You Are Not Alone Series continued... "Sharpen Your Professional Writing Swordsmanship" -By Yue Liu
By Yue Liu | Doctoral Candidate in Biology at CUNY Hunter College.
Edited by Tessa Barrett
You Are Not Alone series: If you are an international student or a post-doctoral fellow in the USA and feel isolated, confused, or misunderstood, you are not alone. This is a continuation in a series that explores common challenges faced by international students.
Sharpen Your Professional Writing Swordsmanship
Writing in English is unquestionably one of the major challenges international students must conquer. Professional writing, especially scientific writing, is particularly challenging, due to the requirements for clarity, accessibility, and accuracy. The first step in becoming competent in professional writing is to sharpen your writing skills. But how can we do it given our tight schedules, limited funds, and intimidating academic requirements? The following is a range of options arranged by accessibility, depending on your skill level, from which international students can choose:
Read Quality Materials on a Daily Basis
Nobody can become a good writer without reading. A benefit of intensive reading is the broadening of our working vocabulary. Besides understanding every single word within various contexts, Monica Thorn, a very organized and encouraging English tutor at Hunter College, suggests comparing a group of related words such as synonyms and antonyms from a thesaurus every day. Personally, I have signed up to receive the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. I also recommend an affordable and portable book, Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder, which is organized by word-building roots. Thorn also recommends devoting 15 minutes per day to reading quality materials, such as The New Yorker, The New York Times (many universities provide free access), Wired, The Economist, and so on. In addition to building vocabulary, Dr. Kate Gao (a scientific editor at Nature Communications) believes reading not only brings great pleasure but also inspires us to generate our own beautiful stories. Dr. Gao suggests reading several great writers to progressively internalize their ways of storytelling to develop one’s own unique writing style.
Read and Analyze Well-written Scientific Articles
We usually read scientific articles for research, but how often do we pay attention to their logic and sentence structure? Does the article present an engaging argument like telling a captivating story? Dr. Gao suggests reading well-written scientific articles and learning how to organize data logically, precisely, and compellingly. Moreover, closely comparing one’s first draft of a research paper with the final version will help us find the areas that need improvement.
Get Free Assistance from the Reading and Writing Center at Your Institution
Most institutions provide free materials and one-on-one tutoring for students to develop fundamental reading and writing skills through Reading and Writing Centers. I met Thorn at the Reading and Writing Center at Hunter College. However, the levels and styles of tutors are quite different, and it may take time to find a good match. In addition to tutoring, you can find many useful handouts and resource links on their websites.
Take Writing Classes and Workshops for Free
I have audited writing classes at my institute and learned how to compare various forms of literatures and write critical analyses. For professional science writing, most graduate schools provide free science writing workshops. In addition, we can also take online science writing classes, such as the Writing in the Sciences course offered by Stanford University, as recommended by Dr. Jun Tang (a postdoctoral scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center). Dr. Tang strongly believes that non-native English speakers will become good writers with practice, and suggests reading good resources to absorb the language usage in one’s own writing, as well as writing regularly and revising intensively. .
Get Continuous Feedback from a Good Writer
Dr. Tang also suggests finding a good and patient writer (a friend, an English tutor from a Reading and Writing Center, or a professional writer if you can afford it) to go through your writing (e.g. essays, research proposals, and cover letters). Continuous feedback is key to improving your writing skills. For example, I was very lucky to work with Jane Shmidt (a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at CUNY). Shmidt was very patient and scrupulous in examining my writing. I developed a better sense of logic and realized the importance of organizing the structure. Shmidt gave me two pieces of advice: 1) keep a daily journal to practice writing; and 2) have a reader relay a draft back to the writer, who will then know the parts that require clarification.
Take More Advanced Writing Classes and Workshops
If free resources such as Reading and Writing Centers, auditing classes, and taking online classes do not satisfy your craving for further improvement, there are many more classes and workshops available. Dr. Gao suggests the creative writing classes offered by the Gotham Writers' Workshop (https://www.writingclasses.com/) and the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop (http://sciwrite.org/).
Join Professional Organizations for Writers
Dr. Joan Liebmann-Smith (a consulting writer and editor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) suggests joining organizations such as National Association of Science Writers, Science Writers in New York, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Writers Association, The New York Academy of Sciences, or any other organization related to your field.
Hone Analytical Skills through Editing
Dr. Liebmann-Smith also suggests forming or joining a reading/writing group to analyze and critique each member’s writing. For example, Jordana Lovett (a doctoral candidate at CUNY), who has always been passionate about scientific writing, finds the most satisfying means of improving her writing is to edit other people’s work. The critical reading and editing process trains her mind to write more effectively.
“You don’t succeed as a scientist by getting papers published. You succeed as a scientist by getting them cited. … You succeed when your peers understand your work and use it to motivate their own…. Success, therefore, comes not from writing but from writing effectively.”
Acknowledgement: I am very fortunate to know many great writers who are generous in sharing their valuable experiences with me: Dr. Kate Gao, Dr. Joan Liebmann-Smith, Jordana Lovett, Jane Shmidt, Dr. Jun Tang, and Monica Thorn.