount of effort that goes into becoming a proficient academic writer in two or more languages.

What are your experiences of such differences? And what changes could help diminish these differences and inequalities?

References: an Editor’s Perspective

When putting together an academic book or an edited collection, references can be a time-consuming challenge for all concerned.

Many academic authors are familiar with reference management software (e.g. Zotero, EndNote etc.). Editors and publishers, however, typically use different tools to help them with such work, including Edifix and macros.

Reference management software is often of little use to editors – especially in multi-authored collections where the authors have used different software or none at all.

Where references have been formatted according to a specific style, the programme “Edifix” can ensure the bibliography is formatted correctly. This programme checks both the formatting and available data on the reference across multiple databases. It is not that useful for more “obscure” works though, nor when the authors have followed their own style rather than a recognized style such as Chicago, MLA or similar. I found this out the hard way when one book’s referencing style minutely deviated from Chicago!

Academic copy-editors (including myself) typically charge for referencing separately and by the hour, as the work needed greatly depends on the text the author has provided. With messy texts, styling and formatting references can take as long as the language edit itself.

While academic journals often help with this task, some book publishers require academic authors to source their own copy-editing and reference formatting. Time and money can be saved here by getting into good habits early!

While not all of the checks are completed all of the time, the full list – as I learnt on the SfEP References course – includes the following:

(1) The in-text references should be cross-checked with the references list. Every in-text reference should be in the reference list. Macros can help with this.

A note on semantics: if you include extra references at the end, the list is usually referred to as a bibliography rather than reference list.

(2) If using a footnote + bibliography referencing style, the footnotes should be checked against the in-text references.

(3) The in-text/footnote references should have their formatting checked. If using Harvard style (e.g. Smith 2000, 87), this can be done relatively quickly using macros.

(4) The reference list/bibliography should be formatted. As mentioned, there are programmes such as Edifix that can help with this, but any list still needs checking through.

English Language Prescriptivism: Writing Tips for Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian Speakers

Those familiar with the 1990s language reforms and sensitivity surrounding the prescriptive use of words and linguistic forms designated “Croatian” will be unsurprised to hear that in Anglo-American circles, usage is generally more flexible and attention is directed towards other parts of the language. Nevertheless, purism and prescriptivism continue to exist and this can come up in language editing too.

One of the higher-level “markers of distinction” for academic English writing concerns the correct use of the relative pronouns who, that and which. This is relatively straightforward in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian where it is almost always some variant of koji and for this reason, it is often mistakenly translated…

Issue one: that or who?

Upoznao sam čovjeka koji radi u supermarketu

This can be translated as:

I met a person that works in a supermarket

I met a person who works in a supermarket

NOT!! I met a person which works in a supermarket

Using “who” is a marker of distinction here, prescribed by certain Anglo-American style guides. The use of “that” is considered by some to be inferior. This is justified using the story that “that” only applies to things, and “who” to people. This conveniently ignores the fact that “whose” sometimes refers to things: e.g. “the car whose keys were in my back pocket.”

Some style guides, e.g. AP (The Associated Press Stylebook – especially used by media workers in the USA) insist on “who”, while many others do not. Insisting on “who” is often referred to in editing circles as being a “stickler” – a sitničar or cjepidlaka.

Issue two: that or which?

A second marker of distinction is between the use of “that” and “which” to refer to restricted and unrestricted clauses. This is a bit more complicated, and there is a semantic difference here of importance on occasion – but there is also a fuzzy grey zone in the middle where editors themselves are sometimes unsure.

Restricted “that” clauses are used when the sentence needs the next bit to continue – i.e. it contains crucial information. This is the case with the previous example – the bit of information about the person working in the supermarket is crucial to the sentence. Sometimes, it is a bit more ambiguous though, as in the following example:

The gold coins that are scratched are fake

The gold coins, which are scratched, are fake

Imagine you have a handful of gold coins. In the first example, the implied meaning is that in your hand you have a collection of coins, some of which are scratched and others of which are shiny – of those coins,  the scratched ones are fake.

In the second example, the middle clause adds additional (non-essential) information. It means that all the gold coins in your hand are scratched, and implies that all the gold coins in your hand are all fake.

The general rule of thumb is that the unrestricted “which” clause contains additional information and uses a comma before which, while the restricted “that” clauses do not take a comma. If you are still unsure about this, check out Grammar Girl’s excellent explainer!

Now if we take improving the clarity of the message communicated as central to editing, then making a judgement about a that/which distinction can be important on occasions. However, sometimes it isn’t that important and is used to mark out distinction too. To make things more complicated, in many varieties of UK English, that and which are more flexibly interchanged.

Being aware of these differences and knowing what they mean can help you get your head round more tricky language choices when writing in English!