What issues do novice AND experienced academic writers have in common?

Every summer I teach academic reading and writing to international students before they start postgraduate studies at a UK university. The students, mostly from Asia with upper-intermediate (roughly B2) English skills, are often grappling with academic writing in English for the first time in their lives.

As an academic editor, I see many of the issues they experience come up again at a more advanced level when working with multi-language authors. What are these issues and how are they manifest at these two different levels?

  • Register

On the summer course, this is taught in a very basic way – students are taught that academic language is formal, and that you should use cautious language and hedging frequently (making changes such as: increasingly>more and more; receive>get, it is likely that>it is definitely true that). Sometimes stronger students who have had more contact with non-standard Englishes, have lived in English-speaking countries, or both, have issues with overusing less-formal registers.

At a more advanced level, register in the social sciences and humanities must be attuned to subtle (sub)disciplinary conventions. Writing in a very specific style can be a dog-whistle strategy of demonstrating that one is a member of a particular academic in-group too, but it can take writers a long time after the PhD to become totally tuned in to these disciplinary conventions. Experienced writers living in English-speaking countries continue to have issues with using non-formal registers.

  • Structure

Many students on the summer course have issues with structuring their writing. I teach these students a simple model of using a thesis statement, signposting and topic sentences to structure their essay writing. One specific feature of academic writing in English is that of making linkages obvious through clear signposting and often unambiguous messaging. As English is a global academic language, less contextual information can be assumed about the reader and therefore the author must make linkages clearer in the text so the reader understands simpler connections (see the discussion here on “writer- versus reader-responsible languages”). This comes up all the time in copyediting too, where certain usages of “we” and “our country/our situation” are taken for granted and links are deliberately made more ambiguously with more reading between the lines expected.

More generally, though, structure is one thing experienced authors have usually “nailed” pretty well. While certain ways of structuring an article dominate somewhat (e.g. a “report” style format in the social sciences, with a literature review, discussion of the context etc. and maybe an ethnographic introduction in social anthropology), one of the joys of editing is getting a glimpse of more creative ways of structuring writing that emerge over the course of a writing career.

  • Cohesion

Cohesion is about organizing writing and might be considered as the dynamic counterpart to structure. Cohesion is great fun to teach on the summer course, with students being given sentences to play around with and order appropriately!

When editing, I find that cohesion can be a big problem for academic writers who rush their articles, as well as those coming from very descriptive traditions in which the articles present lots of material but do not analyse it deeply. Less experienced writers keen to publish to establish their career are particularly prone to writing rushed texts that lack coherence. Perfectionists are less likely to have problems with cohesion.

  • Using sources

Students working with academic English for the first time on the course make very different kinds of errors to more experienced writers. Using quotation marks, paraphrasing, and summarizing material correctly are important skills taught on the summer course.

More experienced writers have issues with knowing when to cite, when something is common knowledge and with knowing which sets of authors should be cited for a literature review in a subdiscipline, for example. Some of these higher-level issues require subject expertise and academic editors can only point out more glaring errors, such as incorrect formatting of references, e.g. following the wrong capitalization rules, using the wrong or inconsistent punctuation in in-text citations etc.

  • Critical thinking and voice

These are two concepts that are often taught in a very specific way in Anglo-American academic language teaching. I have discussed voice in a previous blog post here. Critical thinking is often taught alongside a stress on originality and of looking at an issue from more than one perspective, which could be described as overcoming a kind of residual narcissism in novice writing.

Some of the higher-level essays I receive for editing show an awareness of these informal Anglo-American ‘rules of the game’, while others come from outside this tradition. Sometimes, demonstrating an implicit awareness of these points can be key to an article being accepted for publication and their lack can lead to savage comments in peer review. For these texts, academic editing is also about translating between different writing norms and expectations and pointing these out to the reader if necessary (depending on where the writer wants to publish).

  • Editing and proofreading

Finally, what about language accuracy, the elephant in the room? The short courses I teach do not focus on grammar. Students are expected to know the main principles already. If they have an issue with articles or tenses, there are numerous online resources that can help. Identifying each individual student’s weak spots is more important so that they can make a checklist they can roll through with every writing assignment.

The issues with language accuracy are usually much higher level with more advanced writers, although sometimes I receive a text that needs a lot of work. Some accuracy issues persist at all levels e.g. verb–subject agreement and use of certain tenses and are specific to the writer’s language background. When editing papers for publication, more subtle problems such as comma splices and dangling modifiers, as well as style and spelling preferences (e.g. focused/focussed?) are more common – all points I normally ignore when teaching on the summer course.

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!

Solution:

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?