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.