Our Charlesworth Knowledge teaching team regularly present workshops and training courses around the world in order to help early career researchers (ECRs) achieve their potential in writing up their research and getting it published in the best possible journals. It’s very hard to write effectively in your native language, let alone a second or third one; our training experience means that we have encountered a huge range of English writing and presentation styles amongst researchers working in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) countries. Although approaches to writing and style can differ a great deal depending on native language background, culture, education, and subject area, common mistakes in English writing are universal (and, by the way, not limited to non-native speakers).
People very often ask us at our workshops about some of the most common mistakes in English academic writing: what are these and how can they be avoided? There are a myriad, of course, but perhaps the most common, and something that always causes a language editor to pull their hair out, is consistency in the use of tenses in academic writing.
To start with, this is a debated area in any case. Which tense to use in your academic writing? We were taught as school children writing up our science experiments to always write in the ‘third person passive’ because ‘this is how science is written’. ‘An experiment was conducted’, ‘data were collected’, ‘a series of surveys were performed’, that sort of thing. Although it remains very common for researchers to be taught to write up their papers in the third person, an ever increasing body of communication literature and training courses are converging on the opinion that ‘first person active’ is more effective for getting a message across in academic writing. If you skim through a recent issue of any high-profile academic journal, you’ll probably see about 50:50 in terms of papers written in either style. We always recommend the latter in our training courses; ‘here we show’, ‘our team collected data’, ‘we demonstrate’. This style is easier to read, more engaging, and tends to be a more personal style to present academic results.
Very commonly, however, an academic paper will start off using one style (first person in the introduction, for example; ‘we show’, ‘our aim with this study is to illustrate’) and will then later switch to the other (third person in the methods, for example; ‘the following methods were used’, ‘data were analysed as follows’). It’s important, above all, in academic writing to maintain consistency in style throughout an article as sudden changes in tense are jarring to the reader and can make text harder to follow. Effective writing is clear, concise, and consistent; Charlesworth Knowledge training courses and online materials can help.
One of the goals of academic paper writing, perhaps the goal, is to make articles as easy to read and engaging as possible. Like any creative writing, a reader needs to know where they are, where they have come from, and where they are going: a plot is needed. Just like a good book, a film, or a detective story: engaging and well-stuctured academic writing will keep people interested and increase the probability that they will read more than just the title and abstract of your work. How many papers have you read all the way through recently? Very few, more than likely.
In our workshops we say that identifying a worthwhile research question and appropriate method are tasks for you, but we can help with packaging, messaging, and effective writing to ensure that your work has the best possible chance of appearing in a high-profile journal. Get in touch with one of our team for more information about our workshops and training courses that can be booked via your institution.