I have written my thesis on my own (with my limited English skills) and I gave it to my supervisor to check it. He said the work is fine but the writing is a bit bad and I need to proofread it by myself. I know that my English level is just below the normal and needs time to improve. However, I have limited time (a couple of weeks), so my question is how to improve my English writing efficiently during this period that will lead to an improvement of my thesis?

I have heard that there are some phrases and academic vocabulary list that are given by Cambridge University or other universities for use and are not regarded as plagiarism, does anyone know them?

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    Does you university have a writing center (e.g. Texas Tech's center)? They will often meet with graduate students to help them with writing. Jul 2, 2018 at 15:51
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    unfortunately, we don't have such things. they have only some software for plagiarism.thanks for the link
    – Yaakov
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:56
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    Unfortunately, your best option may be to pay someone to work with you on edits. A local search may turn up possibilities. Other than that, another student might be willing to help you (maybe for the cost of dinner).
    – Buffy
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:05
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    Did he say proofread it "by [your]self" or did he mean, "proofread this before I see it again"? Jul 2, 2018 at 18:21
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    How long is your master's thesis? Depending on how long it is, I might be able to look it over for you (no cost or anything; as long as you can put it in a spot where I can access it from a chat room or something, i.e., no email contact necessary). I completely understand if you can't do that, just thought I'd mention I'd be willing to help a bit. (I am a native english speaker, but I am not a professional proofreader in any capacity, and I have not written any technical papers that have been published, though one is submitted. I am also a highschool student.)
    – auden
    Jul 3, 2018 at 5:07

7 Answers 7


I suggest you seriously consider contracting the services of a native English speaker who's also either an academic or has some professional writing or editing experience (literary or academic). You don't write degree theses many times in your life - typically once for your Master's, then again for your Ph.D.; so it's worth it, in my opinion, to make this investment. Not only will this make your thesis more pleasent to follow, it may also improve the clarity for your official academic readers / exam committee; and the corrections you receive will serve you well in your future academic authorship.

If you had more time on your hands, I'd suggest working on improving your English writing skills; as @RichardErickson notes, many universities offer such services to graduate courses, sometimes as proper semesterial courses, sometimes on a less formal basis. There are also resources like Strunk & White's Elements of Style booklet which, if taken to heart and applied to your thesis, will also be very helpful.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - I would also consider asking colleagues of yours to have a look at your thesis draft, to make sure they can figure out the contents more than to give you feedback about your English.

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    @Yaakov, this is a great answer, which I think is the most practical for your situation. Here's another tip: although you cannot (by your own testimony) do the proofreading yourself, you can (and I highly recommend it) search for published papers as close to your research subject as possible, and try to find words and expressions that occur across papers, and use them. For example, in planetary science the word 'constrain' with the meaning of 'determine' (e.g. "in order to constrain a planet's temperature...") is very commonly used. Using common words and expressions will improve your writing.
    – Don_S
    Jul 3, 2018 at 7:19
  • I am going for it but I am not sure about going to contract the services of a native English speaker who will edit my thesis which will make me feel that is not my work.
    – Yaakov
    Jul 3, 2018 at 8:29
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    @Yaakov: They will not submit anything in your stead. They'll make suggestion (either using "track changes", or with a physical red pen, or whatever) and then you submit what text you have finalized.
    – einpoklum
    Jul 3, 2018 at 10:32
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    My partner used to be an administrator at a laboratory in an English University. She became friends with a number of the students (mostly foriegn), and proof read their PhD theses for them. In fact, I would say it would be unusual to have a PhD thesis that has not been proof-read by somebody else - paying a native-speaker to act as editor is just an extension of that. Jul 4, 2018 at 7:00

My best tip for proof reading your own work is to have your computer read it back to you. We often notice how things sound weird when they are spoken compared to when they are written.

Microsoft word includes text-to-speech as part of the Word. I use it all the time. Stand alone text-to-speech software is available if you use something else for your writing.

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    thanks for the tip. according to my advisor, he wants a quality written thesis. for example when we use the phrase following: the figure above shows, we can rewrite it in another way such as: as illustrated in the figure ....I want to improve it so it is better than now where it looks very simple
    – Yaakov
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:03
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    Well, in that case your supervisor has different opinions on writing :). I'm generally of the opionion that things should be written as simply and transparently as possible. When I read things that have too much flowery language, I generally think "here is someone trying to make themselves sound more clever" and generally struggle to stop myself from adding "than they actually are". "illustrated" and "shows" are two different things though. An illustration of something is a visual explanation, possibly by example. To show something is generally to provide the evidence for a statement. Jul 2, 2018 at 16:15
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    These sorts of subtleties are not something you can really pick up in a short period of time, but come with slowly and with experience, even to most native English speakers (i'm assuming from your post you are not a native speaker, but I guess you don't actually say that). Thus, until you are more confident, it is better to get it clear and correct rather than try to be more beautiful, but make subtle mistakes. Jul 2, 2018 at 16:17
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    I'm not convinced that this would be effective - someone with limited English skills may not be able to hear problems in spoken English.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 2, 2018 at 21:22
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    @IanSudbery Many technical writers should periodically re-read the “Omit needless words” chapter from Strunk’s The Elements of Style and follow its suggestions in their writing. Academic research would benefit greatly.
    – aeismail
    Jul 3, 2018 at 9:46

You seem to have a mistaken view of what constitutes plagiarism. The choice of an individual word or trite phrase, such as "as demonstrated in the figure," or "a careful analysis shows that" cannot be plagiarism. The reason for this is because such behavior does not meet the primary criterion of plagiarism, which is the misappropriation of someone else's intellectual work without credit. Even using someone else's term for something is not plagiarism. (For example, it is not plagiarism to use a word like anomie or superego just because someone else came up with it!) Similarly, grammar checkers such as Grammarly or a built-in word processor feature only offer suggestions for how to fix errors in your writing. Accepting their suggestions is no more plagiarism than working with a professional proofreader.

However, another suggestion for how to handle the proofreading would be to find someone who is a better writer and speaker of English than you are to help you with the proofreading, as we often tend to be too close to the writing, particularly if it's something that we are in the middle of working on intensely. Somebody else's judgment will help far more than trying to do it all yourself.


My name is Headcrab, and I am an alcoho... and I also had to write some scientific papers in English, which is not my mother tongue. There are two tricks that I learned in the process:

  1. Keep some papers of other authors at hand. Copycat their style (not the content). Want to write something but not sure how to phrase it? Find something structurally similar in those papers and re-use.
  2. If in doubt about a particular sentence/idiom/phrase composition - simply google it. The phrase may come out in the search results exactly as you typed (use it, then), slightly different (modify accordingly, then), or it may not be there at all (think of some other phrase, then).
  3. Don't expect the result to be that good, just good enough to be acceptable. If you want it to be that good, there's no other way but to employ a native speaker. If you want it to be really good, that native speaker would also have to be a professional proofreader.

Those are my three suggestions of the Spanish Inquisition. A word about "improving your English writing efficiently during a two weeks period" - you can't. Natural language skills don't get sufficiently improved on such short time scale.

And about the advice to "read it aloud to someone/make someone read it aloud to you". For a native speaker, who has a strong "gut feeling" of the language, that may be an excellent way to catch some mistakes they would have otherwise overlooked. For us non-native speakers, I'm afraid it's not going to work, because we are usually better at reading than at listening comprehension. I tried that a couple of times - while reading aloud, it seems my brain mostly struggled with "how do I pronounce this..." rather than with "what may be wrong with this grammatically..." (needless to say, the nuances of pronunciation are irrelevant when it comes to writing). Tried recording what I read and listening to it, too, but then I was too busy cringing at my own accent, and everything in the text sounded wrong. A computerized reader, or a friend who also doesn't speak that good English wouldn't be much better in that regard. (And I haven't tried, but I suspect that if you make a native speaker read your paper to you, everything would sound right.)


To improve your writing in general and your copy in particular you can:

  • Search for a book like Writing "your discipline here" for tips and fixed expressions. For example, Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers or the freely available 2nd edition of A Primer of Mathematical Writing (chapters 1, 3, 4 can be applied to almost any scientific text).
  • Use LanguageTool for orthography, grammar and style; it is FOSS and works in LibreOffice and TeXstudio or as a separate application. (I have never used Grammarly, but I think these 2 are similar.)
  • Check out Oxford Advanced Learner's for synonyms and collocations: e.g. hence.

If you are interested in technical proofreading and not in the content verification you can:

  • Make the process iterative, do not proofread all at once: review a chapter or two, have a break to do something different.
  • Read backwards.
  • Read it aloud. If you get stuck, then this fragment may be worth rewriting.
  • Read it on another medium: paper instead of screen, phone instead of PC, etc.

(These 3 tricks make your brain uncomfortable and it cannot skip familiar text chunks.)

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    In addition to the tools mentioned here and in other answers, one can sort the words in the text and have the number of usages shown next to them. First, one will spot inconsistent spellings and hyphenations, second, one can detect overusage of a word.
    – TAR86
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:29

I suggest to start with the basics:

  • Use a spell checker. They are normally included in writing platforms.
  • To correct grammatical mistakes, I suggest the use of platforms like Grammarly.
  • Search for synonyms: Thesaurus
  • To enrich your writing, lists of academic phrases are also a useful resource and can be easily found with a Google search. For instance: http://www.kfs.edu.eg/com/pdf/2082015294739.pdf
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    As far as I know, it doesn't. I cannot think of why it should.
    – fa__
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:09
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    You should mention them in your acknowledgements, including how you used them. That way, it certainly isn't plagiarism.
    – gerrit
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:25
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    I just put the classic poem that starts ”Eye halve a spelling chequer...” and grammerly missed most of the errors ... So I won’t be relying on it ...
    – Solar Mike
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:53
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    I would add, use grammar checkers with a grain of salt. If you're not sure whether or not the grammar checker is right, it probably isn't. Check out the classic Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" for some mighty useful tips on writing pretty much anything. Your university or local library will certainly have a copy.
    – Raydot
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:24
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    I agree on using grammar checkers with a grain of salt. However, I do find them useful to spot certain mistakes and I think they are a fair tool for autonomous proof-reading.
    – fa__
    Jul 3, 2018 at 7:37

In one of your comments to another answer, you mention referencing an image, and wanting alternate wording to mean the same thing (look at this chart - here's what it is showing you...)

thanks for the tip. according to my advisor, he wants a quality written thesis. for example when we use the phrase following: the figure above shows, we can rewrite it in another way such as: as illustrated in the figure ....I want to improve it so it is better than now where it looks very simple

I have that same problem and I'm a native English speaker, well read, kinda educated, and working on a batchelors in a technical field. Fortunately, I have the English department down the hall from my cubicle so editing help is close at hand...

As Headcrab suggests in his/her/its answer reading other papers that do the same thing - present charts or tables or diagrams - and pick out 4 or 5 ways of phrasing "hey, look at this thing, here's what it is showing..." and simply randomly pick between them each time you need to reference an image, etc.

What I would really recommend if allowed is to pay some poor English major who has taken Technical Writing and ask them to go over it with you - fix the paper, get some help and learning for the next version.

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