How to create a ‘writing tool box’ for scholars writing in English as a second language

Authors

  • Perri J Bomar

    Editor-in-Chief, Professor Emeritus
    1. Journal of Nursing and Human Sciences, Chiba University Graduate School of Nursing, Chiba, Japan
    2. University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC, USA
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Over the years, I have taught international students and collaborated with international colleagues in oral and written English. I have high regard and am in awe of their humble tenacity and ability to communicate in English. Noticeablly, they do not allow a second language (L2) to interfere with their learning, global collaboration and collegiality.

The international writing environment is increasingly competitive. This editorial describes common strategies and resources suggested by writing experts to aid L2 writers to produce publishable manuscripts.[1-6]

English has emerged as the international lingua franca (a common or bridge language between people of different languages) for academic scholars, business, diplomacy between countries, social and mass media, and others.[1] Continuing globalization, administrative expectations and academic pressures to publish internationally can pose a significant writing challenge for non-native English speaking (NNES) scholars who already have demanding schedules. Even if a person speaks a foreign language or studied it only in school, scientific and scholarly publications differ from academic papers. This difference often causes frustration for L2 writers. Currently, the term international journal is almost synonymous with a journal published in English. Although, approximately 27% of the global population speaks English, the majority of international journals (about 80%) are published in English.[1]

Authors of the best written manuscript might need to respond to editorial inquiries or minor revisions. Professional journal rejection rates of papers submitted range from 23% to 88%, with 35% or more rejected by editors prior to peer reviewer.[1-6] International editors report that the primary reasons for the decision to recommend revisions or reject the papers written by L2 authors are universal.[1-4] Common reasons for rejection include:

  • the English is unclear, sentences are not clearly linked, and the narrative is poorly written with multiple grammar, spelling and verb tense errors;
  • not following author guidelines;
  • inadequate depth in certain sections of the paper and use of the scientific jargon;
  • awkward word choices and language mixing;
  • the paper does not meet the purposes of the journal; and
  • inadequate clarity and depth in describing the methodology and discussion.[1-6]

To contemporary L2 scholars this means that manuscripts submitted must be of the highest quality of research conduct and writing style. Scholarly writing is difficult and very time intensive for many global writers. Scholars report that writing for L2 writers can take as much as three times more effort than native or first language (L1) writers.[1-6] Receiving a notice of rejection or major revision is generally demoralizing to all authors, especially L2 authors or new writers. I suggest a useful strategy for writers is to create a conceptual and actual ‘writing tool box’ containing an array of writing resources for personal use. The writing tool box will assist writers to produce high-quality scholarly manuscripts in English (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Writing tool box.

In the publication realm, writing standards are the same for both L2 and first language (L1) writers. Writers need cost-effective and time-saving strategies and resources to improve manuscript quality, approval rate and subsequent publications. Examples of resources are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Examples of resources for a writing tool box
Sample resources for the writing process, grammar, style, spelling and vocabulary
Websites for writing guidelines and author resources
Books and manuals for personal library
  • Curry MJ, Lillis T. A Scholar's Guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2013.
  • The European Association of Science Editors. EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles published in English. 2013
  • Holland K, Watson R (eds). Writing for Publication in Healthcare. Wiley Blackwell: Singapore, 2012.
  • Oberman MH, Hays CH. Writing for Publication in Nursing, 2nd edn. New York: Springer, 2010.
  • Rogers SM. Mastering Scientific and Medical Writing: A Self-Help Guide. New York: Springer, 2014.
  • Social and networking guide for authors and editors. Springer.com. January 2012. http://static.springer.com/sgw/documents/1122338/application/pdf/SocialMediaGuidelines_Jan2012.pdf. Accessed 30 January 2014
  • Strunk W, White EB. The Elements of Style, 4th edn. New York: Longman, 1999.
  • Webb C. Writing for Publication. Wiley Blackwell e-publication, 2014, 105–113. http://www.nurseauthoreditor.com/WritingforPublication2009.pdf
  • Yang JT. An Outline of Scientific Writing for Researchers with English as a Foreign Language. Singapore: World Scientific, 1995.
Electronic and bound dictionaries
  • Dictionaries for Grammar and Spelling when using the United Kingdom English. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/thesaurus/
  • US Spelling: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
  • Martin E, Mc Ferran T. Oxford Dictionary of Nursing. 5th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Oxford English Dictionary on CD Rom, 2nd edn. A widely internationally accepted authority of the English Language. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
L1 and L2 foreign language editing and editing for scholarly and scientific publications-
Social networks, professional and writing blogs
  • Facebookhttp://www.facebook.com—a social website that connects ‘friends’ who can be anyone the member invites as a friend. Scholars can connect to colleagues about research, writing or other common interests. It allows people to initiate chat groups by invitation only.
  • Twitterhttp://www.twitter.com—users send messages using no more than 140 characters. It is free and an easy way to announce new findings or to market an event. Also, the tweeters' thoughts can be shared with other tweeters.
  • Pinteresthttp://www.pineterest.com—a website to post your likes. It can be used to post your favourite articles, research, or other interests.
Professional networks links
  • APA Bloghttp://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/apa-style-experts.html—a blog where APA staff members reply to questions about writing style and APA guidelines.
  • LinkedInhttp://linkedin.com—an online networking website that is the professional equivalent of Facebook.
  • Research Gatehttp://www.researchgate.net/ is an online free network dedicated to science and research. Connect, collaborate and discover scientific publications, jobs, and conferences. Occasionally, readers have access to pdfs of research papers.
  • iTunes Podcastshttp://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/—researchers are able to create mini lectures on topics of choice. Writers and researchers can find new knowledge, information about conferences and writing tips.

The Art of Writing and the Writing Process

The art of writing is an ongoing, solitary and lifelong process that requires a hopeful attitude and knowledge that scholarly writing necessitates special skills.[1-3, 5-7] Scholarly writing requires patience to research varied databases for data to substantiate the rationale for your paper and to analyse the results of similar studies. Patience to revise multiple drafts is essential. Also, scholars need commitment to disseminate their findings to international and other audiences. Hence, scholars need to have a personal goal to excel in their writing, whether they are L1 or L2 writers.

Writing is a lonely activity that requires time alone to creat multiple drafts that are spaced over a period of time. Drafts are revised until the author believes the manuscript is the best they can produce. No one isolated item or activity will improve your writing. It takes an awareness that writing skill gradually improves in efficiency as you include it as integral to your professional life. Crucial is a plan for allocated uninterrupted time and space to write, review, reflect and revise manuscripts.

Some activities take long segments of time. Others such as learning a single L2 writing concept could take a shorter time. Strategies to use short segments of time are to use the time waiting for appointments, on public transportation or waiting for others, etc., to review L2 grammar, style, punctuation rules and others. For example, if you are not comfortable with choosing phrasing for active voice or passive voice, bookmark a grammar website on a smart phone or electronic tablet that provides instruction about the topic voice and review while waiting or traveling. Another example is to bookmark a section on grammar or vocabulary in a hard copy of a book and carry it with you to read during brief idle time. If you are writing a qualitative research report, select a published manuscript that is the report of a qualitative study in a peer-reviewed international journal and become familiar with how different sections are phrased and structured.

It is beyond the scope of this editorial to address in detail each aspect of creating a personal writing tool box. Therefore, I encourage writers to explore examples of the writing resources suggested in Table 1.

Other items in the tool box include:

  • Possess an attitude that scholarly writing is an art and science that takes practice and patience. Believe that you can be a successful writer and need the tools used by successful writers. Create a writing sanctuary surrounded by the tools of writing where you can have quiet, uninterrupted time for writing.
  • Continue to learn about L2 writing and scholarly writing through attending writing workshops, watching webcast, webinars, YouTube presentations and others.
  • Develop lasting relationships with mentors and colleagues (L1 and L2) who are successful writers and willing to critique and review manuscript drafts prior to submission, or to share writing tips and new resources.
  • Consult L1 peer readers, writing consultants or proof readers. Writing experts encourage writers to always have their papers read by others, and agree that every writer needs an editor or proof reader. Use your electronic contact list to keep record of your writing network.
  • Keep current and have access to electronic technology and software applications that can improve your writing skills, save you time and improve your access to peers. Know how to use the latest software applications for smart phones, electronic tablets, laptops, desktop computers and the Internet to improve your efficiency in each phase of writing. Access to the Internet allows a person to search for relevant articles and new developments, to read articles about writing tips or join an online writing journal site such as Nurse Author & Editor (http://www.nurseauthoreditor.com).
  • Build a L2 scientific and scholarly vocabulary. Maintain a vocabulary diary of common L2 words. Always look up and record words that are unfamiliar. On your electronic journal or paper tablet, keep an L2 vocabulary, new professional jargon and discipline-specific L2 words along with their meanings. Search the Internet for ‘common words/phrases used for writing research reports’ and you will find lists of alternative L2 words. For examples of concise linking and transition words, see English Language Smart Words at www.smart-words.org/
  • Use social media and search engines (e.g. Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and Email). These electronic resources can be useful aids for keeping abreast of professional announcements, writing tips, topics and trends in your fields and for networking with global mentors and colleagues.[8, 9] Many editors and successful writers have social media accounts and share writing wisdom, complaints and tips.[8] Electronic mail is useful to interact with global native English speakers (NES) peers in English and writing consultants who will review a draft for you. Present-day writers often find announcements, conversations about writing issues, writing encouragement through blogs and carefully selected social media. For example, the APA (Publication Manual of American Psychological Association) staff provide a blog to answer questions of APA users. Another example of a resource is the Springer websites for free access to Social networking Guide for Authors and Editors at http://static.springer.com/sgw/documents/1122338/application/pdf/SocialMediaGuidelines_Jan2012.pdf
  • Maintain a personal library of books, manuals and lists of websites on writing in general, on scholarly writing and L2 writing tips. Select a favourite publisher or editors' society and periodically review the website on recent developments in the field and writing. See Table 1 for examples.
  • Improving your self-editing skills is a cost-effective way to edit and shorten the time in review, etc. Use software applications for grammar and spelling correction features. Careful self-editing and a second person reading the manuscript enhance the likelihood that your manuscript will receive favourable recommendations. Also, as open access journals become vogue, it will be incumbent upon the writer to have as nearly perfectly written manuscript as possible.
  • Become familiar with formatting of research reports and scholarly manuscripts. Inaccurate format is one of the common requests for manuscript revision. Know different formats for varied research designs such as STROBE (Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology), CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) and PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses). For additional information on formats consult the U.S. National Library of Medicine Website at www.nlm.nih.gov/services/research_report_guide.html
  • Allow time between drafts because time away from drafts allows you to reflect on ideas and relax about the writing.[7] You return to the document more rested and able to notice fine details. A couple of days away from your final draft will allow you to return to it with new insights and ideas.

Read and reread your paper before submission.

Pre-Submission Activities

When your manuscript is finished, the next steps are useful prior to submission.

  • Read the document aloud in English. It helps you to hear errors and ambiguous sections.
  • Ask peers or co-authors to critique drafts. If none are available and you can afford it, hire a private editor.
  • Use checklists to remind you to look for specific details when writing and revising final drafts.[10] Careful attention to each item on your checklists prior to submission reduces the number of mistakes significantly. Three types of writing checklists useful to writers have features such as:
    1. specific to the paper format and content of each section;
    2. pre-submission checklists that include items detailed to clarity, grammar, publisher guidelines, forms to include and so forth[4];
    3. lists of the format and content of scientific papers and varied research study designs, for example, qualitative, descriptive, meta-analysis and clinical trial.
  • Use a professional L2 editor and translator who are experienced and familiar with your discipline prior to submission.[11, 13] Publishers' websites often provide very informative web pages on the writing process as well as links for networking and translation. Carefully check out the author resource pages of publishers' websites. Many have explicit guidelines and links to scientific editors who translate Chinese, English, Japanese and other languages to English.[13] Rexsei-Adaryani, editor and Persian-to-English translator notes that sometimes the nursing and health-care terms are translated with awkward expressions.[2] Her advice is that authors should write short, clear and concise sentences. Also, if feasible, choose an experienced translator who is a nurse or experienced in health-care translation. Give translators a common list of words used in the document and the English meaning and translation.[2]

Author Responsibilities

Although you use a translator, editor and a peer critique, the final draft is the lead author's responsibility.[12] Authors are often discouraged when a manuscript is not accepted. Judith Baggs, editor of Research in Nursing & Health in 2010 encourages writers to be hopeful because a recommendation ‘… to revise and is a reason to celebrate, not despair, p. 86’.[4] For some scholars and various countries, the fees for a writing consultant are too expensive. Therefore, developing a personalized writing tool box is a priceless activity.

A carefully written and edited manuscript will shorten the time of the review and improve the likelihood of a favourable decision. The following is a list of strategies that are cost-effective and useful to improve your writing skill.

  1. Select, read and be familiar with an article written in English that models the type of scientific writing, the research design and concept that you are planning to write about.
  2. Assemble a contact list of native English colleagues who may possibly read your papers before submitting to a journal.[8] On social media and professional websites, invite L2 scholars to become friends who have similar writing, research and specialty interests.[9]
  3. Another strategy is to attend or create a writing network group in your setting, professional organizations or with scholars from a variety of nations.

Social media and publisher websites

Publishers, editors' organizations and associations interested in scientific or scientific writing provide an array of electronic resources for writers. Services include:

  1. free “access” online manuals on scientific writing;
  2. specific journal manuscript guidelines (see Wiley Blackwell author guidelines link on Table 1);
  3. immediate electronic access to editors and writing consultants and translators (for a fee); and
  4. clear and specific writing guidelines and a plethora of author resources and manuals. Some publishers provide author guidelines in multiple languages. For example, Springer and other publishers provide detailed author resources and a free downloadable guidebook on the types of social media and how to access them. Also discussed is how to use popular social media as a scholar and how to find ‘friends’ or colleagues who share your academic or research interests.

Lifelong Learning Activities Improve L2 Writing Style

In addition to striving to keep current in their discipline, NNES scholars are prudent to acquire and maintain personal strategies and activities to strengthen their writing in English. Some writing consultants frequently blog about writing issues and offer online writing workshops. For example, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) has a very active staff who blog about APA style at http://blog.apastyle.org/. Other blogs are located by networking on social or professional networking sites with local and international colleagues. Taking part in blogs provides opportunities to meet editors and contributors from a variety of disciplines and specialties. Blogs and twitter blogs can facilitate the set up of networks with other writers. If your manuscript is returned to you with directions for ‘major revision and resubmission’, learn ways to handle revision and rewriting using items in your tool box.[7]

Tools for revision

It is rare that a manuscript is accepted without revisions. Often writers are disappointed when they receive notice of a revision. However, actually, it is good news.[6] It means that the reviewers and editor observed merit in your work and encourage revision to improve your paper and re-submission. Consider and respond to each critique in depth. Respond to the editor and reviewers in a respectful manner when you disagree or explain your disagreement with a critique comment.[13] Some authors respond to each critique using a two-column table that lists each editorial critique in one column and a second column that shows how the authors revised or addressed the critique.

Keep abreast of current publishing trends

Keep abreast of changing trends. For example, globally many faculties are discussing the weight and value of the Impact Factor and open access journals on promotion and tenure.[14, 15] Open access has the potential to shorten the time from submission to publication. After the paper is accepted, in some cases it is available online within days. This process can assist you to disseminate and publish findings quicker and add to the existing body of knowledge on the topic.

Professional organization writing guidelines

An example of a professional organisation's guideline is the writing guidelines of Nurse Author & Editor's international, online, quarterly and free journal. The website has writing guidelines, informative articles about varied aspects of scholarly writing by nurse authors and editors and a list of international nursing journals.

The European Association of Editors (EASE) is an organization whose goal is to support editors and writers and to enhance the quality of publications. EASE suggests that authors carefully locate and use author guidelines for writing, especially NNES. The EASE's writing guidelines are found at http://www.ease.org.uk/publications/author-guidelines. The EASE guidelines are available in PDF format and published in 21 languages, including Chinese, English, Korean and Japanese.

The unrelenting pressure to publish internationally in top-tier peer-reviewed and high-impact journals will persist as evidence of faculty scholarship and recognition of the quality of the scholars' work by international peers. Creating your writing tool box will extend over the course of your career. Taking the time to reflect upon and create your unique tool box will be immensely beneficial to the efficiency, quality and outcomes of both your L1 and L2 scholarly writing.

Conclusion

In summary, writing is an art as well as a science. Scholarly writing will prevail throughout your career. Talented artists and musicians must have a personal ‘tool box’ that includes essential tools of their profession. Also, artists and scientists frequently engage in their art or science with teachers and mentors, as well as network with peers in their field. Similarly, both NNES and NES scientists, scholars and writers must practice (write) often, create a network of peers and have a writing tool box.

Writing must be an integral part of your schedule and lifestyle. Poorly written manuscripts submitted have the potential to mask the quality of the research problem and methodology. Hence, the poor quality paper reporting an excellent project manuscript is often rejected by editors or reviewers. All successful writers gradually assemble an individualized ‘writing tool box’ that is an integral component of their career trajectory. The process of creating the tool box permeates a writer's attitude, writing space, mobile electronic devices and computers. In general, electronic tools significantly help to improve writing skills. L2 writers are encouraged to (i) creatively use electronic technology to forge relationships with successful L1 and L2 authors; (ii) continue learning about writing and L2 writing, (iii) bookmark useful writing websites; (iv) learn cost-effective ways to self-edit; (v) start a blog in English about your research or interests; and (vi) don't personally internalize, but value the critique comments of reviewers and editors. Lastly, and perhaps most the important, have confidence in yourself if your initial submission is not accepted outright. Best wishes on your journey to successful international publications and an evolving personalized writing tool box.

Acknowledgements

This is my last issue to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Nursing and Human Sciences (JNHS). I am deeply grateful to all the writers who submitted manuscripts. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the courage, perseverance and tenacity of each author, especially the L2 writers. With unending gratitude and respect, I say domo arrigato (thank you) to Dr Yuki Mochizuki, Managing Editor of JNHS, and who was the glue that kept the publication process going smoothly in the journal office at Chiba University. Also, I express appreciation to JNHS associate editors at Chiba University Graduate School of Nursing, the editorial board, reviewers and the Wiley Blackwell staff who made the publication of JNHS a reality.