I am a PhD student from China. I can read papers relatively fast and get the main point. The problem is that I cannot write efficiently. I don't know how to express myself or I forget the appropriate phrases when writing. Can any other researcher help me solve this problem?

  • You might also consider asking related questions at languagelearning.stackexchange.com
    – Tommi
    Mar 27, 2019 at 12:36
  • 3
    Hire a language editor until you master the language.
    – user5402
    Mar 27, 2019 at 18:56
  • have you talked to your adviser? What is expected of you, to write whole paper alone or that your PI is an active co-author? When do you need to produce paper (and what size), is it 100 pages in 3 months or 5 pages in 1 year? Mar 27, 2019 at 19:36
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    A question isn't the same as a paper of course, but judging by how well-written this question is, your English writing might be better than you think. Mar 28, 2019 at 0:34
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    @JohnColeman The original version wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. Mar 28, 2019 at 12:47

8 Answers 8


The art of academic writing is essentially the practice of re-writing the same story many times, until the result is "good enough". It takes a lot of persistence and a lot of time to prepare a single paper for publication.

If English is not your first language and you struggle with the correct phrasing, consider using an academic phrasebank to help you. I can also recommend a brief summary of academic grammar. Finally, use English-English dictionaries as much as possible, e.g. the free dictionary, and refrain from using English-YourMotherTongue dictionaries if you can.

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    As a professional who isn't in academia anymore, but does write for academia a fair bit, this is a marvellous resource for English speakers too.
    – stanri
    Mar 27, 2019 at 12:35
  • thanks, Dr. Dmitry Savostyanov, you really do me a great favor. The first 2 websites you suggested contain so many useful stuffs. It is worthy to spend time and energy to train myself how to use these two websites. And it is indeed helpful. The free dictionary is helpful, too. Thanks a lot!
    – sunnyme
    Apr 1, 2019 at 8:28

A concrete thing to do when writing is to first express yourself in any way you can, no matter how clumsy or awkward it feels, to get something on paper. After you have written a longer text, you can take the time to fix mistakes, find better phrases, reduce unnecessary passive voice and cut up overtly long sentences, or whatever are good and useful practices for you.

If you have collaborators, do this together with them, at least a page or so worth, and discuss the changes you make. This can help you identify things to work on. Even non-native collaborators are helpful, especially if they have a different native language than you do; they tend to notice and be blind to different issues.

A good habit is that when you are checking your writing and you feel uncertainty about an issue, find out how the grammar works or how the word is spelled. You might want to use the stack exchange sites https://ell.stackexchange.com/ and https://english.stackexchange.com/ , where appropriate.

For strategies and tools for improving your English, you might also ask at http://languagelearning.stackexchange.com/ .

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    Interestingly, this is good advice for native speakers too. The only difference between a native and non-native speaker would be how much extra time it takes to move from first to final draft. Mar 27, 2019 at 21:41
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    In other words: first get the science right, and only then get the English right.
    – MSalters
    Mar 28, 2019 at 14:04

I would recommend to polish you English in general a little bit - language exchanges or language tandems with native speakers can help you a lot here. Maybe there are native speakers who would like to learn Chinese in your city? Check if you find platforms for such exchanges in social media or websites like meetup. I found this tremendously helpful for myself.

In a second step I would then go ahead an extract specific phrasing from existing research papers of your field. You will see that researchers use specific phrases in specific situations/sections of a paper. But in order to really do this and use the phrases appropriately I think it might be beneficial to work on your general English fluency a little bit.

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    It's very common for students to primarily hang out with others who speak their language. In the short run, it's more comfortable, but in the long run I think it's a mistake. Make friends and hang out with native speakers of your host country, nothing else is going to provide you with that all-important exposure to when phrasing sounds right (or wrong).
    – pjs
    Mar 28, 2019 at 19:24
  • A good addition to this answer might be: the OP might want to dedicate some time to interact with researchers in his/her field discussing research ideas. This need not be the entire time he/she spends practicing English, but I imagine this would help (disclosure: I'm a native English speaker, so caveat lector, i.e. reader beware)
    – Weiwen Ng
    Mar 28, 2019 at 19:41

Native English speaker here. I used to work in research with researchers whose English was not a first language.

I would suggest focusing on the structure of your writing like Ethan mentioned (I have found Barbara Minto's book The Pyramid Principle quite useful) and if possible get a native speaker to review your English (e.g. you can pay for technical editors or work with English-speaking collaborators).

As someone who has reviewed many writers I have found well structured work much easier to edit than poorly structured writing. This is irrespective if the writer is a native speaker or not (assuming a passable level of English, which I'd say you have).

You may also be suffering writers block, I think processing ideas and expressing ideas (and translating ideas into another language) are seperate exercises best tackled at different stages. When I get writer's block I don't think about how to best express an idea, I simply write "I will write about X now, which proves..." You may write key words in your native language or any ugly, dirty writing trick that helps you stay in the flow of getting your ideas on the page. Then once your ideas are on paper, you can focus on expressing things in readable English.

Please be aware that English is just a pain in the butt, I have worked with many clever people who always get stuck on "an/a" and "he/she/they" and stuff like this. I would in the final stage of writing review these kinds of words.


Writing is a complex topic that cannot be explained fully in a short StackExchange post. Just like it took you years to learn your own discipline, it takes years to learn how to write well. Academic writing is also its own specialized skill.

We could recommend you some books and rules of thumb. But the more logical thing to do would be to go to your university's writing center and ask them for help. You could also ask your advisor or colleagues who are good at writing. They would recommend the same books we would, but you would get much more detailed advice.

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    I can easily imagine a university (outside UK and EU) with no "writing center", whatever it means. I can also easily imagine an advisor (outside UK and EU) totally incapable of publishing and otherwise communicating in English. Mar 27, 2019 at 19:57
  • Oh, I definitely meant "US and EU" not "UK and EU". Sorry! Mar 28, 2019 at 8:56
  • @DmitrySavostyanov thinking ahead... Mar 28, 2019 at 12:49
  • @DmitrySavostyanov Excellent comment, for the question "What to watch out for when choosing a university/advisor?"
    – Trusly
    Apr 4, 2019 at 20:08
  • And if your advisor is totally incapable of publishing in English, but this is an important skill for you, I've got some bad news...
    – Trusly
    Apr 4, 2019 at 20:09

Because you are comfortable reading newspapers and extracting what is called the 'controlling idea' from your reading, here is a method for using the controlling idea method to learn how to produce outlines of already written documents. Once you master this re-producing process you will be better prepared to develop outlines for your own writing.

Method- select a scientific article which you understand well. Beginning with the first paragraph, select what you think to be the controlling idea of that paragraph. The controlling idea is the primary idea that the author is trying to make in that paragraph. Then, select in order of importance in supporting the controlling idea, the other ideas [sentences] in the text of the document. When your finished your outline should look like this:

Controlling idea-

-supporting idea 1

-supporting idea 2

-supporting idea 3

concluding idea

Follow this model for each paragraph in the paper. Repeat this process until you can perform the process easily. Then begin to use the same process to prepare to write your own papers. Best of Luck! Charles M. Saunders


Every one of the answers here has good ideas that may work for you. Here is another.

My wife used to coach academic writers. She suggested that one of her clients write his first few drafts in his native language (Japanese), That way he could make sure his ideas were well organized without having to worry about finding just the right foreign words, When he felt well enough organized he would translate his own work into English and polish it with the help of friends and fellow professionals, including those at the writing center at his university.


Writing an academic paper is a complex task. You are dealing with multiple distinct cognitive demands. If you are struggling, you may benefit from breaking down the process into its component parts:

1) Research and learn the information

2) Convey the information in a sequence of words

3) Ensure that the words are clear to the reader

Many second language learners benefit from doing the first two tasks in their native language. As they perform research, they take notes in their native language or some combination of their native language and English. Then they write out at least the outline, but often the whole paper, in their native language. At that point many find it none too difficult to translate their work into English. Afterwards, of course, they will proofread it and fix any problematic expressions using the resources they have in-person or online.

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