How to write in English! (from the perspective of a non-native speaker)

English is not my native language. I’ve learned it since a very young age, I have a better grasp of it than most non-native speakers I’m acquainted with, but that doesn’t make me a native speaker, or a “native writer”. Since I’ve started my PhD, and although I do read a lot in English (or all in English, I should say), I feel as I lost a lot of my skills, not only talking, but most of all, writing! The approaching “end” of my PhD entails a lot of writing, scientific writing nonetheless! And if I’m comfortable writing for friends, having to write scientific papers brought me to an “awkward” place, where I just didn’t (and still don’t) feel completely certain of my own skills to match this challenge! Because of this, I added to my reading list books about writing in English, about writing thesis, scientific articles, and just plain english. And I must say, one of my biggest discoveries was a very small book that one of my mentors advised me: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk & E.B. White. It may sound silly, but just remembering how it is to write, and its basic rules, like being clear and concise, is a big help keeping me grounded  and reminding me that, although I’m not writing literature, there is no excuse to write badly!

One of the first problems I faced was writing loose sentences that weren’t really paragraphs, they were mere ideas that randomly wandered through my digital blank sheet. A lot of people I know do this, either in the form of a small sentence, or in an agglomerate of longer sentences that never “grow up” and become a concise, meaningful paragraph. In my opinion this happens as a result of extensive reading, of trying to fit every interesting piece of information in the article without knowing exactly how to make it fit together with the rest of the information, and, last but not least, of how we organize our information! Currently, I have 1111 articles in my personal database, and I’m suppose to read all of them! I’ve read about 100 articles (if not more!) specifically for the article I’m working on, not to mention books and articles that I had previously read! However, my references will only include about 20-30 of them! How do I keep my information organized? How do I know what’s the relevant information in each article? I take small notes in a notepad, small, loose sentences that give me a grasp of the article. And that form of organization is my mental base-stone when I start writing my article! I had to take a step back and remember a very basic rule: “Make the paragraph the unit of composition” (“Ordinarily, however, a subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph. (…)[this is], of course, to aid the reader.”).

For all of those who are not native speakers (and for those who are) I strongly recommend buying this book. It’s a really good investment! It is not just about the principles of composition, but also about form, the elementary rules of the written language, about words and expressions we often (mis)use, and about style. I’ve read it, and I keep going back to it now and then when I’m writing (my article and dissertation, mostly…here I use a more “free style”). The many examples in each section are really helpful to understand how to reorganize our sentences (and ideas!).

I’ll end this post with some rules we should never forget, whether we’re writing a scientific paper or a short story. For all the rules, you’ll have to get your hands on the book!

be clear!

– write with nouns and verbs;

– do not overwrite or overstate;

– do not affect a breezy manner;

– use the active voice;

– put statements in positive form;

– use definite, specific, concrete language;

– omit needless words;

– avoid a succession of loose sentences;

– express coordinated ideas in similar forms;

– place the emphatic words of a sentence in the end;


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