Is English Your Second Language? Here Are 7 Ways To Improve Your Academic Writing
Writing a PhD when English is your second language is scary. It’s scary enough when English is your first language. 80,000 words, sometimes even more, in a technical language and at the highest level of academic rigour. Terrifying, right?
I’ve proofread countless PhDs from people just like you and one thing stands out – you’re doing great. Sure, it’s hard and you sometimes struggle, but how many native English speakers can write a PhD in a second language? Not many.
So stop worrying. International students pass at the same rate as native English speaker and they do so quicker. To get onto your PhD program in the first place, you already had to show your competence in English. Don’t forget that.
If your supervisor has ever criticised you, you’ve ever been told your English can be improved, you’ve ever had a chapter sent back for language errors or you simply want to improve your own English-language skills, these strategies are for you.
What should I focus on when trying to improve my writing skills as a freelancer?
Outlining is the secret weapon of efficient, high-quality freelance writers. Not only does an outline help you order your ideas and arguments, but you can also leave yourself notes that will help during the drafting phase. Outlines are also a great way to collaborate with clients, since you can show them a rough outline to get their sign-off on structure and content before spending time drafting. A good outline also helps you overcome writer’s block, since you won’t be starting from a blank page when you sit down to start writing.
As you create content, think about the multiple layers of a solid structure: content that makes it easy to skim, identify key arguments, and spot more detail if you want. This three-tier system is essential because not all readers want to read every word in detail. Sometimes they just want to get the gist of it (skimming headlines), sometimes they want to understand your key arguments, and sometimes they want in-depth knowledge. This applies to all kinds of writing, whether a blog post, short stories, social media writing, or a how-to guide, or any other kinds of articles.
Grammar is not just about using the right words in the right order. It’s also about using grammatical devices and language to move your story along. Further, there are moments when you can purposefully “break the rules” of grammar when it serves you. But that only works when you know why you’re breaking rules, and you do it deliberately for effect. Otherwise, you run the risk of your content appearing poor quality.
Storytelling is the art of weaving multiple narratives together, leaving nuggets of information and foreshadowing for readers, and personifying characters in the minds of readers. These skills are essential—even in cold, nonfiction writing—because they grip the reader and pull them through your content. Even if someone has to learn what your content explains, a better storytelling experience will make them much happier to engage.
Using the simplest possible explanation for something is a good standard practice, but using the right word to explain a moment is what truly brings a piece of writing to life. For example: are you mad? Or are you infuriated? Livid? Frustrated? Loathsome? Irritated? Annoyed? Angry? Bugged? There are so many different ways to explain anger, each with its own unique nuance that applies subtly to different situations. The more you expand your vocabulary, the more you can pick the right word for the situation.
Editing is the process of taking a draft and polishing it to prepare for publishing. That requires not only a knowledge of editing devices, but also self-awareness to know your weak spots that need attention. This can be a painful process, whether you’re self-editing or working with an editor, but it’s necessary for becoming a better writer.
Self-assessment: 4 ways to identify writing weak spots and improve your writing skills
1. The summary assessment
How to do this activity: Have someone else (how has never read this content before), summarize your content by filling in the blanks of this sentence: “This content explains ________ to ________, specifically highlighting ________, ________, and ________.”
2. The high-level assessment
Weak point this activity tests: Not all readers will read the whole piece of content. This assesses if your headings are enough to give someone a general understanding of what you discuss in your content.
3. The key points assessment
How to do this activity: Only read the first sentence of each paragraph (for an article) or the first sentence after a line break (for social media posts or emails). Do you understand what the content is saying or arguing?
4. The out-loud assessment
How to do this activity: Read your content out loud, consciously following the editorial guidelines you’ve set with your word choice, punctuation, and added emphasis. Does it flow naturally?