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Academic Coaching & Writing

III.  Finding Your Own Voice as a Writer

Oct 25, 2016 by Kathryn Kleypas

In the introduction to this blog series, I wrote that international students speak to me a lot about isolation and loneliness. After isolation, the fear of writing is what international students speak to me about the most. Over the years, students have told me that they hate writing and believe they are bad at it. When I ask them why they believe they are bad writers, they tell me that their previous teachers had told them they had “poor grammar.” Almost always, once I get to know the student and look at the writing, I find that the student, with some help, can become a very strong writer.

You need to understand that academic writing follows its own standards of usage, and a final polished draft of any academic text submitted for a grade or for publication needs to follow those standards. However, focusing only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation from the beginning to the end of the writing process works against writers and especially writers who are writing in an acquired language.

Writing an academic paper can take weeks or months of work, much of it in the prewriting and early drafting phases. And then, once the paper comes closer to what you know is its final-draft form, you may continue to revise it for an extended period of time. It is in these early stages of prewriting and drafting that non-native speakers of the language they are writing in can get the most hung up. Some instructors begin marking grammar and usage errors on first drafts to the detriment of higher order issues such as the ideas themselves, the argument, and organization. This is counterproductive for writers and ultimately stops creative energy in its tracks.  More importantly, it results in writers internalizing the belief that they are poor writers. Internalizing a belief such as this can have devastating effects on writers and even make them hate writing.

What does make good writing? A well-written article has an original idea behind it and builds its claim and supports it effectively. The debates about the role of the personal in scholarship notwithstanding, good academic writing should have the fingerprint of the author who wrote it. While academic prose follows certain forms and guidelines, you don’t need to strip your writing of its authorship nor its authority. And, in the process, stylistic nuances will naturally appear and your authority will come through.

I had the opportunity to co-edit a collection of essays on the topic of globalization in higher education. We received submissions from scholars all over the world whose perspectives added tremendously to the overall collection. As we suggested revisions, my co-editor and I were acutely aware of the importance of protecting the integrity of each author’s individual voice. We were not looking for essays that were cookie-cutter versions of an idealized, sanitized academic prose style. We cultivated what we found original, exciting, and beautiful in each author’s style even down to the point of maintaining the cadences of the author’s style.

Embrace Your Native Skills

What does all of this mean for you as you write academic papers, reports, and articles in a language that is not your first language? In spite of perhaps being told by teachers or colleagues that you are a poor writer because you “make mistakes,” you in fact have the potential to be as good or better a writer in English than anyone whose first language is English. You bring native skills in one or more other languages and broad global perspectives that people who have never learned other languages or lived outside their own home country do not have. Your speaking and writing may be inflected with intonations and patterns that carry over from one or more of the other languages you speak. Instead of trying to erase these, embrace them!  It’s what makes you unique and exciting and what will make your writing bear your own individual fingerprint.

As to the issue of correctness, try experimenting in the following way: During the prewriting and drafting phases, don’t think about correctness at all. Ignore any surface-level issues as you take notes, brainstorm, write outlines, and write the early drafts. This takes practice. Let your ideas flow freely without thinking about what the language looks like on the page. You do not have to show anyone these early drafts. As the paper begins to take shape and you have a supported argument organized in a way that satisfies you, begin to think about how the language is functioning at the level of the sentence.

Discussion Questions

Think about several scholars in your field who write in English but are not native speakers of the language. What do you notice about their writing?  What do you admire about it?

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