10 ways for non-native speakers of English to develop scientific writing skills

English is not your mother tongue and it makes you feel overwhelmed in grad school? You need to read & write in English, but feel insecure about it? Reading seems to take ages and you are dreading the time when you have to start writing up your results… But don’t despair! Follow these 10 tips and develop your English writing skills “on the side”, as you go about your everyday research work.

Conducting research in a foreign language is not easy. Yet you are not alone in this. For most researchers in the world English is not their first language. The same is true for me: English is not even my second, but a third language. But I managed to get to a proficient level, and you can manage, too!

Here I introduce my best tips that will help you develop your ESL (English as a second language) writing skills casually, without too much effort. Especially if you start early in grad school, before there are any important texts to be written.

1. Practice regularly

The key to developing your English writing skills is to practice English as much as possible, in all the different modalities: read anything that interests you (from blog posts to books), watch films, listen to podcasts, contribute to online discussions, and especially: talk. Talk to your foreign friends, help tourists in the city, whatever comes to your mind and sounds like fun to you. Yes, fun is an important part of effective learning, so don’t make your English practice a chore!

This main principle has a second part, and that is regularity. If you want to learn or achieve something effectively, it’s best to create habits and routines for your practice. These give you regularity and help you avoid the internal struggles to actually do what you intend.

2. Read a lot and take notes

Reading a lot of relevant research articles is a fundamental element for everyone who wants to develop their scientific writing skills, whether they are native speakers or not. It allows you to build (passive) vocabulary and (implicit) knowledge about grammar and style.

To intensify the gains, take notes: summarize the relevant information and your thoughts about it. When you come across an especially well-worded passage, you can retype it — this also contributes to your learning. Just don’t forget to include the passage in quotation marks to avoid plagiarism if you later want to reuse your notes 😉

To establish reading and note taking as a regular habit, you can aim for reading at least 1-2 papers weekly, ideally setting a concrete day and time for it. For example, you could decide that you won’t leave home on Friday until you have finished reading your selected papers.

3. Freewrite daily in English

Freewriting is an excellent way to transform your passive language skills (that you obtained through reading) into active writing skills. You don’t need to freewrite for a long time — 10-20 minutes per day is sufficient to see improvements within a few weeks. But the regularity is the key: you do want to freewrite daily. And you want to freewrite in English, obviously…

One way how to integrate freewriting into your daily routine is to use it as a brain dump at the beginning of your work day. Here, you set up a timer for 10 minutes and just write whatever is on your mind. When there are no personal issues on your mind that “want” to be discussed, use this writing time to think about the day that is coming, about what you want to do and how to best approach it. This will clear your head and prepare you for work. Such a freewriting session is also a great warm-up when you need to write something relevant.

An additional option is to use the variations of freewriting — focused freewriting and loop writing — to freewrite on a topic relevant to your research. Such thinking in writing not only benefits your writing skills, but it will also help to advance your research!

4. Avoid translating — learn to think in English

If you want to become proficient in a foreign language, it is essential that you avoid translating from your mother tongue for both speaking and writing. Because a 1:1 translation is rarely possible, which results in a situation where you have clear ideas in mind but can’t express them in English well. Instead of translating, you need to learn to formulate your thoughts directly in English.

Yes, this is possible even if your vocabulary is limited — and freewriting helps you get there. Since the basic idea of freewriting is to write without stopping, if you want to freewrite in English you have no choice but to think directly in English. At the beginning, the text you produce will sound as if it was written by an eight-year-old: simple language, broken sentences and bad grammar. Don’t worry about it! It will improve quickly when you practice daily, I promise 🙂

5. Talk frequently to your foreign colleagues

Besides reading English research papers and writing in English (about your research), you also want to talk regularly about your research — In English, of course. Here, the best conversation partners for you are your colleagues who don’t speak your mother tongue.

The simplest possibility for regular discussions might be a joint lunch break. If your group is not doing it yet, you could try to establish a group lunch at least once a week. Other possibilites to spend more time with your colleagues include after-work beer or sport activities. Additionally, I suggest to accept all those birthday party invitations from your colleagues you are often passing on because you are busy, tired, or simply don’t feel like attending.

When you are together with your colleagues, the discussions typically move from small talk to your research projects or general science stuff. This can be pretty interesting, even fun, especially when you are relaxed and outside of your work environment.

6. Take an English language class

If you struggle a lot with reading research articles and communicating with your colleagues, you should consider taking an English language class to build basic language skills. First, check whether your university is offering English courses for researchers, these are ideal as they are focused on topics relevant for your work.

But don’t be too critical with yourself: once you don’t have problems with understanding research papers from your field, and others seem to understand what you say in English, you don’t need basic language classes… Then you are ready to proceed on your own, using all the other tips from this article.

7. Don’t obsess with grammar — but use reference resources when needed

Learn the basics of English, but don’t obsess with grammar! You don’t need to know all the rules before you start writing. When you follow the steps 2 + 3, and read & freewrite regularly, you will “assimilate” the necessary language knowledge without much effort — pretty much like children learning their native language. This gives you much more solid knowledge than what you can memorize from books.

That said, it’s not a bad idea to use books and other resources as a reference, to consult them as the need arises. Here a couple of recommendations:

  • Grammarly blog, especially its handbook containing well-structured information on grammar, punctuation, mechanics (abbreviations, compound words, etc.), techniques (idioms, similes, etc.) and style (passive voice, paralellisms, etc.)
  • The Punctuation Guide, an online resource discussing in detail the usage of all kinds of punctuation marks (hyphens and dashes, parentheses, etc.).
  • Strunk & White: The Elements of Style, a little book containing condensed advice on writing style (rules of usage, principles of composition, misused words and expressions, etc.). Style is something more relative than grammar (yet still important). So there is no need to follow all the suggestions blindly, especially where your field seems to be following a different convention…
  • Glasman-Deal: English Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, a book that takes you section by section through writing a scientific research paper, providing for each section relevant info and exercises on grammar and language usage conventions.

8. Don’t worry about language when writing a first draft

If your English language skills are not perfect, it is tempting to evaluate the grammar, spelling, etc. of your text as you produce it. But I strongly suggest to avoid considering the language aspect of your writing when working on a first draft. In other words, avoid drafting & revising at the same time because these two processes have completely opposite requirements on your mind.

So write a draft first, then revise & improve it. And when you revise, don’t start with the language level: consider content and structure first. This allows you to write better texts faster and possibly even enjoy yourself along the way 😉

9. Ask your peers for text feedback

Getting peer feedback on your texts is a powerful way how anyone can improve their writing skills. If English is not your mother tongue, ask a native-speaker colleague for feedback specifically on the language level. Before you ask for this feedback, polish your text by yourself as much as you can. Then what your colleague points out are gaps in your English language skills.

Pay special attention to recurring mistakes you make. You can collect them in a dedicated document which you can use as a checklist when polishing your texts.

10. See it as your strength

Being an ESL researcher might be a humiliating experience, especially if you are only at the beginning and surrounded by much more advance colleagues, possibly even native speakers. But I suggest to see your situation as an advantage: because your vocabulary is limited, you are forced to express yourself simply.

This is a good thing for scientific writing! Because the topics we write about are complex, simple language helps others understand what we mean. With a limited vocabulary, it’s also easier to see whether what we write is clear. Furthermore, don’t forget that most of the readers of your research articles are also non-native speakers. They will surely appreciate the simple language you are using 😉

You can do it!

If you follow these ten tips and practice regularly, you will soon see your English writing skills improving. This increases your motivation to continue with these activities, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of progress. And before you know it, you will feel much more confident to talk and write about your research in English than in your mother tongue 😉

Do you know any tips or tricks that have helped you improve your English writing skills? Please, share them with us in the comments!

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