10 Tips for ESL/EFL academic writers (and everyone else, too)

academic writingCongratulations on learning English, the current lingua franca of international communication and the most difficult Western language to learn. I’m really glad it’s my native language. As a copy editor, I have worked for many years with scholars whose native language is not English. In 2008 I became house copy editor for the International Review of Public Administration, which at that time was published by the Korean Association for Public Administration and is now published by Taylor & Francis; more recently I took on the same role with Korean Social Science Journal. The majority of articles accepted for publication by IRPA and KSSJ are written by academics native in a language that is not English (with the majority of authors native in an Asian language). That work has led to my developing a specialty in working with ESL/EFL authors.

When I’m using all parts of my brain to untangle sentences and help the writer express him or herself clearly, I am motivated by the thought of all the work – the many, many hours of time and effort and great care – that went into the research and the crafting of the manuscript (not to mention the years of study for the author to get to that level). The most rewarding part of what I do is knowing that I’m helping to convey the results of that tremendous amount of work to people who will find it useful. For that reason, I love the work I do for IRPA and KSSJ and individual academics.

In editing so many manuscripts by scholars for whom English is not their first language, I have noticed some patterns in the types of errors or problems that occur. I’ve compiled a list of ten tips that I hope will help you to clearly, accurately, and concisely convey the results of your hard work.

Let’s start with the most common problem that I encounter (which is also often the simplest fix).

1. Pay attention to where English uses “the” (the definite article) before a noun or noun phrase—and where it doesn’t. This is probably one of the most confusing aspects of learning and using English, especially if coming from a language that doesn’t use articles. Misusing “the” – either using it where it doesn’t belong, or not using it where it does belong – is also one of the quickest ways to confuse your readers. The best way to get a feel for when to use the definite article is to read a lot of writing by native English speakers, and also to pay close attention when listening to native English speakers, who rarely err in how they use the definite and indefinite articles. Here are some general guidelines.

Use the definite article …

a) in front of a noun when the reader knows exactly what you are referring to, either because there is only one of that thing, or because you have already referred to it: “This study uses data from the Big Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Collecting Data. The data were collected from June 1 to September 30, 2013.”
b) to say something about all the things referred to by a noun: “The wallaby is a marsupial.” (= “All wallabies are marsupials.”) Example edit: “Local governments utilize the green economic strategies to balance both the environmental and economic aspects.” (The author is discussing green economic strategies in general, not certain strategies in particular.)
c) when using adjectives as nouns to refer to a group of people: “The data showed that life was very hard for the poor, and very easy for the rich.”
d) to refer to organizations; systems; geographical features; countries with a plural noun as their name; countries with “kingdom,” “states,” or “republic” in their name: the United Nations the police (not capitalized because it’s not a proper noun) the Himalayas the Netherlands the United Kingdom
e) in front of an acronym where the letters are pronounced individually: “the UN” (pronounced “you-en”) but “UNESCO” (pronounced as a word, so it does not need the definite article)

Bonus tip: Always use an article (the/a/an) when the noun can also be a verb. This is where confusion can run rampant. For example, “study” is a noun, and “study” is a verb. To make it clear that you mean the noun “study,” you must put an article in front of the word.

Here is a modified example from a manuscript I edited:

Original: “Twenty statements test and content analysis show that most teachers are overworked.”

Edited:A Twenty Statements Test and content analysis show that most teachers are overworked.” Note that in the original, “test” appears to be a verb, and the sentence seems grammatically incorrect. When the indefinite article is used to show that “test” is a noun (and the test name is corrected), the grammar is seen to be correct.

When you know an article is required but are not sure whether to use “the” or “a/an,” use the definite article when referring to something specific (“I live in the blue house”; “The anteater with the pink collar is mine”), and use the indefinite article when referring to something in general (“I live in a house”; “I would love to have an anteater as a pet”).

This is a brief overview. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab has a good synopsis of when to use the definite or indefinite article. (Purdue OWL is also my favorite resource for APA style.) The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Communication Practices offers a much more in-depth explanation of when – and when not – to use the definite and indefinite articles. (There’s also a link to a cool flow chart.)

2. Avoid using pronouns: it/they/she/he; it/them/her/him; its/their/her/his; etc. Usually this will mean repeating the noun, but that’s OK. A little repetition is not as great a sin as possibly confusing the reader. If it’s crystal clear what the pronoun refers to and you really want to avoid repeating the noun, then use the pronoun, but in general it’s best not to. Maybe rewording the sentence would obviate the need for either pronoun or repetition, or make the repetition less obvious. In many cases, “their” and “its” can be replaced by “the.” Clarity and accuracy are paramount in scholarly writing, and the use of pronouns can very easily introduce ambiguity or even misunderstanding – which equals hard work down the drain.

If I could choose one guideline to install in flashing neon lights on the desk of every academic writer, this would be it. (See tip 9d for an example of when it is appropriate to use a personal pronoun.)

3. Keep it simple. It’s tempting to use complex grammar and syntax to sound more sophisticated or more “academic,” but often this results in tangled sentences that have awkward syntax and are hard to follow. In scholarly writing, accuracy is very important, so concentrate on writing simple declarative sentences that follow the basic format [SUBJECT] [VERB] [OBJECT]. A time phrase can be placed at the beginning or the end of the sentence. I think of it as covering three “w”s: [who/what] did [what] to [whom/what], and (if appropriate) [when] this took place. [Why] can be stated in a separate sentence. As your facility with English improves, so will the complexity of your sentences.

4. Don’t make your literature review and the theoretical aspects of your manuscript difficult and tedious to wade through by saying one thing five or twelve slightly different ways. Decide exactly what you want to say—the information you want to impart—and express it clearly and concisely. And then move on to the next piece of information you want to impart. If you find yourself repeating information, try combining sentences to eliminate the repetition.

5. Enrich your vocabulary and don’t use new vocabulary until you’ve familiarized yourself with how it’s used in different contexts – and when it’s not appropriate. Develop a habit of reading the dictionary. If that’s too boring, read high-quality writing such as The New Yorker (I learn at least one new word – often several – from each issue) or other top-quality news magazines that offer in-depth reporting and aren’t under pressure to churn out articles to keep up with the modern 24/7 news cycle. Reading a variety of types of writing – for example, literary and genre fiction as well as nonfiction – will more rapidly expand your vocabulary and allow you to absorb nuances of word usage. Read with a dictionary and notepad at hand. (Secret confession: my current favorite source of new vocabulary is the writing of Dashiell Hammett.)

When using a word you’re not completely sure about – and even if you think you are sure – look it up in a dictionary that provides usage examples. Pay close attention to the various ways the word can be used (especially to the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs). Among online dictionaries, I really like http://www.thefreedictionary.com/, which pulls definitions and examples from more than one source and also offers a number of specialized dictionaries (e.g., medical, financial). A good way to find usage examples in various categories of writing is to type the word into the search box on http://bartleby.com/.

Be careful if you use the thesaurus to find synonyms. Repeat the steps above before using a synonym. Not all synonyms are created equal. The word you choose might have connotations that are not appropriate for the context in which you use it. Also remember that some words are acceptable in conversation, but not in formal writing.

6. Learn how and when to use the various verb forms. This is a whole article in itself, so I will simply recommend that you study a good guide to English grammar, and also pay close attention when reading well-written English. The University of Chicago Writing Program offers a list of online resources, and Purdue OWL offers a grammar tips section that includes three subsections on verbs.

Common problems I encounter are with tense and the use of “~ing” words.


Original: “The research was structured with qualitative methodology and 94 managers and entrepreneurs have participated in total.”

Edited: “The research was structured with qualitative methodology, and 94 managers and entrepreneurs have participated in total.”

The tense in this sentence is established by “was” in the first clause. “Was” indicates the simple past tense: the action took place in the past, relative to the speaker or reader. In the second clause, “have participated” brings the action into the present via the present perfect tense, which designates action that began in the past but continues into the present. In this case the fix is simple: in the second clause, delete the auxiliary “have” so that the verb is now in the simple past tense: “participated.”

(Note that the original also included a comma splice: two independent clauses separated by “and.” In this type of construction, a comma is necessary before “and.”)

7. Avoid using wordy or academic-sounding introductory phrases and other superfluous words. These are (usually) unnecessary, get in the way of what you really want to say, and are just more words for readers to wade through before they get to the important information you’re conveying. Cut the fluff. Make every word serve a purpose. The delete key is your friend. If you find fluff in this blog post, I’ll edit three pages of your next manuscript for free.

(You decide: An early version of this tip contained the sentence “Make every word serve a purpose and the information you’re imparting will be more accessible to readers.” Which version do you think is more effective?)

8. Keep the use of the possessive apostrophe to a minimum, especially with nonhuman entities. Learning how to form the possessive in English is challenging, and you’d think after all that work you’d be able to use it whenever you wanted. Unfortunately, in academic writing, the possessive as formed with an apostrophe is often not appropriate, even though not using it means using more words. As a general guideline, don’t use the possessive with a “nonhuman” noun, i.e., with organizations and other entities, abstract concepts, etc.

Here’s an example typical of what I encounter when I’m editing:

Original: “Administrative capacities positively mediate the effects of financial investment on green economic strategies’ enactment.”

Edited: “Administrative capacities positively mediate the effects of financial investment on the enactment of green economic strategies.”

Sometimes a possessive can become an adjective:

Original: “The professionalized capacity of local governments’ staff can be a critical factor.”

Edited: “The professionalized capacity of local government staff can be a critical factor.”

It would not be a bad strategy to avoid using the possessive apostrophe at all. I’ve seen no rule, but in formal contexts such as scholarly writing, use of the possessive apostrophe seems to be discouraged.

9. It’s OK to occasionally use the passive voice. The phrase “there is/there was/there has been” can sometimes be the best option. It has probably been drummed into you that using the passive voice is a big no-no, but there are instances when a passive construction is appropriate. (See what I did there?)

The passive voice is appropriate if

a) you want to emphasize the result of the action rather than the doer, especially when the doer is irrelevant or is evident from the context.
Active:Public administration scholars have long considered economic growth to be an important issue for local government.” (Emphasis is on the scholars.) Passive: “Economic growth has long been considered an important issue for local government.” (Emphasis is on the issue. In an article published in a public administration journal, the doer is evident from the context.)

b) you want to avoid using a personal pronoun.
Active: “In the third section, we discuss the results of the analysis.”
Passive: “In the third section, the results of the analysis are discussed.”

c) you want to avoid repeatedly naming the doer
Active: “The department managers observed the coffee break behavior of their employees over five consecutive days. The department managers recorded five categories of behavior.”
Passive: “The department managers observed the coffee break behavior of their employees over five consecutive days. Five categories of behavior were recorded.”

d) you want to avoid publishing a potentially inflammatory or polarizing sentence.
Active:Society often uses the poor English-speaking ability of immigrants to limit them to low-paying work.”
Passive: “The poor English-speaking ability of immigrants is often used to limit them to low-paying work.” (This is also an example of when it appropriate to use the personal pronoun, in this case, “them.” There is no other noun in between the noun and the pronoun, and there is no other plural noun in this sentence, so there can be no confusion as to which noun the pronoun refers to.)

A note on “there is/there are”: This phrase is a good option when the passive voice is appropriate but the construction is unwieldy, awkward, or inelegant. “There is” (or one of its variants) can stand in as a proxy subject, allowing for a sentence that is still in the passive voice but is more graceful.

Here’s an example typical of what I encounter when editing:

Original: “Scholarly research on how the human resource management of local governments affects the enactment of green economic strategies has not been done much.”

Edited:There has been little scholarly research on how the human resource management of local governments affects the enactment of green economic strategies.

10. Pay close attention to the changes and corrections made by your editor, especially if the editor is making the same type of change or correction over and over again. ’Nuff said. (Translation: “Enough said.”)

Jane MackayJane Mackay has been helping writers to polish their scholarly manuscripts, novels, short stories, memoirs, and nonfiction books since 2007. Impelled by a desire to help people express themselves clearly and put their best writing forth, she finds working directly with authors to be really rewarding, especially as she sees their writing improve over time. Jane specializes in working with academic authors not native in English. In this line, she is copy editor for two academic journals based in Korea, the International Review of Public Administration and Korean Social Science Journal. Find her online at janemac.net, facebook.com/janemac.net, and twitter.com/jane_mackay.