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I'm an Asian student working with a European prof. My adviser told me several times that when he read my writings (our papers), he just wanted to rewrite it. He told me that my English was rather OK, but "the way Oriental people think is different from us". By "us" he meant Europeans.

My adviser could not tell me exactly what was the difference. So I would like to ask if anybody here has experience working with Asian co-authors, and has the same feeling?

Or is this only my problem and my adviser is trying to avoid being straightforward?

Note: I do have problem with my writing. My first conf. paper had been rejected 6 times before it was accepted.


Thanks for the answers. I just want to make clear that:

  • I'm asking about the narrative of a paper, and how the content is represented. I'm not asking about the use of language expressions or passive/active writing.

  • Judging the comment of my adviser racist is unfair to him. He treats students like friends and 3 out of 5 of his students, including me, have been Asian (and I guess he has this feeling with all 3 of us).

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Maybe you should get his papers with other Europeans and try to compare the style to what you have written. I find his phrasing pretty racist, but there are clearly idioms which non-native speakers of English use which are directly related to what their native language is. It's pretty easy to spot Germans by the mistakes and turns of phrase they make in English, and Chinese, and Spanish speakers. Perhaps you can bring your writing in line with his expectations by studying his prior work. –  Bill Barth Aug 3 '14 at 15:37
I think that if you have previously faced difficulty with your conference paper, it is your problem of English writing not his preferences to a specific style of writing. Why don't you take some technical/general English writing classes and improve your writing with help of a teacher? Have you ever consulted your problem with an English teacher? –  Enthusiastic Student Aug 3 '14 at 15:42
Is this actually about language (as the two answers so far seem to assume), or about text structure (contents-wise), as is implied by the "think is different from us" statement? People can be very good or very poor at expressing themselves in a given language (relative to what is considered correct for the language), and people can be very good or very poor at explaining complex facts in a comprehensible way (relative to what the audience would consider logical). Those two factors are orthogonal. –  O. R. Mapper Aug 3 '14 at 19:06
What this sounds like is a reference to sentence structures / paragraph structures that may be technically correct and understandable but very uncommon for a native speaker. I.e., there are correct sentences that a native speaker would not ever use, but would always choose to say the same thing differently; and the same for the slightly larger structure of the argument over a paragraph or two. I have read multiple such articles (actually, often by Asian authors) where this is clearly visible - the text isn't incorrect, and is understandable, but it's very different in terms of language. –  Peteris Aug 3 '14 at 20:10
@qsphan The situation you describe is common - scientists often acquire their writing skills by practicing over and over again. The downside of it is that they cannot reflect well on what they do, because there they are not educated on that formally. Thus, they cannot even tell you what is wrong with your writing in terms of hitting the style of writing of your particular field in combination with "good writing in general". As a start, you may want to structure your paper drafts as so-called elevator pitches, whose elements are found in pretty much all paper introductions (at least in CS). –  DCTLib Aug 4 '14 at 9:13

10 Answers 10

up vote 52 down vote accepted

No, this is absolutely not just your problem! I am also an ESL and this very comment has been given to me numerous times: Your writing is weird, but I can't really tell how. After many years of working on it (including reading many books about writing, joining a writing group, publishing some papers, and writing pretty much everyday), my writing is still, well, weird. I have come to terms that I will never be able to conceal my "Asian-ness," and I'm fine with that.

Though, in the process, I did learn some tricks. I hope some of them will be useful to you.

Have basic grammar all nailed down

I understand that you are not seeking for grammatical advice. But people don't just judge your work's structure and suspect its lack of European thinking style from the get-go. Small mistakes such as (taken from your question) "By 'us' he meant European," and " I do have problems with my writing," can prompt readers to think of you as a foreign writer. And once that thought is sparked, a lot of scrutinies will follow.

Side notes: Some friends did give me very thorough diagnoses on my writing style, which may be useful to you: Generally I suffer from: i) lack of agreement between subjects and verbs, ii) wrong use of articles, and iii) lack of conjunctions and connectives. I have been working hard on addressing those problems, and it's probably going to be a life-long project which is fine by me.

Have him rewrite it

I'm an Asian student working with a European prof. My adviser told me several times that when he read my writings (our papers), he just wanted to rewrite it. He told me that my English was rather OK, but "the way Oriental people think is different from us". By "us" he meaned European.

Why not? Politely invite him to rewrite a few of your paragraphs. If he cannot name what is wrong, but he can rewrite it, then the solutions lie in the rewritten version. Schedule a meeting with him and go over the sticky parts. By that time he will have some ideas about your problems because after rewriting the piece, he will know what he has changed.

Even if he cannot give you any suggestion, with the two versions you can now easily show any writing coach what you wrote and what your instructor thought you wrote. The writing coach should be able to pinpoint the some basic stylistic differences.

Analyze articles' structure

When you read an article, read it a few times with different lenses. First, read for general sectioning, then read for information, and lastly read for its syntactic structure. A wonderful book that I have come across on this kind of analysis is Schimel's "Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded." It provides tools and examples on dissecting an article from paragraph down to wording sequence in a sentence. There are many grammatically correct ways to put together a sentence, a paragraph, and an article; this book talks about the subtle effects of those different ways.

Do not start from your mother tongue

One old habit that I have successfully gotten rid of is to mentally draft a sentence in my mother tongue and then translate that into English. The process was counter-productive at best because the revision was quite time consuming and painful. A couple tricks helped me through the struggles:

Start from Subject + Verb or Subject + Verb + Object, then slowly add different modifiers. A wonderful book that teaches me most of these is Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. If you get a chance, please read it. I still read it time to time as a writing therapy.

Use a mind-map to gather ideas. Mind maps, in my opinion, operate very much in the way that scientists display ideas: using categories, hierarchies, relations, and lists. By focusing on this device, I could make the structure tighter and more coherent.

Other resources

I have also grown bold enough to answer some writing-related questions on this site. Here are a few that you may find helpful:

Any place for people with fear of writing?

How can I best edit a paper to help get it published?

Good luck and keep working on it! Your (and my) problem is something that will not totally go away, but can definitely be lessened. Just enjoy the learning process and don't care too much about sounding 100% like a European thinker.

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I put this question into Favorites because of this answer. It will certainly help all those who have the same problem. Thanks!! –  scaaahu Aug 5 '14 at 8:22
+1 for "Have him rewrite it". Even as a "European" native English speaker with a "European" native English speaker advisor, my advisor and I had different ideas about how to present work. Having him re-write some or all of our papers really helped me to see what he was getting at. –  Peter K. Aug 5 '14 at 20:05

I think your advisor's statement was not well-stated, but there is a kernel of truth: people speaking different languages express themselves very differently, and this carries over to writing. It is not just a matter of "European" versus "Asian"; even among European languages, there is tremendous variation.

For example, consider the use of passive voice. English uses the passive voice much more frequently than German, while German uses it much more frequently than French (where it is to be avoided as much as possible, with the use of reflexive and generic third-person subjects). These characteristics, along with others, show up when people attempt to write in another language, because that is "what they know."

Because Asian languages are so different from European languages in structure, syntax, grammar, and even basic organization (logograms versus phonograms, for instance), it is natural that it will take some adjustment from what can be written in an Asian language to how one would write in English.

However, I would make sure to ask if your university offers training in academic writing in English, rather than just let your advisor do all the work. It will be a skill that you will need to develop in the future regardless of who fixes things now, so it's better if you learn it now rather than wait until you really need it.

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Is it possible that "English uses the passive voice much more frequently than German" is field-dependent? I've heard multiple times that in English scientific papers, passive voice should be avoided as it makes the paper harder to read (for natives). German scientific papers tend to utilize passive voice heavily, as the words "we" and "I" are kind-of-forbidden. The former should not even be used as "you, the reader, and I, the author, together", which is an extremely common use in English CS papers. –  DCTLib Aug 4 '14 at 9:20
Astronomy and Astrophysics, the biggest journal in the field, organises a summer school on scientific writing for astronomers. Probably in other fields there are also similar opportunities. –  Davidmh Aug 5 '14 at 10:26

I teach at a university in Japan, and I think there are severe differences between the expectations of Western academic writing and at a minimum Japanese academic writing (though I don't have the knowledge to make claims beyond those borders). This might shed some light on where this kind of conflict can be happening. There are severe stylistic and expectation differences in paper writing between Japan and Western contexts.

Let me explain, in my discipline (philosophy), the standard style in America is quite simple:

Introduction = statement of thesis and major claims  (5-10%)
Body = arguments for the major claims necessary to defend thesis 
Conclusion = restatement of major claims and thesis (~10%)

and then within body, there should be responses to potential objections.

My sense is that writing in many other fields in English mirrors this -- at a minimum with the claim and argument centered structure.

A Japanese academic essay in contrast follows a pattern that I believe originally has a German origin:

Introduction = explanation of why you are writing the paper (15%)
*Haikei* = extensive background of prior work in the field (maybe 80% of the paper)
Conclusion = put in things you want to say (5%)

This then bleeds over into my students' attempts to write academic English papers.

I think the German one is similar but the difference is what is placed in the background section. From my experience with German articles, you must write in a way that demonstrates general mastery of the literature. In the Japanese version (at least among the many papers I've read), you respond as a reader to things you like and don't like in the literature.

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So you are saying that in philosophy papers written by Americans there is no motivation in the Introduction, and no review of related prior work? –  Sasho Nikolov Aug 4 '14 at 15:36
As a generality for the sake of comparison, there is little background in American philosophy papers -- you're supposed to read the others for that and join the conversation that way. Can you find exceptions either way? I'm sure you can. If you've found argument-driven papers in Japanese, please share them with me I'd love to read them. –  virmaior Aug 4 '14 at 15:52
I am just curious, because in my field (theoretical computer science) there is always some discussion of prior work, although it's usually concise. The Japanese papers I've read follow the standard style, and of course are argument based because our whole field is based on theorems and proofs. Math papers (which I also often read) tend to be entirely an argument: it's not infrequent that the first sentence is a definition and the last thing before the bibliography is "QED". So I guess your interesting comparison is field-specific. –  Sasho Nikolov Aug 4 '14 at 16:43
I think there's some field specificity going on, but I would tend to think math and CS are the exception rather than humanities based on my knowledge of their education system here. –  virmaior Aug 5 '14 at 1:17
@SashoNikolov I guess what I take away from your comment is that the style of math papers is so formalized as to wipe almost all distinctions in writing style. –  virmaior Aug 5 '14 at 22:32

The statement, while somewhat sloopy, definitely true.

Different cultures has different rhetoric styles, and that definitely influence how essays are written and how arguments are built up. I have several Japanese and Chinese co-authors, but more experience with the former ones. E.g. the Japanese style of argumentation is often described as circular, and there is a whole bunch of literature on how this style is different from the Western traditions.

If it bothers you the best thing you can do is to read papers you consider good and understand how they build up their arguments.

ps: While you stated that your command of English is good, it is definitely a major issue with many Asian authors, too. It is very typical to see "recycled" sentences and phrases all over in their writing, which are often used off the context or with slightly misfitting meaning, without real connection to the text. This can destroy the flow of any argument and are pretty big turn offs.

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Agreed on the Japanese writing -- teaching at a university in Japan myself. –  virmaior Aug 4 '14 at 9:00

I thought it was just me. I have had the very same feeling. I am married to a Chinese lady and her sister stayed with us for some time while attending to her graduate studies here in Sydney, Australia. I would often review her writing and constantly had the deep urge I wanted to restructure it --- not merely fix grammar and style, but restructure bottom-up. I didn't attribute it to culture or language at the time and usually resisted the urge to rewrite and confined myself to correcting just the spelling, but having read this post, I have to say it deeply resonates! I think there was a difference in the way thoughts were connected and in the flow of reasoning that was employed. I saw connections, but constantly asked myself "why" as if to compensate for something she'd omitted. The mental connections were there but somehow structured differently. I've spent considerable time in Canada, the US, UK, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and China. There are differences between European cultures also, but what I've seen in difference between Asian and European styles goes well beyond this.

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I am not sure if it is fair to distinguish between "Asian" and "European" as such. Modern scientific writing is highly condensed and certainly follows a certain style. This style can perhaps clash with other traditional ways of expressing matters such as to never contradict senior scientists and other more regional etiquette based issues.

The basis is to have good command of English and to get to a point where you can express your thoughts clearly and concisely. This is difficult for all and the way to learn it is to follow good examples. You should carefully look at articles you read and try to learn from the good examples (not everything you read will be good!). There are also many books that you can study and use as a reference although reading a book will not be enough. In the end it is only practise that makes perfect and for some of us (being a non-English native myself) it takes time and a need for good examples to follow.

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General advice for clarity (US style):

  1. Re-frame your thoughts into facts. No circular arguments nor implications. State them as simply as you can. Write them in bullets points and then add conjunctions. Don't pad them with fluff. Think about how to shorten/simplify for someone who has only 10 years of English. (Sad, but it works) Think about how your words might be interpreted in different ways and re-write it such that they have only one meaning, as simple as you can!

  2. Use first-person AND active voice. Not "we might", not "one found that", but rather, "I did this!" I personally don't like to claim individual credit for group work, nor state "fact" for uncertain things, but this style of writing is less ambiguous for the reader to comprehend sigh. Put your caveats after your claims.

  3. Structure: 3a. 20~30% lit review. 3b. 40% your experiment reason, methodology, findings. 3c. 10~20% discussion of findings, future research.

  4. Submissions to conferences: don't write it like a publication, ffs. The reviewers usually have a rubric: does it fit the track theme? does it add value to the attendees? what do you plan to do in the session? how little do I have to freaking scan before I get the answers. I've had to review 20 submissions in 4 hours, so please just get to the point and don't brag about your achievements.

Good luck with your submissions.

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This does not seem to answer the question (which was not a request for writing tips) –  ff524 Aug 5 '14 at 22:06

I'll add my data point: From my experience with different co-authors I can not underpin the claim that Asian authors have a different writing style than European authors.

Although the case of the OP seems to resonate with several people I am not really sure if this is really an "Asian/European" thing or even a cultural thing. It may well be a personal thing, i.e. a clash of two different styles of writing and thinking. As far as I see, different writing styles also exist for people with similar cultural background and vice verse, people with different cultural background may still think and write in similar style.

My personal experience is this: I have written papers with two people from Asia and with both I never felt a desire to "just want to rewrite the paper". I noticed different use of articles and also a little different language but still, I was totally fine with that and the collaborative writing went smoothly. On the other hand, I have written papers with other Europeans (other Germans, like me, to be precise) and sometimes felt the urge "to rewrite anything", also without being able to nail down what precisely was wrong. With some other authors from Germany or other non-Asian countries the writing also went smoothly. So my data is:

  • Two cases of Asian co-authors with no problems in collaborative writing.
  • Three cases of non-Asian (in fact European) co-authors where I thought about "rewriting anything".

Hopefully, this question and its answers may end up and give some hint how the bigger picture of the issue looks like. So please consider upvoting the answer which reflects your experience or contribute another answer.

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Dirk, where were you Asian co-authors educated and in what language did they receive the education? That would make a big difference as the meaning of the anecdote. –  virmaior Aug 6 '14 at 1:18
Actually , I am not sure if this matters as the question was about Asian and European and the related cultures. For what it's worth: They are from Shanghai and Hongkong. –  Dirk Aug 6 '14 at 4:30

Which field are you working in? This makes a big difference. If you are writing in, say, medicine or hard sciences, the differences from region to region would be minor. In other fields, such as history or other humanities, there could be substantial differences in expectations of both reader and writer in organization, rhetoric, and so forth.

Your professor mentions "thinking," which would lead me to think he is referring to "big picture" issues. But I have seen professors react to the "accent" of second language writers with misleading comments, when, in fact, they were simply not reading through the "accent."

I would ask your professor to guide you through a revision of a single page of the paper--a reasonable request--and less vague, more constructive feedback may come through.At that point, I would follow the excellent advice from "Penguin Knight" above, "Analyze article's structure."

Good luck to you!

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I once rewrote a Ph.D. thesis for a Chinese student on the request of her thesis adviser, who said it was basically unsubmittable.

Everything the student wrote was in 'Yoda' - backwards every sentence wrote she did. Most peculiar it was really. Just wanted to rewrite it after a few sentences you did.

I never found out if she had the degree conferred. The thesis adviser said her work was marginal at best, notwithstanding the bizarre English.

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