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Hope.for.the.best

Tips of academic writing

5 posts in this topic

Hi all, 

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who responded to my previous posts. Your suggestions and support are invaluable and they are very important to me at this very stressful and lonely stage of thesis writing.

I don't have big problems with grammar, paraphrasing and using academic language to write, but I am struggling to produce clear and concise sentences. I can write grammatically correct sentences, but they are often clumsy and difficult to read. Although I will go with my main supervisor's suggestion to hire a copy-editor for my thesis, I wish to hear some tips to improve academic writing. 

I have been trying the followings.

(1) Grammarly: I installed this software when I saw it in YouTube. It is better than Word to pick up typos and grammatical mistakes. At least my co-supervisor has complained less about my writing. 

(2) PerfectIt: I found it from google and it is very helpful in ensuring consistencies in spelling (e.g. email vs e-mail) and the use of abbreviations etc. 

(3) I have tried reading out things aloud too, but this does not work quite well for me. I think it is down to I am a non-native English speaker and I am not good at picking up weird sentences from reading. 

What are your suggestions? I feel that I should do my best rather than relying on the copy-editor.

Thanks.

Hope.for.the.best

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I understand that you want to do this on your own, but at this point in the game, perhaps you need a copy-editor. It would be a long and tedious task for a person to sit with you, going over how to clarify sentences. If you can't see or hear how sentences are "weird" (your emphasis), then it's likely you won't catch the slight variances simply because English is a second language. A copy-editor will only change the structure of sentences, not the meaning they convey. This person will still need to go over your thesis with you so that you understand what they are changing and to make sure context hasn't changed. In that regard, you will be involved every step of the way. This is going to cost you though. You need at least a master's student, and more likely, an English PhD student to help you with this. Personally, I would charge from $5 up per page to do copy editing for a thesis or dissertation, because of the close work and time that is involved. If there were more rounds of editing needed, the price would go up. Professional transcribers charge approximately $2 per page to transcribe exactly, either hand-written or dictated material. There is no analysis of material for grammatical correctness, simply a typing. You are paying for several things: the education of the person making the edits, the level of editing necessary, and the amount of time an editor needs to spend with you after edits are complete in order to ensure context remains the same. Since this is pricey, I would suggest you struggle as best you can through revisions, only giving a final draft to the copy editor. Remember also, that this is going to take some time, so be sure to leave sufficient time for an editor to work.

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I agree that a copy editor could be a worthwhile expense for you. My PhD school hired copyeditors for all submitted dissertations and the edits were very helpful. I did not interact with the copy editor directly though: they made the suggestions and edits and it was my choice on what to implement. The copyeditors hired generally have at least Masters degree in a scientific field in addition to knowledge of the English language so they are experienced with technical language. I would say that 95% of the edits did not inadvertently change the meaning of the sentence. In 2 or 3 cases, the copyeditor wasn't sure of what I meant, so they offered two alternative edits, e.g. "If you meant X, then ABC but if you meant Y then DEF". We only get one pass through with the copyeditor. 

In my field, the journals also provided copyediting as part of the publishing fees and I learned a lot of grammar rules that I didn't really think about before. So paying for a copyeditor could be a good learning experience too. 

That said, copyediting can be expensive (I have never paid out of pocket for it before), so it's also a matter of how important this is to you. At my PhD school, there is a two-week turnaround time for copyediting and since you need to provide the thesis at least two weeks before your defense, most people submit their theses to their committee and the copyeditor at the same time, otherwise you would have to finish writing a whole month before your defense. So if you don't care about the nicely written thesis in the end, then the expense may not be worth it.

However, if your advisor is suggesting a copyeditor because they think your committee won't be able to read your dissertation without these edits, then you have to weigh the costs of copyediting vs. your own time in getting your manuscript to the point where your committee would be willing to pass you on your defense. I think a copyeditor can edit your work at least 5 times faster than you can do it yourself, and I think most copyeditors don't charge a rate that is 5 times your equivalent hourly income. But it can still be a big expense, so it's a matter of what you can afford.

In summary: I think copyeditors are great. I would advise hiring one if you can afford it and if you need your manuscript copyedited before you can defend. I understand your feeling of wanting to do this yourself, but I don't think your degree is any less deserving because a copyeditor was hired (otherwise, no one at my school would "deserve" a PhD). And during the stressful time of writing, saving yourself 1-2 weeks of work by hiring a copyeditor is super helpful.

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Thanks for your replies. Could I clarify that I will hire a copy-editor but would still like to improve my English along the way? I located a copy-editor but I am not going to give her my thesis until I finish the whole thing. She makes good edits but she doesn't sit down with clients to discuss the changes required. As I said, I don't wish to leave everything to the copy-editor but not making an effort to improve. 

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One option is to try the writing center at your school, if one exists. Most schools will have some version of this service, and the writing tutors tend to be very good. They do precisely what the copy-editor will not -- sit with you and explain what changes should be made and why. Beyond that, one other thing to try is to identify friends/colleagues who could help you, in exchange for some reciprocal help (comment on their work, help them with whatever they need help with - data coding or low-level grunt work, etc, or just take them out for coffee/lunch if they don't want actual help). I've done this for several non-native-speaker friends. Something else to do is to go back to older drafts of your own work, go through them systematically, and collect your original writing and your supervisors' comments/suggested wording. You might notice patterns in your own writing and in their comments based on that. (You might also bring these drafts and comments to a meeting with the writing center, since they can help you identify patterns and address systematic problems. Or, if there is no writing center, you might be able to find a tutor through the English department who could do this for you.) 

Beyond those suggestions, while I think that your efforts are admirable, it's hard to see how you can learn what you need to learn under the time pressure that you're under. You probably need a more concentrated effort, though the automated tools you suggest might provide some clues. 

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