The Writing journey: how to develop successful researcher writing habits
What sorts of writing habits do successful researchers have?’ What does ‘being successful’ mean?
This means being able to:
- Write up your research quickly and clearly;
- Use clear and effective English so that your papers have a higher chance of passing editorial checks and peer-review;
- Select appropriate wording so that native speakers can understand your meaning and the nuances of your research.
Effective English is simple. Short words and phrases with limited punctuation. Unlike other languages.
Remember that journals always ask peer-reviewers to focus their efforts on academic content, not English. Peer-reviewers almost always ignore this direction, however; the quality of the English (‘readability’, how easy is a paper to understand?) is always one of the main comments reviewers make. We can help you to ensure your papers have a higher chance of acceptance by working with you on your language, either via subject area-specific editing or via our one-on-one consultancy services.
What makes a successful researcher?
As successful researchers come in all shapes and sizes, the first question to ask is ‘what makes a successful researcher?’ And ‘how do we measure success?’
Most people, if asked, would define a ‘successful researcher’ as someone who publishes a lot of papers, wins substantial grant funding, and has developed a stable and productive career (or has the potential to). How can you maximise your effectiveness as a writer to ensure you are as productive as possible?
Tips and tricks for research writing
Well, the first and perhaps most important tip is: write as much as possible and write everything down. Note down ideas to develop later, even just fragments of text, and never throw anything away. Documents written months, sometimes years before can later prove very useful when you return to work on the same, or similar, topics. Organise files on your computer according to themes or questions and perhaps consider using some filing software (or just a spreadsheet) to keep track of what you have already written in certain areas so you can easily return to these documents later.
Effective writing is difficult in any language, but especially so in your second (or third) one. One key thing to keep in mind when starting to write, to put your ideas down on paper (or on your computer screen), is that it’s much more effective to think and write in English (if your goal is creating an English document) than to think and write in another language and then translate later. This is because information and structure will be lost in translation: We recommend that if you have the confidence to think and write in English then preferably try this when putting documents together, but if you can’t – if you feel that you just aren’t at that level yet with your written English – then find a translation service that you trust, and that has experience working with technical documents in your field.
Key writing skills for successful researchers:
- Try to think and write your first drafts in English if you can, but;
- If you can’t: find a translation service you trust to accurately parse your writing without loss of meaning);
- Be sure that you know your ‘key message’ as well as the ‘target audience’ and ‘structure’ of your writing before you get started.
We offer a range of document translation services at Charlesworth Author Services. Click here for more information.
How to develop a research writing style that suits you
Successful researchers tend to have developed a style to their academic writing; their papers read in similar ways. The best way to develop such a style that works for you in your written work is to base your early papers on others in your field that you admire and that you feel have been well-presented. Don’t copy (I’m not advocating that) but take a look at the writing style and structure of some papers in your field that you think are well-written; what sorts of titles do they have? How are their abstracts structured? How do the introductions and discussion start and end? How are the methods sections presented? Those kind of stylistic questions. If a certain kind of style has proved successful for other international colleagues, then it can also work well for you.
Should you use an active or passive voice?
Decide on a voice in your writing that also works for you. Addressing this issue is actually one of the most common questions that we are asked in our author workshops.
This is an interesting topic and actually often debated in academic writing and teaching circles. Most writing courses will teach (and most colleagues feel that they have been taught) that it’s good practice to use a passive, third person voice when writing up academic research work (‘an experiment was performed’, ‘the following methods were used in this study’, ‘reagents were added to the PCR mix before further cycling was performed’). However, an increasing body of literature is arriving at the consensus that actually, the use of an active, first person voice in academic writing is a better and more effective way to communicate and keep a reader engaged. First person writing is simply easier to follow (‘we performed an experiment’, ‘we used the following methods in this study’, and ‘we added reagents to the PCR mix and performed further cycling’) and, thus, easier and more enjoyable to read.
Another key trick: Find recent articles in your field that you like
Again, our advice is to have a look at some recently published papers in your field that you think are well-written and that have been widely cited and see what voice is used. Go for active, first person writing in your papers if possible and, above all, be consistent: one of the most common mistakes that non-native speakers make in their written English academic articles is to jump between active and passive voices in the same paper. They might start off in the introduction, for example, writing in the active voice (‘we did this’, ‘I did that’) but then switch to passive when putting together the methods section (‘a reaction was performed’, ‘the following chemicals were added to the mixture’). This is one key thing to try to avoid in your written work.
What is effective English?
Effective English writing comprises short sentences with limited punctuation. Try to write in the same way that you think and document as many of your ideas as possible. Writing down as much and as often as possible is one key skill that successful researchers tend to have developed, in my experience. Bear in mind that putting an academic paper together is a cumulative process, building your written work block-by-block, piece-by-piece; even the most successful, native speaking writers can’t sit down and just write a paper from start to finish. You can, however, make this process much easier by having a structure in mind and by keeping track of pieces of written work that you can use later for the various sections. If you sit and have a think about this process when you next have to write an academic article you might be pleasantly surprised by how much, say, of the introduction or methods section you have in various forms already saved on your computer. Successful academic writers re-use, they re-cycle and re-formulate: building new pieces of work from building blocks they already have in their portfolio.
How can we help?
Charlesworth Author Services editing services include access to PhD-level experts currently working in your subject area. Our team will work on your articles and provide feedback, edits, and comments: Not just language polishing but support designed to help you improve. You can also avail of our expert one-on-one consultancy services to answer any questions you may have or work hand-in-hand with an expert editor to enhance the contents and readability of your articles. More details can be found here.
Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing, and maximise your potential as a researcher.
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