If you’re writing a PhD as an international student at a Western university and English is your second language, you’ve probably had moments when you think your supervisor just doesn’t understand you. You’ve likely felt that, no matter what you do, your writing just isn’t good enough. It can be grammatically correct and every word may be spelled correctly, but still your supervisor isn’t happy.
Ever wondered why?
If you’re at a Western institution and you come from a non-Western educational environment, it may be because you’ve failed to understand the unique characteristics of writing for a Western audience. I’ve read hundreds of PhDs. One of the most common issues I see is that non-Western international students don’t understand how odd and strange Western audiences are. We really are strange creatures.
It’s not something we often think about, but there are four unwritten rules that govern academic writing here in the West and you’ll do well to understand them if you want your writing to be as fluent as possible.
Let me explain them.
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1. Be direct when you write
Western audiences value directness. This means two things.
1. Discussing only the topic at hand and avoiding unnecessary detail
2. Using language that is clear and precise
This means you need to have a really clear understanding of what the PhD as a whole is doing and the purpose of each chapter and sub-section. Our free PhD Writing Template can help with this.
Once you have a good idea of what’s going on then get to the point. Quickly. Don’t waste words talking about things that are irrelevant. Make your point clearly, concisely and as early as possible.
Then stay on point. Always.
Audiences appreciate not having to sift through information to find out what they need to know. Ambiguity can be seen as a failure to understand the material or literature, so it tends to be frowned upon.
So that’s tip one: get to the point.
2. Be concise when you write
Being concise is being kind to the reader. Your job when writing is to make their life as easy as possible, so they actually enjoy reading what you have written. Being concise is the easiest way to achieve this.
Other than making their life easier, you’ll also find it easier to get your point across and you’ll save precious words.
The heart of being concise is having an awarenesses of
1. The point you are trying to make
2. How you are making that point
3. Whether you are doing so in the most efficient manner possible
Again, this means you have to have a good idea of what it is you are trying to say in a particular section, paragraph or chapter. It requires you to structure arguments properly and to make sure that your chapters are laid out properly.
Read this blog post for a good insight into how to be concise.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
3. Be critical when you write
A key requirement when writing for a Western audience is being critical. In many ways the entire academic existence is an exercise in critical thinking and critical analysis.
This may not be the case where you’re from, where the emphasis might be on more ‘matter-of-fact’ and direct forms of writing. People who have previously spent a lot of time in the private sector also struggle with this skill. There, priority is given to directness.
However, in Western academia things are different. Question everything.
How? We’ve written a blog post dedicated to remaining critical in your PhD. You’d do well to check it out.
4. Be neutral when you write
When you’re writing, it’s easy to introduce bias and your own personal opinion. You need to do all you can to avoid that. Western academic audiences value neutral, impartial reflection.
Remember, the PhD is largely a scientific exercise. You are required to reach conclusions objectively and on the basis of logical analysis. If you aren’t neutral when you discuss your research design, for example, you’ll end up with a project that has built-in bias. That won’t go down well with your examiners. Nor will a misrepresentation of your findings because you’ve introduced personal bias and introduced value judgements.
Sure, you might think that it’s impossible to completely distance yourself from your research. But that’s not the point. The issue here is that you need to see things for what they are. Don’t judge your findings because of a personal preconception. Use a scientific, rational approach instead. Don’t choose a method because you love it. Choose it because it’s the most appropriate for your aims. Don’t discredit a finding because it conflicts with a personal belief.
Separate yourself, as much as you can.
There’s more to writing fluently than acknowledging the quirks of the Western audience, but remembering that the expectation of Western and non-Western audiences may differ is important.
It’s often overlooked and it can mean the difference between work that succeeds and work that is sent back for endless rounds of corrections.
The Western academic tradition isn’t the ‘right’ way, just as the non-Western traditions aren’t in any way ‘wrong’, but it is important nonetheless to be aware of the differences between the two and how that can impact the way you write.
The skills I’ve listed here aren’t easy to learn. It’ll take you a long time to wrap your head around them and longer still to incorporate them into your own thesis. But try you must. The rewards are great.
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“Western academic audiences value neutral, impartial reflection.”
Says a guy who has read 100s of PhD. And what patronizing tone. My gosh.
It’s not my intention to be patronising, but rather to highlight how, on the whole, the Western academic tradition (particularly in the US/EU) has quirks and expectations that aren’t immediately obvious to those used to some other learning traditions.
Having said that, I will re-visit the post and keep your comment in mind. I can see that I’ve made some broad-stroke generalisations that need clarifying, so thanks for your feedback.
This is a great posting. PhD external examiners in Geography are almost always Western, situated in Western universities even in Africa for example. It’s important and very stressful to know that I am writing for qualification by the dominant tradition that decolonial thinking and anti-colonial research seeks to reverse.
Great point.Thanks for sharing.