Writing a PhD when English is your second language is scary. It’s scary enough when English is your first language. 80,000 words, sometimes even more, in a technical language and at the highest level of academic rigour. Terrifying, right?
Here I present 7 tips you can use to improve your academic writing when writing your PhD.
I’ve proofread countless PhDs from people just like you and one thing stands out – you’re doing great. Sure, it’s hard and you sometimes struggle, but how many native English speakers can write a PhD in a second language? Not many.
So stop worrying. International students pass at the same rate as native English speaker and they do so quicker. To get onto your PhD program in the first place, you already had to show your competence in English. Don’t forget that.
If your supervisor has ever criticised you, you’ve ever been told your English can be improved, you’ve ever had a chapter sent back for language errors or you simply want to improve your own English-language skills, these strategies are for you.
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Tip 1: Spot your mistakes
We know from our years of proofreading experience that most international students writing in English make the same few mistakes over and over again.
Overall their language is great, but a few errors show up time and time again. Try and think about what mistakes you make most frequently. If you’ve ever had your work proofread, have a look at the changes that the proofreader made. Can you spot any patterns? If you can, make a note of the changes the proofreader made and see if you can learn them.
When you write something new, take another read through it, paying attention to these common mistakes.
Read it out loud – it helps.
Tip 2: Read, read, read
Spend time each week reading well-written journal articles or book chapters. Carefully consider how they have been written.
Often the problem with writing English in a second language isn’t just spelling or grammar, but sentence structure and academic tone. So think about how the authors have introduced their argument.
How have they structured their introduction?
How have they structured the article as a whole?
Do they use long sentences with lots of commas or do they keep their sentences short?
How do they conclude?
Thinking carefully about these things will help you understand your own writing. How do you introduce your argument? How do you structure your introduction? How does that compare? Is there anything you can learn?
Tip 3: Write as much as possible
Write as much as possible. The more you practice, the better you will become, especially if you’re having your work checked by a proofreader, taking note of their suggestions for changes and keeping an eye out for repeated mistakes and patterns. Writing PhD chapters as early as possible is good practice anyway, so it’s a double-win.
If your PhD doesn’t give you much opportunity to write until later years (maybe if you’re doing lots of fieldwork first), you can find other ways to practice. You can write detailed notes in English on your reading, or you could join the editorial board of a journal.
Tip 4: Take advantage of your university
Take advantage of the resources offered your university. Many universities now have dedicated departments to offer courses and training for those for whom English is a second language. You should definitely take advantage of these. They are often run by academics who are experts in teaching ESL students.
Tip 5: Write in English, but if you get stuck on a word include it in your first language
The worst thing you can do is write your thesis in your first language and then translate it to English.
It’ll take you ages and it’ll make it difficult for a proofreader to understand, because different languages have different rules about things like sentence structure and word order, which means your translated text will read in a strange way.
Instead, write the text in English primarily, but if you are having trouble with a particular word, include it in your native language. You may already do this when you’re speaking in English and don’t know a particular word. It’s the same principle in writing.
Doing this will mean you can move forward in your thesis. Then, when you go through and edit things, you can translate the individual words into English.
Tip 6: Bigger is not always better
Lastly, you don’t need to write with long, complex sentences. These are hard to read and add an unnecessary level of complication to your work.
Instead, focus on presenting your ideas in short, concise sentences that are easy to read. Many of the problems we see when we proofread PhDs are down to poor sentence structure and using overly complex sentences.
If you use simple, shorter sentences, you will avoid these common mistakes.
Tip 7: Hire a proofreader
This advice applies to both native and international students. You can be the best writer in the world, but after you’ve written 80,000 words, edited it and re-read it twice, you’ve become so familiar with it that you will miss mistakes. Guaranteed. Everyone does.
You need a fresh set of eyes, those of a professional proofreader. They will be able to make sure you haven’t made mistakes and that your ideas and arguments are clearly presented.
Don’t forget that a PhD is a very technical document. It is difficult to separate how much of the struggle you have is because of the difficulty with learning the new technical language of your discipline – which native speakers also have to do and also find difficult – and how much is because of speaking another language.
Often, the problem is because words that you already know are being used in new ways that are often contested. We know that definitions in academia are often hard to pin down; you may not understand the meaning of a word simply because the meaning of the word isn’t really known by anyone!
Again though, it’s hard not to assume it’s because of your problems with English. Remember that native speakers often struggle to understand academic text.
Remember, you’re doing great. There’s always room for improvement though, so follow these seven steps and you’ll be improving in no time. For more on how to improve your writing and to see how we can help you, visit our Knowledge Base.
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