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4 Useful strategies for ESL academic authors

Dr. Patricia Goodson, Texas A&M University
Dr. Patricia Goodson
Qian Ji, Doctoral Candidate, Texas A&M University
Qian Ji

As academic authors we all need help and support to improve our writing—that is why we become members of TAA! In general, ESL academic authors need the same support as native English speakers. For instance, we all need to establish and maintain a writing habit, get feedback regularly, revise our texts multiple times, use examples of good writing, and find a supportive writing community.

However, research indicates that ESL academic authors face at least three unique barriers when it comes to obtaining help and support for their writing: language limitations, cultural differences, and not knowing how to elicit support, although this last one applies to almost all academic writers. For ESL authors, language limitations not only block the idea-generating process but also increase workload burden; cultural differences can create emotional stress; and not knowing how to elicit adequate support impacts writing productivity quite negatively.

We have learned—through personal experiences and from more seasoned authors—that by applying the four strategies listed below, ESL academic authors can successfully overcome these barriers.

1) Plan your writing. Although we hear all the time that “planning is everything”, we may still not realize that having a plan for drafting and revising is an important step. Planning is crucial because it functions as a road map to show the way and helps break down a large project into small chunks. If we plan appropriately, we will have enough time to draft, get feedback, and revise as many times as needed.

2) Write a lot. For those of us who follow the POWER Writing Model [see Goodson, P. (2013). Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Eexercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing. Thousand Oaks, CA. SAGE Publications, Inc.], when generating text we are taught to write down all our thoughts and ideas, even in our native language(s) if we do not know how to express them in English. Although ESL authors may want every sentence they write to be crisp and clear, without any errors, they should not spend too much time correcting every sentence until the thesis statement/argument is strong and the ideas are solid. The goal should be to focus on content first and work on revisions later. What really matters? Capturing your ideas. The moment they occur. For this, you need to write a lot!

3) Grow a language garden. When planning to grow a flower garden, even before you plant any seeds you already picture in your mind the beautiful space you are creating. Then, after you select the seeds and plant them, you water and fertilize them regularly. You tend to them every day, and patiently wait for growth. With time and daily tending, the seeds grow, bloom, and you eventually have the garden you once pictured. The same principle applies to growing a language garden. First, you visualize the “big picture” of your writing project. Second, you plant the seeds of ideas. Next, you work regularly on those ideas, tending to words, phrases, and sentence structures. In other words, tend to your writing on a daily basis, even if merely to prune a few weeds. In the end, with care and daily attention, you will have the beautiful garden you once pictured.

4) Build up your own writing support system. Do not persist in writing alone. Find a writing partner, writing group, or a writing organization that can encourage, motivate, and support. There are at least four sources for support opportunities you can pursue: Friends who share similar writing habits, such as writing in the same coffee shop, to encourage each other and act as accountability partners; collaborators who work on the same project; professors who specialize on the topic you are writing about; and writing experts. As academic writing becomes part of our lives, we continually need to seek ways to reduce our stress and increase emotional support from those who share similar attitudes, values, and goals regarding writing. Joining TAA’s Online Member Community is a great way to start!

In sum, these four strategies can help ESL authors practice academic writing in ways that will also improve the mastering of the English language. But, above all, remember that native English speakers and non-native speakers are all in the same proverbial boat when it comes to mastering the academic writing genre. We are—all of us—students of the writing process.

This article was coauthored by Qian Ji and Dr. Patricia Goodson, both of Texas A&M University. Qian Ji is a doctoral candidate in Health Education and Patricia Goodson is a Presidential Professor in the Department of Health & Kinesiology.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.

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