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Transcript - Scientific Writing, ESL and Storytelling

A conversation with Maureen Archer - Part 1

Published onFeb 06, 2023
Transcript - Scientific Writing, ESL and Storytelling
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Jo: Welcome back, everyone. We are here at Access 2 Perspectives Conversations, talking today with Maureen Archer, who is joining us from the United States and is the President at Professional English Incorporated, a consulting firm that specializes in technical writing, scientific writing, science communication at large. Maureen is passionate, as far as I heard from her, and also seeing in action, about English as a second language. So nonnative English speakers, helping people to learn the English language in a way that’s fun and engaging and also to make everyday tasks, but especially in the professional context and arena enjoyable and to dig into the language as it is your native one. Welcome, Maureen. Thank you for joining the show.

Maureen: Thank you so much. It’s my true pleasure to be here.

Jo: To give you a little bit of background about Maureen, she received a PhD in English linguistics from Purdue University and has been teaching for about a decade until she founded her own company, which is now Professional English Incorporated. She is a subject matter expert in communication training and technical editing, and specialized, as mentioned, in supporting non native English speakers. In doing so, she’s helped thousands of professionals from around the world, and she’s also a course designer and instructor, personal coach, professional speaker, and a technical editor. Together,  we have co-facilitated a short training on technical scientific writing for a mixed audience, which was quite fun. So it’s really enjoyable to have you here. I’m glad that we know each other and we can inspire each other and the work that we do in supporting scholars and researchers in the work that they do, the work that every researcher eventually has to do and might not come as easy with scientific or technical writing.

Maureen: Exactly. It’s been a lot of fun working with you so far, and I look forward to it in the future.

Jo: Thank you so much. So starting, would you like to share with us what got you to this point in your vita? What made you decide to eventually brand your own company and do the work that you’re now currently doing, with particularly nonnative English speakers, and also to serve the scholarly community in technical writing?

Maureen: Definitely. Yes, I’m happy to share that because with anyone’s background, it’s a bit twisting and turning at times. Since I was young, I always wanted to focus on English because for me, languages are like puzzles. So I grew up doing puzzles and getting into words and how they’re associated, and their connotations and denotations, and how they fit together and how you can change them to create even different meanings. To me, it was like a big playset, something very fun. So I knew I wanted to go into that. And then I discovered, oh, I could do that at a high level and help others with it. So that’s why I wanted to go into College teaching. So I was very much focused on becoming a professor at the University, which I did. And then I was a professor for seven or eight years. But unfortunately, I found it a bit of a toxic environment at times. I have to say the politics in academia sometimes were a bit challenging. I was also the writing center director. I started a successful writing center at the University. And as the director, I would receive calls from outside of the University, from businesses that needed help with their native Chinese executive, from people who wanted help for their cousin who was coming to visit. So a lot of need, I found, was out there. So I realized that there was a business opportunity to help those whose English skills were too advanced to take classes and who really need the specialized focus to help them with the profession that they were in. So I started Professional English really just to focus on helping non-native English speakers to be more effective in their professions. But then so many organizations said, oh, can you come and teach classes in writing and presentation skills and cross-cultural communication? And so it kind of blossomed that way. But it could be in part because of where I am in southeastern Virginia and the fact that we have a very large research network here. We have one of the NASA facilities, we have some large research facilities that are just in this area. And so the need was very great locally. And also I come from a long line of engineers. And so I’m very much focused on the construction, the structure, very much how the pieces fit together. And so that’s how I teach. That’s how I talk. And that very much fits in with those who are doing technical writing and scientific research. It seemed like a natural fit. And I am so excited when I get to help those who are doing amazing things in the world, those who are producing the new research, the latest developments, and to be able to help them to effectively communicate their brilliance, the results that they have come up with. It’s just a joy. And so that’s where I am after 23 years in professional English, the fact that I’m able now to get more specialized in this area because it is a passion of mine.

Jo: I mean, it looks like, first of all, you live in a hotspot of researchers where there’s plenty thereof, and they all need guidance and support. I also, like myself, being a nonnative English Speaker, but doing courses and scientific and technical writing to researchers. And when I had native speakers in the class, they all told me that we need to learn the same things because the spoken English, be it American, Canadian, South African, Kenyan, whatever, is so different from the technical writing style. And yet, of course, learning a second language, or in many people’s cases a third or fourth language, because many people I know before English have learned two or three other languages. And then there’s also the saying, the more English you have to speak, the more languages you speak, the easier it gets to learn another one. But it’s still a challenge, an extra challenge be it alone for the vocabulary. What did you see in how the course work that you provided, and engaging with the students or the participants of your courses? What was it like to observe them, to make those steps forward and understanding the language and finding the right words to express themselves in their research as well? Can you recall one or two examples of how that came about? Is that maybe difficult to grasp also? Because in some cases longer and in other cases it’s a shorter process, I imagine.

Maureen: Oh, yes. And people have different skill sets within language. Some people pick it up very fast, and for some people it’s a real struggle. So it depends on if it’s a strength, you know,  and everyone is different in that. One of the reasons I enjoy coaching so much is that I can really focus in on exactly what someone needs. And that’s especially important at the higher level for the more advanced English speakers, because when everyone is beginning, then you can teach the general stuff. But then as you get more advanced, there’s maybe a particular pronunciation or maybe there’s a particular grammar item that that particular person has, or it could be a category of vocabulary that we need to fill in or we need to reinforce. So now there are some things that I found are across the board for those who are at the higher level of English Speaker, and that is idioms or phrasal verbs. These are very much a challenge for many at the higher level. And I understand because I have some reference books. One has over 10,000 American phrasal verbs. Yeah. It’s just daunting. So what do you do with that? Well, most of us will use the same terms again and again. Once you have, let’s say, a list of 20 that you use fairly frequently, then you can become very focused on those. And I always recommend that someone keep a language journal. It’s really nice, especially in your field, because then you’re going to hear people, such as your colleagues, especially if you have those who are using certain idiomatic phrases over and over again. What is that? So you write it in your journal, you look it up, and then you try it out.

Jo: And learn to use it and apply it.

Maureen: Yeah. So for those more advanced in their fields, it’s a really nice thing to get a coach or to have a colleague who is a native speaker and who you want to emulate, someone whose style you like, if you can work out some kind of partnership with them to help each other.

Jo: And remember, it’s got to be mutual because I know many of the native speakers in Europe, they’re overwhelmed by the request. Can you just quickly correct this for me for the English? And it’s fun if you do it once or twice a month. And that’s already a lot. But at some point just so much. And people also need to do their own work. But yeah, maybe find a way to balance the workloads that you put on other people and yet also speak up because most people would be willing to give help or to find a way like a mutually beneficial kind of coworking agreement where both win and can reward them with cooking dinner once a week or something.

Maureen: That’s very good. When you do ask someone, even if you could just ask them to mark what is not clear, just what is not clear. Or maybe if there’s a grammar thing or two because there are patterns and once we learn the patterns, then we can move to correct them. The other thing is to get practice at proofreading and editing your own writing. And one of the rules that I think works so well, one of the strategies is to read your own writing aloud, to read it out loud. And a lot of people do not. So it really helps. First of all, it helps you slow down and hear it. You can listen for the repeated words. You say, “Wait a minute, is that right?” So instead of only having it in your brain, because we often read what we assume we have written, instead of what is really on the page. So that is one of those golden rules that I like to pass along. So if you haven’t tried it yet, I definitely recommend that you try it.

Jo: Yeah, I agree. And I do that sometimes. Not for a full article, but it’s definitely useful. I’ve learned in school, like coming back to this exercise or stuff in the workflow really, to read out loud, what’s the difference between written sentences and spoken sentences? Because you wouldn’t write a speech as you would write a research article. Right?Maureen: That’s a very good point. Yeah. There are some strategies. If you are writing a speech, then you realize that the people are only listening. So it’s a matter of being a little bit more deliberate with saying something, and then repeating it a little bit to add more details. So the transitions are often even more important when you’re writing a speech, because if they are bombarded with too many things that aren’t connected, then they start not listening because they’re confused. So to create a very clear line to help them stay with what you’re saying: “now the next example of this is this.” Now if you have a slide presentation, it makes it easier because they can see.Jo: And you walk them through as you speak.

Maureen: Exactly. However, I’m glad you mentioned speeches because I always like to tell people that when they get the adrenaline flowing, it’s very good to purposely slow down a little bit with your speech, especially if you know the listener is not used to your accent. So to slow down a little bit. And also it’s very common for those who are in positions of power and leadership to speak a little more slowly. So you also convey that professionalism. So to slow down, even though the adrenaline has kicked up, it can be very good for all concerned.  

Jo: Thank you. Okay. And then is it like what I was referring to earlier, that also native English speakers have troubles with technical English because they like to insert some more than others, but they like to insert descriptive words, as you would do in prose writings. And technical writing doesn’t call for that as much. We want to focus on science, and yet we need our brains to have storytelling. So how can researchers balance not to have it too technical, but still comprehensible in a way that storytelling and our ancient way of transferring information would be served to make it easy to comprehend for anyone to read, really, but also leave out all the unnecessary words and just keep the necessary amount of unnecessary words from a technical point of view.

Maureen: So, yes, very good question. And it’s one that I would say is in the editing process. They say the best research papers are a story. What is the setting of the story? What problem are you trying to solve? And then the steps you go through to do the research and the results. So it kind of has that natural storyline to it. So the first draft or the first two drafts, that would be what I would focus on. But then the idea of the style and the conciseness, that’s when you go through and you really look for that, and that’s something that I think is skipped a lot of times, especially since we’re very busy and oftentimes we’re rushing to get the paper written and submitted. But the professional editor for the publication will be very happy that you have taken the time to go through and really look and see if there are ways to make certain sentences or certain entire paragraphs just a little more concise for the reader because oftentimes the readers will skim anyway. If it is too, as I like to say, muddy, it has too many words. So I wrote an example down: instead of “In this paper, the data are presented to show the results” you can just say “This paper presents…” So it’s a matter of going through and really looking at: is it possible to say this in fewer words? And that’s kind of a muscle that once you start working it, it’s easier to do.

Jo: Many people also struggle with, oh, I’m supposed to squeeze my findings into 8000 words only, and that seems impossible at that point. But it’s actually not if you stick to the essentials and rephrase to make it more concise. And yet, coming back to the storytelling, from what I’ve seen and observed, it’s hard to actually do it for me, myself. But it’s easy to spot in other people’s work to use words that assist our brains to understand it better. Like we would read a whole story connecting words between sentences. Also unconsciously, often for our brains to allow us to see the connection between one sentence, one meaning in that sentence with the other, what’s coming in. And then sometimes it might be good to use words that also pass along passion or motivation of your own. Why you do this in the first place, why this is important to you, and why it shouldn’t matter to others, and because we are still humans, as researchers, as much as we want to do technical writing, I personally think it doesn’t mean that we have to strip off all humanity from it. I think examples for that could be from what I’ve seen. It’s difficult to come up with them from the top of my head. Of course, we want to convince people of the rigorousness of our results, but also why we think this is important, why it matters, and there are words to express that. So to also give it a slight emotional touch. Have you seen that, or would you agree with that? To a certain degree. I still have an example I’m sure we come up with at some point in this discussion.

Maureen: Right. Even something small, like, “Surprisingly, the results show…” Yes, wow, that’s a little bit of the humanness in there. My thought on all of this is, yes, you want to convey the humanness and yet still be professional and polished without being too whoopee, whoopee [overly enthusiastic] about things. 

Jo: Yeah. Respectful. And yet we can also show that we’re excited about the findings. 

Maureen: Yes, that’s great. I would recommend people to go and read, to read articles, and to see what they do in the article. They think, wow, I really enjoyed reading this. And then go back and say, why did I enjoy this? What was it about how they told their story that made it interesting? What words did they use? How did they structure it? And so to get to use our researcher brains and analyze it. So then we can emulate it.

Jo: Exactly what words they use and made us feel a certain way about the research and how it was communicated.

Maureen:And also one other thing that’s very nice, too, is when you have a certain publication that you want to publish in, is to read several articles in there to see what the editors and the publishers are publishing. What is it that they are looking for in an article so that then you can provide them with that kind of article, because different publications have different focuses and different things that they’re looking for, even different styles.

Jo: They also have author guidelines nowadays, many of them, not all, which is certainly a way or a page to check out. I also point out, always in my scientific writing courses, through that. But despite that, is it what I hear what you’re saying not only from the formatting point of view, but also the style, which might not be as obvious and as descriptive in the other guidelines.

Maureen: Exactly, yes, that’s a wonderful piece of advice. Definitely get into and find the editing guidelines, authors’ guidelines, authors’ recommendations; they’re called different things. But to get into the website and pull those up, because they are often very specific. Even things like the use of passive voice, there is now more of a push. I think to add more of a human touch, too, is to use the active voice as opposed to so much passive voice.

Jo: Because that’s also what I’ve observed and heard many people complain about that technical writing sounds so dry and boring, and you really have to kind of switch your brain on to be able to understand what’s actually written. And that’s often because, when I ask students, participants in my courses, why don’t you use “I did this, we did that” whatever, like whoever did the work, but it makes it explicit. It’s not some random ghost in the lab who did all the work, some piece or whatever. So you have to use passive voice, that’s for the methods part. There it matters what was done and how it was done, but the rest of all the other sections should be active voice with some passive voice in between, where it makes sense.I think it comes to our writing naturally. So this goes back to what you suggested, like just write down as it comes to your mind and then edit and then read it up to you again to make it all sound really, to make it sound nice and compelling.

Maureen: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. And there’s another trick for self editing: as you are reading it out loud, if you are stumbling over your words, that’s a good place to go back and revise. If you are having difficulty reading your own writing, chances are someone else will, too. Yeah, that’s very nice. And it reminds me you have asked a question about what’s the difference between speech and writing. In speech, we are making constant performance errors. It’s very rare that we will start at a particular sentence and then keep going. And even what I’m saying right now, if you were to type it out, it looks very disjointed. For some people, though, to get over their writer’s block, they will just talk out their paper and then either just have it typed in, because now we have that technology, of course, or to go back and listen to it and put it into complete sentences as they want. It’s a strategy for getting over writer’s block sometimes.  

Jo: There’s also this trick I learned and now pass on. If you don’t know what to write, just write  exactly that: “I do not…” Just get your brain and hands to work, get them to work, and then the flow will come and bring the rest of things into it.

Maureen: Yeah. That’s a great writing technique to get over writer’s block. Yeah. And also I had a series, I don’t know if you saw it, about procrastination in my LinkedIn post. And one of those is just to break it into smaller pieces. If you’re overwhelmed by “Oh no, now I have to write this all out into a paper.” Just start with something small. Maybe I’m just going to write out my methodology section. It doesn’t have to be in the order of the paper. They actually say to do the abstract last. So you don’t have to write the introduction first. You can start at any point and just start to get it out.

Jo: Or sometimes it might be good to start with the abstract just to get the plot there to start with. And you can still tweak it. But it’s right that you should do the last polishing things you should do in the abstract and then actually the title very last, whatever. But sometimes it goes the other way around. Also, there’s no rule of thumb, just the guidance that people find useful.

Maureen: And also, if you’re struggling to write a paper, it may be because you are trying to put too many ideas in it. I’ve worked with so many researchers who just say, “Oh, it’s so hard to do this paper.” And then we get into it. And I say, “What is your main purpose? What are you trying to convey here?” And they say, “Well, I want to convey this and this and this.” And I said, “Well, that sounds like three papers.” That’s three papers. And so then it’s like, oh, my gosh, if you start to pull it out and say, I can publish three papers, and I was trying to all put it together into one. And so that idea of just kind of looking at it from a distance as well and identifying what is the purpose of this paper.

Jo: Yeah, that’s a key message and shouldn’t be more than one, really. And then maybe two or three accompanying results that support the take-home message.

Maureen: Exactly. And then also showing it to someone, someone you trust, that knows what they’re doing, and just ask them, “Could I make this into two papers?” They might say, sure. Or you could just do it this way or here’s my thought. And to get some help from your friends. 

Jo: Thank you. In the preparation for this episode, I also asked you a few questions which were meant as ice breaker questions just to get the flow going. And also, it might be fun for our listeners to hear from you and others who are here with me in these conversations. Let’s start with one who is a researcher in your life that you find or found inspiring. And you mentioned George Lakoff.

Maureen: George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist. His book Metaphors We Live By was one that I used both in my master’s and PhD research because I was so fascinated by it. I thought, oh, it makes so much sense that there are these large cognitive metaphors that we use to understand our world and that we hear in our language all the time. Like, one he uses is: time is money. So how are you spending it? You wasted it. So we tend to, especially, for abstract parts of our lives, we use concrete things, so he would identify all of these conceptual metaphors that we’ve used. And I thought, oh, that’s fascinating. So my dissertation research was on the conceptual metaphors we use for language teaching and language learning. And the whole idea that someone is speaking broken English, which I never liked that term. I thought, oh, that’s terrible: “broken English.” So it’s the idea that you need to fix their English as opposed to learning English, and you’ll have natural ways of growing and your English skills will develop. So there’s different ways of approaching teaching and learning based upon the metaphors that you understand and use for certain categories.

Jo: To my understanding, language is never a status quo. It’s always evolving, and it is continuously being influenced by non-native English speakers who come and inspire the majority, to offer another word. 

Maureen: Yeah. Well, that point is so good and never failed to aggravate the teachers, the future teachers that I would teach in College because they wanted to be grammarians. They wanted to know how to do it so they could always teach it that way. I’m like, I’m so sorry, but language is always changing. Yeah, well, they say if enough people make the same mistake, it becomes the rule. If enough people take out the Oxford comma and people decide they don’t need the Oxford comma anymore, they stop using it. Or if enough people stop using ‘whom’ correctly, they don’t know how to use ‘whom’, and the teachers don’t know how to use ‘whom’. So guess what? We don’t use ‘whom’. Language is always changing, that’s what I find fascinating about it, too. But yeah, that infuriates those who really want to keep it the way it used to. “Well, when I grew up, I learned it this way.” Well, that’s nice.

Jo: Good for you. And things are changing.

Maureen: And that’s why I think we get resistance sometimes to those who learn that, hey, I’ve got to write in the passive voice all the time because that’s what scientific writing is all about. Well, no, thank goodness we are changing. So it’s more enjoyable and easier, it’s actually easier to read if it’s in the active voice.

Jo: I also don’t know where this came from because I think 40 years ago, researchers were much more passionate in their writing, and it was much easier to comprehend and read really. And then at some point, some people here changed the paradigm. Some people started not having to be rigid and technical and leave out all the words that are distracting or seem distracting and then it’s difficult to actually understand or not, because it’s too technical and it’s not accessible for our brains. Really? Yeah. And that’s why I also try to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way just because that’s most of what you see it’s not written anywhere, and it might have been one or two editors and one Journal who made this a rule and nobody else did it. But then everybody complied. Most people would comply with it. It’s funny.

Maureen: Yeah, it’s interesting. It was the middle of the last century when we really started getting that coming through very clearly as scientific writing needs to be passive, and now any book you pick up about scientific writing will say it doesn’t have to be that way. Please stop. Because especially with the amount of writing that’s out there, you just can’t read a lot of it. And quite frankly, if a reader picks up your writing and your writing is all in passive, and it’s all really hard to read, they are not going to read it because it’s just too much. So it is a benefit to our listeners that if they write in a style that’s easy to read, that people are going to read their material much better.

Jo: Yeah, I could talk on forever. We probably will. We could very likely continue with this conversation in future episodes.

Maureen: I would be happy to. Yeah.  

Jo: Thank you. Watch out for Maureen on this channel, and thank you so much for your time here today, and let’s see what we can do together. Maybe you also see some course announcements to sign up for where Maureen and I work together to work with you through your research writing hurdles to make them fun and enjoyable, and yeah, that’s what we do.

Maureen: My pleasure. It’s been great fun. Thank you, Jo.

Jo: Thank you. See you soon.

Maureen: All right. Bye now.  

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