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I am about to finish my PhD, which means I have to write a lot. I am also a non-native English speaker, so my English sucks a lot, especially when it comes to formal writing. In contrast, my adviser is a very good writer and good writing is very important to him.

Whenever I write anything, from an e-mail that gets CCed or a draft or a paper, it attracts relentless criticism. I know that I am supposed to use this feedback to improve, but I am a bit tired of this “tough love.” I often get desperate and anxious because I feel I can’t write anything worthy at all. It causes severe writing blocks because whenever I am about to write a sentence, I immediately imagine it being totally destroyed and thrown into a garbage bin.

I do try to improve my writing by reading a lot of high-quality English texts and practicing on my own. I took an online course on writing and developed my own writing routine: at first, I plan paragraphs and the flow between them, write a first crappy draft, then edit into something tangible during multiple rounds.

I also try to incorporate my adviser's guidance. However, my writing morale is currently so low that it stalls my productivity. I do try to not take my adviser's criticism personally, which is quite difficult sometimes, but I am just so tired of being judged all the time. I know many students lack feedback from their advisers, but I am just fed up with feedback. Is there any way to get out of this hole?

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    Your writing in this post is very good, and comes across as written by a native English speaker. You should be able to do similarly in your thesis. Quality communication of mathematics makes the difference between an idea in your head and something that other people might understand, so you should take very seriously the non-trivial task of writing up your results in a clear way. – j0equ1nn Mar 27 at 7:50
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    Sounds like you're doing everything right. Especially the separation of drafting and writing is crucial to silence the inner critic when s/he is just blocking your progress and getting their help when she's needed. – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 9:42
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    @j0equ1nn better than many native English speakers, IMO! – Will Crawford Mar 28 at 9:56
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    You receive much good feedback in this thread. I would only encourage you to find a couple of examples in good writing practice (say, avoid excessive use of passive form, lack of parallel form, or any few that you feel weak at) and apply those to your self-revision work relentlessly, until they become second nature. In other words: decouple your preferred way to improve your satisfaction at writing in English from the authoritative yet unsolicited advice you receive. In other words again: fence off your sandbox, be the owner of your difficulty, and borrow only when in need of integrations. – XavierStuvw Mar 28 at 16:03
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    Last addition: writing, even in your native language, can be a painful experience that generates beautiful reading. Perhaps your dissatisfaction is party exhacerbated by rushing into a (harsh) judgement well before you have recovered from the effort of writing? Be reassured: your English doesn't quite suck a lot... even if I look at the edits your post has received – XavierStuvw Mar 28 at 16:08

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This doesn't answer your question, but I think your real problem isn't your writing, but the way how you and your advisor communicate. What I suggest is that you have a sit-down with your advisor and raise the issue with them. Tell them what you told us - that their barrage of negative feedback is hampering your motivation and productivity, and that you would have an easier time incorporating their feedback if they could find a more positive way to phrase it.

Of course there is no guarantee that this conversation will go over well (some people think that "tough love" is the only way to give feedback, and others understand on a rational level that a more "sandwich" style of feedback works better for most people but are unable to change). However, you will never know if you don't raise the issue with your advisor.

Edit: to say a little bit about "writing better", the actual topic of your question -

You should also try to understand if your advisor is really dissatisfied with the mechanical aspects of your writing (spelling, expressions, grammar, paragraph construction) or with your skills in scientific storytelling. It seems to me that basic command of the English language is not a real issue for you, so potentially what your advisor is actually dissatisfied with is that you do not know the terminology of your field well enough, common rhetorical moves in your discipline, how people like to construct arguments, etc. If this is your problem, a general-purpose writing course is not going to help - you will need to study papers in your discipline to improve.

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I often get desperate and anxious because I feel I can’t write anything worthy at all. It causes severe writing blocks because whenever I am about to write a sentence, I immediately imagine it being totally destroyed and thrown into a garbage bin.

Your writing course is giving you the correct guidance here. Good writing is mostly about clarity and good editing, so it is not terribly important that one's initial sentences be of good quality. When you are writing academic work, it is best just to get your thoughts down on paper in the first instance, to express the substance of your ideas and their logical connection. Once you have some material down on paper, you can edit and polish as much as you like to improve the clarity, structure and prose. The most important thing is to edit to make sure your writing is clear, and does not tax the reader. If you are having difficulty with structure then it is useful to work from an outline, and to create a reverse-outline from your written work to check that it follows the structure you intended.

Developing good prose is more difficult, but the best way to do this is to read material by good writers and then analyse why you found their writing so compelling. Make sure you do not confine yourself only to reading academic papers; read novels, other prose pieces, and even good journalistic works. When you read good writers, over time you will begin to pick up techniques they use to make their writing clear, compelling, and powerful, and you will also expand your vocabulary. This will allow you to improve your own writing and develop your own style.

I do try to not take my adviser's criticism personally, which is quite difficult sometimes, but I am just so tired of being judged all the time.

I guess this is the nature of being in an educational program, even as a higher-degree student in a PhD program. These kinds of programs generally entail non-stop judgment of your work and critical feedback, with the goal of having you gradually improve. It is important to balance judgment and critique of work with occasional morale boosters, so it may be time for you to take a break and look back on all the things that you have already accomplished. If you are feeling burned out by all the criticism, talk with your supervisor and see if it is okay for you to take a break from your program to take stock of your existing work and accomplishments, and give you time to boost your morale.

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I am in the same boat. Trying to get my PhD Thesis written currently.

To add to all the great advice from others: Try also to read the papers/project proposals and other text you wrote in the beginning of your PhD, and compare them to what you wrote now. This really helped me a lot to see how my writing (non-english native as well) developed over the course of my PhD. I am sure yours has developed too!

What also helped me is to note down/realize my most common mistakes and then when proofreading specifically check for those. For me usually it is using "that" in all places where it is unnecessary. While proofreading I do one run just paying attention to that one mistake.

And in addition: Do you have friends/family/colleagues or even english natives willing to proofread? Even if they do not understand your Topic they could give you feedback on your language. So you can send your advisor a first draft where you already polished the language a bit.

But generally keep your workflow up! Writing a draft and polishing it is the best strategy to get something done. Polishing is always easier than writing the perfect sentence in the first place.

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You are not alone. I am a native speaker of the British standard English dialect, and fluent, for reading, writing, and listening, in the US formal business dialect. I got 800, then the maximum score, on the verbal portion of the US GRE.

I hated writing until I got access to word processing software in the early 1980's. Since them, my approach has been to first get down what I want to say, without worrying about telling a story, paragraph organization, etc. When I think I have all the points I want to make written, I switch to polishing. What you are reading is not the first version of this answer.

My excellent PhD dissertation advisor cares a lot about the quality of academic writing. When I sent him a draft it would come back covered with comments, very few about the technical content and most about how it was expressed. I had to fight writer's block because of that. I tried to explain my writing process to him, but he could not resist the temptation to make expression comments even when I told him a document was an initial draft and would be reworked later.

In the end, I had to decide to ignore his expression-related comments until I was ready to use them. When I was in the polishing phase I found his comments extremely useful. I think I write better now because of them.

From the quality of the writing in your question, I am sure your problem is nothing to do with not being a native speaker, but is similar to the problem I had with my advisor. Your advisor is trying to take good writing and turn it into excellent writing.

I suggest dealing with his comments in two phases. During the first phase, look for comments that are about what you are saying, and firmly ignore any comments about how you are saying it.

For some writing, such as an e-mail, I would simply ignore any expression-related comments. You have as much right to judge the usefulness, to you, of your advisor's feedback as your advisor has to comment on your writing.

For writing you want to make really good, such as a paper you are preparing for publication, go into a second phase during which you consider each of the comments about expression, remembering that you are trying to turn good writing into excellent writing, not fix bad writing. Treat the comments as suggestions. Would the suggested change make your draft better? If so, make the change. If you disagree, make a note. Look for general themes in the comments that you may be able to use. Discuss the most important disagreements with your advisor.

Ultimately, you may never produce anything that makes your advisor completely happy. You are different people. The objective is to produce clear, readable papers, not to mimic perfectly your advisor's style.

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In addition to other good points: an underlying problem is the nature of most of the world's educational systems is the idea that "no critique, no comment" (apart from vague praise) is the goal.

Yes, encouragement is good, and people too often do forget to be positive...

But/and it would be a mistake to interpret "criticism" as "assertion that you're failing". Rather, it is a constructive response to the work you've done so far. Ok, and, now, next round of revisions?

It's not "oh, you are wrong/bad/evil/stupid", but more like "you can do better at this point... and better serve yourself, make a better impression, be more successful with other people".

And, yes, for example, one does not want one's English to be soooo obviously an issue that it distracts people, or makes them wonder about whether they can trust that you are saying exactly what you intend...

If nothing else, apart from native language..., decades of experience can (but does not necessarily) give a person a refined sense of what language choices "work best" in a specific professional milieu. In particular, merely "trying hard" is almost disconnected from this, since the "useful/correct" answer is to "sound like you fit into that milieu". (No, I'm not really a fan of this kind of conformist pressure, but I am well aware of it, and would hesitate to recommend trying to ignore it!)

So, quite possibly, it's not even whether your grammar is literally correct or not, but whether you "sound like" established people writing in that milieu. Until you are well established yourself, it can be a good survival strategy to conform in some ways. I do remember imagining, years ago, that "math (my own subject) is objective", so that, surely, it didn't matter how one wrote about it. Oops... :)

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    I used to say to my students when we started meeting that very likely I would ask them to rewrite many things many times, and it would seem exhausting, but that was just part of the process, and they should never take it personally or think of it as an indication that they were "failing". – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 30 at 16:17
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Do not let this criticism destroy your confidence in your intellectual capacities. That is the main thing. Let it also not interfere with the progress of your work on your thesis.

I am a non-native English speaker myself. Notwithstanding that, some of my works I published in prime English language scholarly journals are today part of the canon of the scientific literature. They are today cited by hundreds of scholars worldwide. And I find your English at least as good as mine. So, be optimistic!

P.S. None of journal editors I contacted during my university career ever signalled any deficiencies in my English. On the contrary, they praised, among others, the lucidity of my English communication. Once my English got up to the level that was required by these very demanding journals (it took me about 3 years) my papers were never rejected since. I think I ought to stress here that some of these journals reject up to 97% submitted manuscripts. I suspect, most of those rejected are written by English native speakers. The conclusion is: while the quality of your English may be important, there is a very good chance other things are even more important when it comes to ensuring your manuscripts get published and cited by hundreds of scholars. I wish you good luck!

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  • Thank you for your encouragement and kind words! I did publish papers that were cited and my research was used as a basis of others' work. However, I feel like all my hard work “in trenches” that made those papers possible is basically irrelevant because "I can't write." I will try to remind myself of my achievements to boost my confidence, but it is not going to be easy to get back on track. But thanks again! – laola Mar 27 at 3:20
  • "my papers were never rejected since" -- how is this possible? what discipline are you in? – Prof. Santa Claus Mar 29 at 20:58
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At this point, as you are close to finishing your PhD, it is best to avoid any distractions. Clear writing is important and many academics love to point out faults in the writing off others: you have to get used to that.

You need to be analytic about the feedback from your supervisor -- mark every bit of advice (e.g. green if it is stylistic, orange if it is about clarity, red if it is about the content) and then work with the bits that are important to you. You have to thank your supervisor for everything, but it is worth doing some prioritizing and focusing on the bits of advice that really help.

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How do you know your adviser is a good writer? Most academics, other than English or literature professors, aren't particularly good writers. The reason is that no one ever criticizes academic writing. When professors submit papers for publication, the reviewer may criticize their ideas or conclusions, but almost never their writing style. Who really cares if a paper in an academic journal is well-written or not?

By contrast, the average journalist or other professional writer is usually a far better writer than the average academic. Why? Because people pay for newspapers and magazines, and they're not going to pay for badly written articles. If a journalist doesn't write well, his or her editor will tell them so in no uncertain terms. And if they continue to write poorly, they get fired - something that will never happen to a tenured professor who writes poorly.

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    I care, all my collaborators care and all the mathematicians whose work I admire care that papers are well written. As a reviewer, I am frequently asked explicitly to judge the clarity of writing and the command of the English exhibited. I have a less favorable impression of journalists than you. I have seen very few popular science articles or articles which attempt to convey statistics which are actually clear. – Carl Christian Mar 27 at 23:37
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    This is getting downvotes, but unfortunately it's the truth. The checks and balances just aren't there, and in my opinion academic writing is just appalling 90% of the time. – goblin Mar 29 at 0:27
  • I agree that good writing in academia is an exception rather than a rule. At least in technical fields. – laola Mar 29 at 19:00
  • I think I should clarify my downvote. It is not due to our difference in opinion regarding the quality of academic writing. I downvoted your reply because you do not answer the question: What should OP do! You speculate that OP's estimate of the advisor's abbilities is wrong. That does not help OP address the underlying problem. Returning to my comment: research scientists are motivated to write well. Why? Poorly written grant applications do not get funded. – Carl Christian Mar 31 at 13:11
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Let me provide an analogy that may help you determine more about the problem. When you first learn to drive a car it takes most of your focus just to keep the car in your lane, not hit other cars, not exceed the speed limit, and other essential skills needed to just drive the car. Once you master those skills then you can advance in your driving and learn to drive to another city, and later even have a conversation with someone else in the car while you are driving to the other city. Ultimately, you have to learn to navigate well as an essential part of driving. If you drive from New York to Maine by driving through Texas then, even though you have done an outstanding job keeping your car in the correct lane the whole time, people would not say that you are doing a great job driving.

This is analogous to writing. You can write great sentences that obey all the grammar rules, but if they go through Texas to get to Maine then your writing will be viewed poorly. It is unclear if your advisor is saying that you don't know how to stay in your lane, or if your advisor is saying that you go to Texas to get to Maine, or that you are never getting to Maine at all. The first step in fixing this is to find out exactly what the advisor thinks is the nature of the problem. Is it a problem with grammar and sentence composition, or is it a problem with the flow between sentences, or is it a problem with never reaching your destination. Once you understand the main area of the problem, then you can focus on fixing the problem.

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Yes. Improve your writing. You are smart enough. Put the effort in and do it.

Will you be perfect? No. Even most professional, native, writers are not capable of flawless flowing first-try prose.

But you could take more of a strain. Seriously. Like in your question, why do you write in one long paragraph? At least chop it up. And ditch the Schoen-like ellipses.

I am SURE that you could make a significant improvement. Yeah, maybe you still get chipped away even after that. And that's a different issue (basically requiring developing some rhino hide--life is like that). But first improve. I mean, heck, even if you NEVER get any attaboys/girls/things from the critical fooker, at least YOU will have improved. And writing well, in English, is a pretty damned important skill for academics.

Furthermore, I don't think all the issues are just native language use. Sure, some very particular word choices and nuances of intonation may be. But having a strong structure to your writing is a transferable skill to all languages. As is proofreading (e.g. developing and using a checklist of common previous mistakes).

Oh...and don't shy away from writing because of the criticism. Do MORE of it. Wear the guy down with how much he has to correct you. ;-) And not because you troll him or make deliberate errors or don't give a shit. But because you, while still trying to do your best, are continuously practicing and "out there". (This is THE WAY in foreign languages, written or spoken. Plunge in!).

N.B. I am guilty of every grammar flaw that I call out. But that does not change the points I'm making. Take it as from a fellow sinner.

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You are vrey mcuh aehad wtih you're wrting tahn msot of tdoyas yuoth.

It wasn't terribly difficult to read that first line was it. I believe in education and having pride in your work but I think it is possible that the criticism you are getting is just a bit too much on the OCD (obsessive compulsive) side of things. I can't imagine anyone having absolute expectation of excellence in the writing from a non-native person that has what seems to be very good communication in the English language. English is the hardest of all languages to learn and with the way young school students that are native to the language defile and tear the language all to hell I think he should give you some respect for your accomplishments and how far you have come instead of constantly chopping you down. He would probably start calling me bad words and spitting in my face if he was given the line above in his email but truth would be he wouldnt have a problem reading it and therefore has received the message I wrote and that is the important part of it anyway. Isn't it?

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