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Writing Basics

Tightening Your Manuscript: 10 Tips for Non-Native English-Speaking Authors

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

March 2022


Writing in English is difficult. Writing about science in English is even more of a struggle. Writing about science speaking English as a second language (ESL) is the most trouble of all. For ESL scientists, the language can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, so here are a few tips to tighten up your writing and help you get published!

1) Check for consistency in writing style. One aspect that can diminish the quality of a paper is if there is inconsistency within the writing. This often happens when multiple scientists with varying degrees of English proficiency draft different parts of the paper. There is nothing wrong with splitting up the writing, but if the gap between the abilities of the authors is large, then the reader can become confused as the tone of the paper shifts. To avoid this, all the authors should review the final draft and ensure that there is internal consistency in the writing style. The paper should use the same terminology throughout. One common mistake is defining acronyms more than once in the paper. For example, the author of the Introduction might define Parkinson’s disease (PD), and the authors of the Results and Discussion might re-define it because they did not know it was defined in the Introduction. A proofread can catch such errors in consistency.

2) Write formally. Scientific manuscripts should be written in formal English to ensure clarity. However, many ESL authors tend to write informally. This is natural because learning a language is most often conducted in informal settings, so some writers may not entirely understand what is acceptable outside of those settings. Here are some quick suggestions.

1) Write in complete sentences; ensure all sentences have a subject and verb.
2) Do not start a sentence with a conjunction (“and” and “but” are the most common offenders).
3) Instead of contractions (e.g., “can’t,” “don’t,” and “wouldn’t”), write out the full form (e.g., “cannot,” “do not,” and “would not”).
4) Avoid clichéd expressions and colloquialisms such as “first and foremost” or “crystal clear.”

3) Pay attention to subject–verb agreement. Even native speakers can struggle with subject–verb agreement, but it is imperative to ensure that the proper agreement is followed. The most common mistake is using plural verbs with singular subjects.

Incorrect: The efficiency of the alloys were demonstrated.
Correct: The efficiency of the alloys was demonstrated.

In the above example, notice that the verb should agree with “efficiency” and not “alloys.” It can be difficult, especially when learning English as a second language, to properly identify incorrect agreements such as this. For native speakers, the sentence sounds “off,” so we can easily fix it. For those that do not have an ear for the precise grammar, first identify what action is being taken. In this case, something is being demonstrated. Then, figure out what exactly is undergoing this action. In the above example, the alloys are not being demonstrated. The efficiency is being demonstrated. Therefore, we can deduce that the verb should be singular.

4) Use clear verbs. It is common for ESL authors to use plain, simple verbs to describe certain actions. This is fine in most contexts, including casual conversations and email correspondence. When writing a scientific paper, however, the language should be specific so that the writing has a reduced chance of being misinterpreted. Furthermore, using specific and clear phrasing will give your writing a more formal tone. Thus, using the right verbs to describe exactly what is happening will improve your writing and clearly demonstrate your point. Here are a few examples of using clear verbs.

Example: We did the trials within 24 h.
Alternative: We completed the trials within 24 h.

Example: The desired results were got when testing the samples at −50°C.
Alternative: The desired results were achieved when testing the samples at −50°C.

Example: In this study, we want to demonstrate the strength and durability of the proposed materials.
Alternative: In this study, we aim to demonstrate the strength and durability of the proposed materials.

Example: The dataset was made using these three detection methods.
Alternative: The dataset was constructed using these three detection methods.


5) Avoid redundancy. There is a tendency for us to state the same thing multiple times to get a point across. This is fine in casual speech, but in scientific writing we want to be as precise as possible. Any words that lack purpose can reduce clarity and unnecessarily increase the length of the paper. To avoid redundancy, look for words that have similar meanings and are placed near each other. Then, choose the one that makes the most sense with your intended meaning. In the following examples, the italicized text can be removed without affecting the meaning of the sentence.

1) We predicted in advance the outcome of the test.
2) The search for a valid detection method still continues.
3) The patients all had a past history of smoking.
4) The two solutions were combined together during the final step.

6) Check target journal guidelines. All journals have guidelines for authors to follow regarding manuscript preparation. Even if the journal has no extensive author guidelines, it is a good idea to look over any open-access papers that have been published to ensure your formatting aligns with what the journal expects. Check if the journal prefers American or British English. Determine how the references are formatted and mimic that style. See if the abstract is structured in a particular way. Ask yourself what kind of language published papers in your field are using and look to write in a similar way. Doing these tasks will reduce the number of incidental corrections required during the peer review process. Finally, always remember to check the journal guidelines every time you submit to a different journal should the previous one reject your paper.

7) Consider a broad audience. Knowing your audience is a foundational tenet of any writing task, but what does it mean for scientific writing? Depending on the publishing journal, your audience will likely be well-versed on your subject matter. However, it can be valuable to consider writing for a broad audience. For example, a neuroscientist may write a few extra words to explain the functions of the cerebral cortex in a paper about corticobasal degeneration. While this information may be redundant for those in the field, it can give students and the broader scientific community a better understanding of the topic. Additionally, defining common terms may be beneficial. While your reader may well understand what PAMPs are, unless restricted by the journal, it is beneficial to give the full form (pathogen-associated molecular patterns) upon first mention for clarity.

8) Eliminate run-on sentences. Run-on sentences, more commonly known as comma splices, occur when complete sentences are not separated or linked properly. In scientific writing, because the ideas proposed are often complex, run-on sentences can make the intended meaning of a passage unclear. Scientists want their ideas to flow fluidly and avoid chopping up thoughts into small sentences. This is generally good practice, but there is no shame in dividing a long run-on sentence into two or three more manageable pieces. In short, each sentence should have a self-contained idea, and the best way to eliminate a comma splice is by adding a conjunction, period, or semicolon.

Example: Developing a method of synthesizing materials to produce low-cost alternatives is paramount, the aim of our future research, and we will attempt to establish a method with broad applications.
Corrected: Developing a method of synthesizing materials to produce low-cost alternatives is paramount. This is the aim of our future research, and we will attempt to establish a method with broad applications.

9) Ask a native English speaker to review your paper. Even if a researcher has extraordinary skills in English as a second language, there are usually minor grammatical elements that could be addressed prior to peer review. Handing your manuscript to a colleague who speaks English natively may benefit your team. Even if they do not work in your specific field, having an outside look on your writing will reduce the concerns of peer reviewers when they first read the paper. We recommend that even native speakers have someone double-check their work!

10) Enlist an editing service for help. Sometimes, it is necessary to ask for help outside of your team or colleagues. Seeking a professional editing service can guarantee that your manuscript is free from errors and suitable for submission to the journal. The level of editing will vary depending on your needs. Whether you need translation, scientific editing, or language editing, an editing service such as LetPub can help push your paper to publication.

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