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Writing in a Second Language

Today's laboratory workforce includes an increasing number of scientists, engineers and technicians for whom English is a second language. Writing in a second language poses challenges for them. How can laboratory managers help these professionals improve their written communication skills?

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Improving the Writing Skills of Foreign-Born Lab Personnel

Today’s laboratory workforce includes an increasing number of scientists, engineers and technicians for whom English is a second language. Writing in a second language poses challenges for them. Poor written communication skills can slow career advancement, whether foreign-born professionals remain in a laboratory track or move into management or operations. How can laboratory managers help these professionals improve their written communication skills? Several approaches can be applied effectively. Using some of them in combination is even more effective. The suggested techniques discussed below apply to all staff members.

Effective solutions begin with recognizing the problem. Ideally, this is done before young scientists leave the academic environment. University research advisors should determine the writing skills of their graduate students and postdocs by asking them to write monthly research reports. If serious deficiencies exist, advisors should recommend that their students take technical writing and journalism courses. Journalism courses are useful because industrial researchers don’t communicate only with other researchers in their field. They also have to communicate with business managers and personnel working in sales, marketing and manufacturing functions. They may have to communicate with customers as well. Journalism courses can help them do this.

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Not only will taking these courses help graduate students and post-docs write clearly when they begin their industrial careers, it will enable them to write more effective résumés, cover letters and other documents when job hunting.

However, many foreign-born scientists and engineers begin their industrial research careers without participating in systematic efforts to improve their writing skills. Lab managers can use several strategies to help staff members in this regard.

Technical writing workshops

The first step is often to hire consultants to present technical writing workshops. These workshops are most effective when customized for researchers for whom English is a second language. If consultants are familiar with the particular challenges that foreign-born laboratory personnel face in writing reports, they will be more effective in helping them. Some of these challenges are summarized in the sidebar. Ideally, presenters will customize the workshops to the communications needs of the particular laboratory that hires them.

Workshops must be conducted in a diplomatic way to be considerate of the feelings of these highly intelligent researchers. Most of them are used to being the best; it’s often difficult for them to accept that they have a major job-related problem.

Including before-and-after examples of effective editing to improve clarity is very useful. So is presenting workshop participants with editing exercises. Ideally, these before-and-after examples would be sentences or paragraphs that appear in their laboratory reports.

However, using examples from existing reports could embarrass the workshop participants who wrote them. To generate original examples, the workshop presenter needs some familiarity with the participants’ technical fields. To do this and deal with other technical writing issues, workshop presenters should be experienced researchers as well as excellent writers, or they should team teach with someone who is. For example, chemist and book author Lisa Balbes team teaches with an English teacher in presenting writing workshops for industrial scientists and engineers.

Given the value of staff members’ time, writing workshops must be kept brief. Because of the relatively short duration of these workshops (mine are half-day or one-day workshops) the most they can do realistically is sensitize laboratory personnel to their communications problems and introduce them to methods for improving their writing skills. Effective follow-up is needed to help foreign-born lab professionals improve their English language writing skills.

Workshop presenters also need to remind researchers, whatever their original languages, to follow certain basic principles in preparing reports and other documents:

  •  Know your readers. Your readership determines the technical depth and amount of technical detail that needs to be provided. Researchers, customers, and sales, marketing and manufacturing personnel who often read laboratory reports all have different information requirements
  • Outlining the document before beginning to write can improve focus, reduce repetition and better enable writers to focus on the needs of their readers.
  • Understand the editing process. Writers need to edit for focus to avoid submitting excessively long reports. Then they need to edit for clarity, often a challenge for writers for whom English is not their native tongue. Finally, they need to edit for technical correctness.

Laboratory managers could fund researchers’ tuitions to take technical writing or journalism courses. However, these courses may be less effective than desired because they aren’t customized to the needs of the industrial laboratory workplace. They should be used in conjunction with workshops designed to focus on the communications skills required in the foreign-born professionals’ laboratory environments and job assignments.

Workshop follow-up

Laboratory managers can hire the workshop presenter or another consultant to edit their staff members’ reports for clarity. The individual need not be a specialist in the technology field of the reports being edited, but should have enough of a technical background to understand the basics of the subject area. The consultant should also have an understanding of the different types of people who will read the finished documents and their basic information needs.

If the editor explains what has been changed and why, then the laboratory staff members will gradually learn how to edit their own reports. Speaking from experience, as time passes the editor needs to do less and less as staff members gradually learn how to eliminate or correct their own writing problems and eventually decide to “fly solo.”

This clarity editing can be quite cost-effective. Some laboratory managers have found that having to edit both for clarity and technical correctness can be very time-consuming and tiresome as they try to decipher what staff members are trying to communicate. Having someone else edit for clarity can make their own reviews of reports for technical correctness much easier and faster. Laboratory managers have reported to this author that they have reduced the time they spend editing laboratory reports by as much as 80 percent.

Editors need to be considerate of report writers’ feelings and diplomatic in making suggestions for improvement. This means evaluating the reports, not the writers. Editors should focus on what the writers should do rather than what they shouldn’t, and be honest but not overly critical. On the other hand, they should not be overly permissive about problems such as poor organization, unclear explanations, poor sentence structure and poor grammar. Editors should help writers stay motivated and nourish self-esteem.

Editing alternatives

An alternative to hiring a consultant to present a workshop and then work with laboratory staff members to improve their writing skills is to hire laboratory retirees or technical writers to edit reports. Retirees’ familiarity with the workplace environment and its communications requirements can be a great advantage. However, without coaching, simply editing reports can be a “Band-Aid” approach that, while producing clearer reports, does relatively little to improve staff members’ writing skills.

To improve these skills, coaching is needed. In addition to being excellent writers, coaches have to be diplomatic in their dealings with laboratory staff members. Editors often need a technical background to understand the report objectives and the information needs of report readers. Lab managers are often too busy to serve as writing coaches themselves.

Assigning a “writing mentor” to foreign-born staff members when they are hired can give them a fast start in improving their writing skills. Laboratory managers can often identify new employees who will benefit most from this type of coaching by reviewing their résumés, cover letters and other job-hunting communications. Writing mentors can be “allpurpose” advisors to new employees during the on-boarding process. Generally, senior laboratory personnel who are both accomplished researchers and excellent writers are the most effective writing mentors. However, some may be too busy to spend much time coaching or may be reluctant to take the time away from their own research.

Using computer aids to improve writing

Workshop presenters or writing mentors can also coach laboratory personnel on the use and limitations of word processor grammar and spelling checkers. Writers can modify the spelling/grammar checker in Microsoft Word to report the percentage of passive sentences, the Flesch Reading Ease score and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. By doing this paragraph by paragraph, writers can identify sentences that are excessively long, may need to be converted to the active voice, or contain phrases that either need to be eliminated or expressed in a separate sentence.

The Gunning Fog Index is one of the best-known methods for analyzing writing clarity. It measures the level of reading difficulty of any document. The Fox Index equals 0.4 X (average number of words per sentence + percentage of words of three syllables or more).

There is a Web site, test_and_improve.jsp, containing a free Fog Index calculator. One can enter text from a word processing document. Unlike the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, this program provides advice on improving the clarity of excessively long sentences and solving other grammatical problems in the document. Micro Power & Light Co. sells two programs: Readability Calculations (http://www.readabilityformulas. com/readability-calculations.php) and Readability PLUS ( that calculate the Fog Index. Readability PLUS also offers tips on style, such as noting when a word is used very frequently.

Laboratory managers should understand the communications challenges faced by their foreign-born laboratory staff members. Improving their written communication skills will make researchers more effective in communicating with those outside the laboratory and thus more productive.