Academic Writing: A Non-native Perspective

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Today, writing is at the core of knowledge building (Dane, 2011; Fulmer, 2012, Grant & Pollock, 2011; Hollenbeck, 2008; Huff, 1999). While writing has traditionally been a support-activity, it now has become the central instrument of voice and progress when building knowledge. Particularly theory writing depends heavily on the words chosen and the arguments being provided.

Still, each writer struggles with their writing very differently. While non-natives struggle with their limited use of the English language, native speaker struggle with their use of a (limited) English. Non-natives are often not living the language they are writing and publishing. They spent probably 20 or 30 years less using this language daily written and oral.

It made me curious and I decided to write a note on this specific issue that most of us non-native speaker struggle with.

„ If you find writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.“[1]

There is a gut feeling in every non-native writer that the written paragraph or sentence is not the best possible combination of words. Although one is trying hard every single time when (re)writing a manuscript, the native reviewer will perceive the writing as poor. And when the writing is poor, there is little chance that the ideas and arguments are clear to the person reading your ideas. This doubt of a limited language skill puts a permanent pressure on a non-native writer.

There is some confusion in the reviewer world that poor writing means poor thinking. Since languages are different not only in style, but also in rational, non-natives think differently. For instance, from a German perspective, I am used to think and express myself complex with long sentences where you find the verb at the end. In contrary, anglo-american writing and thinking is straight forward with short sentences. I (as a German) am used to write formally with a rather descriptive than interpretive style, while in the anglo-american world the so-called “framing” is as important as the data you have; often for an anglo-american reviewer, it is much more about telling a story.

A non-native group of authors is literally forced to send the manuscript to a native copy-editor. However, it is a common mistake to think that the copy-editor is able to solve any of those issues mentioned above. After having send several manuscripts to copy-editing, the rule of thumb that a poor manuscript remains poor and a good become maybe very good was proven every time. The copy-editing you receive is as good as the manuscript you send in. This means that it is false hope to expect the copy-editor to solve all your issues in argumentation and rationales. A very good copy-editor is time-wise only able to comment on the most obvious mistakes. Since a poor manuscript has more of those, he will not be able to get into the micro-structure of the manuscript. On top, it is not his job to solve any content-related issues. It is and should be the job of the original author. Therefore, the question arises: How could this “job” be done best?

“A clear sentence is no accident.” [1]

In order to improve your non-native writing, it makes sense to understand anglo-american writing first, before giving practical recommendations for non-natives. A recent editorial comment of the Academy of Management Review dealt with reflections on the craft of clear writing. When writing clear, things are written in a simple but not simplistic way. It is the beauty of writing to make the reader read effortless complex ideas and make him follow all the way you have done thinking. When the reader is focusing on the content than being disturbed by the structure of thoughts, the reader is understanding your ideas better. However, clear writing is not about showing how smart one is and how far one has thought, it is much more a genuine approach, a kind of journey, which is clear, logic and direct. In other words, clear writing is to “strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb (…)”[1]

Making an informal poll of 67 reviewers that reported 483 years of combined experiencing reviewing AMR, the article identifies three main pet peeves: (1) foggy writing; (2) read my mind, (3) story, story, what’s the story? Foggy writing means that authors hide their ideas behind overly complex language that they hope to be big and impressive. The second writing pitfall refers to the point that authors present concepts or constructs without defining or using them consistently throughout the article.  The last pitfall refers to the problem that authors often struggle with telling a good and interesting story (the so-called framing). To create such a story the article names three recipes: creating a tasty appetizer (the hook), creating coherence and cohesion (knowing your ingredients), and getting to the core (embracing the lean cuisine approach).

“No writer ever gained a large audience by making his style more complicated than his thought.”[2]

Non-native writer may struggle with foggy and inconsistent writing in particular since they are not only challenged with getting the idea straight as everyone is, but also with getting the language accordingly straight. Thinking in one language and writing in another makes this salient process of knowledge building much more complex.

Non-native writer also heavily struggle with their limited language when it comes to telling a good story. A good story begins with a good research design that is hopefully no meant to be good because it is filling a gap. It is wrong to think as a researcher like an entrepreneur trying to find the niche. In contrary, researchers should rather search for an existing paradigm to follow. It is definitely not easy to commit oneself to one thinking but it is essential for your story to build an angle.

“Very few sentences come out right the first time.” [1]

A good story also begins with a good introduction. Writing good introductions means to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. If the introduction is not rewritten at least a fifty times, you should be asking yourself if this is the best possible introduction for your story or if this is the best possible story for your introduction.

Concluding, non-native authors face the same challenge as native authors and, on top, further language challenges that not only hold with the grammer but go further and tackle one’s own thinking. In the following, I want to give five very pragmatic recommendations for non-native writers to overcome or at least diminish these issues mentioned above. 

1 Understand the reader. The first challenge of all is to understand the reader. Authors should imagine a naïve and intelligent reader that has limited resources to read. For a non-native, it might make sense to get a feedback from a native reader (practitioner), ideally, one of the reader the editor (you want to send to the document) might think of.

2 Avoid too friendly reviews. It is definitely no help if the friendly review, which is highly recommended in the development of the manuscript, is done by friends. In this case, the term friendly review is misunderstood. Although it is meant to be friendly, it does not have to be a friend. Ideally, you send the review to a peer-colleague and ask him politely of his opinion. For non-natives, it would be great to receive a native feedback on your script.

3 Copy-edit late. Although copy-editing is a very helpful process for non-native publishers to improve the quality of the script, it should not be done too early. It is common knowledge that a poor script sent out to copy-editing remains poor and that only a good script has the chance to get better.

4 Develop an own style. One of the toughest things for non-natives is to develop an own style. Since non-natives are heavily influenced by the language that is used in prior publication they build on, it is often the case that the language is a mix of styles, which means no style at all. It is helpful for a non-native to keep to an own list of words that he/ she is used to have success with. There is no worse experience for a reviewer than reading a script with an inconsistent style of language.

5 Think English. If there is one thing that might help, it is to think English. This means that all the notes that one is making, presentations that are prepared for conferences, comments that are exchanged in the research group are better written in English. It may sound artificial and disturbing, but it definitely helps to extend the vocabulary that one is using on the topic at hand, maybe even to come up with new arguments and to develop an own stlye.

“Successful writers observe a strict discipline, but they introduce within that discipline much variety. They write simply but they don’t get caught at it.” [2]

In the end, there is no reason to hide the fact that one is no native speaker. In contrary, for the non-native speaker it can be even a stimulating process to express oneself in another language and for the script it can be very enriching that the subject is worked out by a foreigner. Since the anglo-american research world is already very settled in terms of research streams, there may be even an opportunity for a foreigner to re-think what was already meant to be thought through and develop something new. In this particular case, the different language and cultural background may even become an advantage, but only if one is able to communicate the new message through the English language. In other words, when more and more non-native researchers are able to overcome their language issues, it is possible that the added value to the international research output would be extremely significant, particularly for theory building. In this context, it would be very promising to empirically investigate the development of pure native, mixed, and pure non-native research groups in theoretical and empirical academic publishing over the last two decades.

I personally hope that this non-native perspective on academic writing gives reason to motivate non-native writers to continue hanging in there and to spread the message to native readers and reviewers that non-native writers struggle, but keep on going in order to generate a more versatile research output. The goal of this article was also to give practical hints that non-native writer may use to improve their writing and increase the chance of getting published.

“In general, you can define successful writers as those who have something to say and who have learned how to say it simply.” [2]

[1] Zinsser, 2006, p.9

[2] Gunning, 1968, p.12

References

Dane, E. 2011. Changing the tune of academic writing: Muting cognitive entrenchment. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20: 332-336.

Fulmer, I. S. (2012). Editor’s comments: The craft of writing theory articles – Variety and similarity in AMR. Academy of Management Review

Editor’s Comments (2012): Reflections on the craft of clear writing. Academy of Management Review. Vol. 37, No. 4, 493-501

Fulmer, I. S. The craft of writing theory articles: Variety and similarity in Academy of Management Review. Academy of Management Review, in press.

Grant, A. M. & Pollock, T. G. 2011. Publishing in AMJ - part 3: Setting the hook. Academy of Management Journal, 54: 873-879.

Gunning, R. 1968. The technique of clear writing (revised edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Hale, C. 1999. Sin and syntax: How to craft wickedly effective prose. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Hollenbeck, J. R. 2008. The role of editing in knowledge development: Consensus shifting and consensus creation. In Y. Baruch, A. M, Konrad, H. Aguinis, and W. H. Starbuck (Eds.), Opening the black box of editorship: 16-26. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Huff, A. S. 1999. Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Zinsser, W. 2006. On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (7th. Ed.). New York: HarperCollins