As a Latin American woman and non-native English speaker, the beginning of my academic writing in social sciences was particularly challenging. It took me a monumental effort to write not only in English, but in academic English. I felt the burden of trying to avoid miscommunication, since I sometimes had (and still have) a hard time explaining the ideas that frame the context of my research.
For non-English speakers, in addition to the usual academic fears of the research not being novel enough or not having the appropriate methodology or writing style, etc., language constraints are significant and add an extra layer of uncertainty. Writing anxiety is quite normal, and I am sure that many of us, native and non-native, have dealt with the intrinsic self-doubt of writing that first abstract or paper. However, to write in a language that is not your mother tongue is something else. The differences in the construction of sentences, grammar, and the usage of idioms can add to the expected stress of drafting this kind of communication.
In an environment where a researcher’s worth depends on the number of publications, which are in journals (surprise, surprise) predominantly in English, a deficit in language skills can have a severe impact on the progression and self-esteem of the new researcher. These feelings create and perpetuate the vicious circle of self-doubt, writer’s block, and failure, which can have a detrimental impact on a PhD student’s progression or an emerging researcher’s career.
As the old adage says, every cloud has a silver lining; in my case, my silver lining appeared when I shared my first piece of writing. I know; this can be terrifying. But sharing my writing, at first with colleagues, then in writing networks, did actually contribute to making me feel more comfortable and confident in my academic writing journey. These positive and constructive experiences helped me to overcome my self-awareness about the language and focus instead on constructing arguments and defending my ideas.
Another factor that helped me in this process was assuming my voice and identity in my writing. For me, the use of the ‘appropriate’, impersonal and distance academic writing style is very frustrating. To find the balance between writing in an academic style and still recognising myself in my writing was not an easy task. But, little by little, inspired by the writing of other scholars, I started to allow my own voice to permeate through my writings. Writing ‘about’ something became a part of writing myself.
To write the abstract of my first paper was a challenge in and of itself. The very fact that these few words must make sense by themselves and fully inform others about my research was baffling. The process of including different elements of my research in such a restricted number of words made me even more aware of my limitations of vocabulary. Thankfully, during this process I found I could rely on my supervisors, colleagues and the writing group I am a part of to get support. As the abstract is the first part accessed of your manuscript, it’s vital to not only to be sure that it is clear and concise but also to ensure that it’s appealing. The input of my colleagues was crucial in this process because it made me realise where there were flaws or missing information.
This ‘battle’ is not finished, and I am not sure if someday it will end, but I found it very liberating when I finally understood that my writing is shaped not only by what I know but also by who I am and by my experiences and background. Also, in my experience, the fact that I could count on a support network during this process, helped me to exorcise at least a few of the ‘ghosts’ of academic writing.
Erika do Amaral Valerio is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Rural Economy, School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University. Erika’s PhD research topic is Exploring the impact of state interventions upon the empowerment of rural women in agriculture in North-East Brazil.