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It's good to make mistakes

A letter of encouragement to non-native English-speaking scientists

Being a scientist is hard – but being a scientist when English is your second language is even harder. Most academic journals publish in English, which means that if you want your work to be recognized globally, you have to write your research articles in English.

 

Believe me, I sympathize. If my success as a scientist had depended on my ability to write in my second language (German), life would have been much harder! Unfortunately, poor language quality is a common reason for manuscript rejection, which means that top-quality research can go unnoticed. The challenge is so great that many scientists turn to professional language editors for help getting their work published.

 

Language editing services range from restructuring and rewriting a manuscript to fixing spelling and grammar errors. Every manuscript is different but the goal is always the same: to make sure the client’s message is communicated clearly and effectively. To achieve this goal, it is sometimes necessary to send a manuscript back to the author covered in corrections and comments. This can be very alarming. After all the hard work you have invested in writing the manuscript (not to mention gathering the actual data), it is natural to feel this way.

 

‘I sometimes feel that I should be sending edits back with a tray of warm cookies, some freshly brewed tea, and advice to take deep breaths,’ fellow language editor Julia Barrett told me. I agree whole-heartedly! Since I don’t have time to bake that many cookies, I thought I’d write this post to explain why all those changes mean success, not failure.

 

No easy task

First things first, writing a research paper in a second language is not easy! Scientific language is very technical and communicating complicated results and ideas clearly is difficult, even for native English speakers. So give yourself the credit you deserve.

Non-native English-speaking scientists are often surprised (and disappointed) to find that they need help writing about their research when they have no problems talking about it. But written English is very different from spoken English – it is far more complex and demands the correct use of grammar and punctuation. When you write, coherence and cohesion are very important; you need to make sure that one sentence communicates one idea, that one paragraph discusses one main topic, and that one paragraph transitions well into another.

So do not be ashamed to seek help from a language editor. An editor will correct language errors and make suggestions to improve readability. Remember that the goal is not to criticize your work, but to make sure your message has been communicated effectively and your manuscript is ready for submission. Don’t see the corrections and suggestions as confirmation that you are a bad writer, but rather as an opportunity to improve your writing skills.

Lessons learned

The most effective way to learn is to do things wrong. Making mistakes exposes your weaknesses and helps you improve. So don’t simply stare glumly at all the corrections in your manuscript – make notes on what your editor has changed and why. Then take these lessons on board when you write your next paper.

For example, you may notice that the hyphens in your number ranges have been changed to longer dashes (8–10 instead of 8-10). Why? Because an en dash (–) represents a number range, not a hyphen (-). Seems like a small detail, but correct punctuation improves comprehension. Now you will punctuate number ranges correctly in your next manuscript (and learn more about the differences between hyphens and en dashes).

Redundant information can interfere with the important content in your manuscript. Your language editor will cut out any unnecessary clutter in your paper to make it easier to read. For example, you may notice that unnecessary adverbs, such as ‘definitely proved’ and ‘very unique’ have been deleted. Reading through the text, you realize that your sentences now flow much better and your meaning is clearer. Next time you write, you will be ready to get your red pen out and cut the unnecessary clutter from your sentences.

As well as correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, your language editor will also comment on the overall structure of your manuscript if necessary. This is extremely important. It does not matter if your manuscript is free of language errors – if you do not structure your information properly, you will not communicate your message effectively.

For example, you may notice that the following sentence has been deleted from the Methods section of your manuscript:

‘In total, 123 patients were recruited and 43% were female.’

What’s wrong with that? There are no spelling mistakes and it seems clear enough. The editor’s comment tells you that results should not be described in the Methods section. This is a common mistake in research manuscripts. While it is OK to describe how patients were recruited in the Methods section, it is not appropriate to say how many were recruited and what percentage was female. This information belongs in the Results section. Make a note of this and when you write your next paper, you will be more conscious of putting the right information in the appropriate section – and your paper will be much easier to read.

So you see, the mistakes you make in your writing can help you to become a better writer – as long as you are willing to learn from them.

Easy to miss

It is very difficult to pick up on inconsistencies and discrepancies in your own work, but these small details can create a bad impression. Your language editor will flag these issues. For example, you may state in a table that 35/123 patients are female, but in the text you say that 43% of patients are female. These two pieces of information are not consistent with one another. You see the editor’s comment and realize that ‘35/123 patients’ should in fact read ‘53/123 patients’. Thank goodness somebody pointed it out! You will be sure to cross check your figures and percentages when you write your next paper.

No questions, no answers

You need to understand why your editor has made changes to be able to learn from them. So if something has been changed and you do not understand why – ask! Learn from your mistakes in each paper you write and you will find that your writing gets better and better.

 

And remember – you are doing a great job!

Learn from your mistakes and you will do better next time

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copyeditor for a biomedical journal.

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