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    Home Articles

    Editing Scientific and Technical Papers Written by Non-Native English Speakers

    ESL (English as a second language) writers represent a potentially huge market for English editors.

    In particular, scientists and researchers who come from non-English speaking countries and wish to have their work published in international journals need a lot of help.

    Interested? Flex your writing skills and follow these tips:

    Prefer short words, sentences and paragraphs.

    ESL writers tend to use the exact opposite -- longer words (e.g., utilize instead of use), run-on sentences and paragraphs that extend to the next page. As a result, their works end up barely understandable and rejected by the editors' board of journals. It is up to the editors to remedy this problem by substituting longer words with shorter ones as applicable, revising run-on sentences to make them more concise and breaking up long paragraphs into several shorter ones.

    Prefer the passive voice.

    Using the passive voice allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences. This helps create the appearance of an objective and fact-based discourse, since writers can present results and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents; thus conveying information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests

    Avoid nominalization.

    According to Dr. Juan Jamias (Writing for Development, 1994), research has shown that nominalization poses the greatest barrier to reading speed and comprehension. Therefore, "The reinstatement of the deposed president was the aim of his supporters" should be changed to "Supporters of the deposed president aimed to reinstate him."

    Avoid using too many prepositions.

    If we look at the example above, we can see where the overflow of prepositions may come from; thus serving as one more reason to avoid nominalization.

    Prefer parallel constructions.

    According to Sharon Schuman, assistant professor of literature at the University of Oregon, verbal and structural repetitions make a relatively sophisticated network of ideas easier to follow. This is the great virtue of parallel structure, i.e., it allows a writer to indicate relationships clearly and economically; thus saving words and helping the reader digest complex ideas. The more complex the information, the more useful parallel structures become.

    Use transitions.

    Transitions not only help the reader navigate through the text; they also save the paper from becoming one monotonous text of facts and data because they help tell the reader what such facts and data imply. For example, "In particular" tells the reader that the writer is zeroing in on a specific data among several data presented. "In contrast," "On the other hand" and "On the contrary" tell the reader that the data to be presented differs from the previous ones.

    Aside from these transitional words and phrases, Dr. Jamias suggests other transition devices:

    • repeating keywords or their synonyms from one sentence to another;
    • using a summary or topic sentence;
    • repeating a phrase or a group of words used in the previous sentence;
    • questions and answer;
    • listing or enumerating like points serially;
    • placing subheads and paragraph lead-ins, and;
    • improved punctuation

    Check the jargon used.

    An ESL writer who wanted to discuss the advantages of inbreeding wrote this sentence instead: "There are several advantages of organisms engaging in an incestuous relationship." Moral of the story? Always check if the ESL writer is using the correct jargon. As non-native English speakers, they may have no clue whether or not they are using the correct jargon. In some cases like the example above, the editor may have to determine the correct jargon based on the context.

    Communicate with the ESL writer.

    English editors also have limitations since they lack the necessary technical background. Such limitations may sometimes lead to overediting, i.e., revising the document such that the meaning becomes totally different from what the writer intended, which in turn may bring about serious factual errors. To address this problem, editors should communicate with ESL writers by highlighting portions unclear to them and making appropriate notations to the writer.

    Copyright © 2003 Eve Michaels

    Eve Michaels has been editing scientific and technical papers written by non-native English speakers since 2001.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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