Felipe Beltrán-Mejía offers a few tips toward meeting the challenges of writing scientifically in a second language.
For many who have English as a second language, writing a paper sometimes seems to impose a double burden: Not only must you express your results clearly and interestingly for your audience, but you must do so in a language that is not the one you use every day. Sometimes I have a very clear idea to share, only to have that idea become blurred as I try to find the right English words to express it. In other situations, I have had to guard against having idioms from my own language, Portuguese, trespass into my English writing. Sometimes these foreign “intrusions” emerge only after proofreading several times.
In this column, I share a few approaches and resources that I have found useful in tackling these and other challenges of writing scientifically in a non-native tongue.
Starting out with a well-structured idea will help you find the right words to present your research. Thus, when writing a first draft, I begin by writing a rough outline, fleshing out each entry with subentries and noting the locations of figures and tables. I then use this detailed outline as a road map for writing the paragraphs that make up the paper, drafting the introduction and conclusions at the end. The result is usually a very decent first draft.
If I have difficulty explaining an idea, I often try writing it down in a simple and concise way, keeping important details as side notes to avoid forgetting about them. Later, as I feel more comfortable with the draft I am developing, I can increase the complexity, while keeping readability as a top priority. Also, don’t underestimate the power of multimedia: figures (such as a scheme of your experimental setup), graphs, videos and tables are powerful allies in expressing complex ideas.
Tapping into online resources
A myriad of dictionaries, tutorials, e-books, forums and blogs dedicated solely to the English language can be found for free on the Internet. Keep a selection of your favorites handy as you write. Some university websites include great tutorials and tip lists for writing an academic paper. Also, online dictionary sites often include useful extras such as synonyms, conjugations, and examples from different sources such as journals, novels and newspapers.
Reality-checking word choices
One dilemma I have frequently encountered in my academic writing is determining whether a specific term that seems appropriate is actually used broadly enough in English-language papers. Recently, for example, I wanted to use the term “measurand”—meaning the quantity to be measured—in a paper I was writing, but general search engines and dictionaries did not suggest that the word was very popular. In this situation, there are other resources one can turn to:
Academic search engines.
Get to know the advanced options of tools such as Google Scholar and ISI Web of Knowledge, and ask your colleagues and students about the ways they use these tools. When I look for a word or an expression on these search engines, I observe the number of results obtained, which provides a reading on how popular the term is in academic writing.
Fortunately, you’re in optics, so take advantage of a database solely dedicated to optics, www.opticsinfobase.org, to get a reading on how frequently terms are used in the specific literature on optics.
When determining whether to use the term “measurand,” I decided to post the question on an English-only forum, http://forum.wordreference.com. One hour later, I found nine elaborated replies, with links and references that support their answers. By the end of the day, the thread (http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2657598) had grown to 20 answers.
Google Ngram Viewer.
Sometimes the lexicon of the scientific journal literature may be narrow, and you may want to see if the term has been used more broadly in books. Google's Ngram Viewer looks for words and expressions inside the enormous Google Books database. Ngram quickly outputs a graph of the number of times the expression appears in books published over the last two centuries (and, in the case of “measurand,” shows a growing trend in usage since 1960).
Finally, good writing requires constant training, and writing scientific papers is not the only way to get in shape. Starting a blog or writing for magazines or newspapers are excellent ways to exercise your writing skills and to develop your own set of tools for creative and structured writing.
Felipe Beltrán-Mejía is with the Institute of Physics "Gleb Wataghin," UNICAMP, Brazil.
Here are a few Web resources that have proved useful in my scientific writing.