Professional Written Communication: Positioning Yourself for Maximum Effect

This blog post is a guest post by Gerriet Janssen, associate professor at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.

Last year, when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Chile, I visited Colombia and facilitated several workshops on academic writing for graduate students and instructors in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. Like academics almost everywhere, participants were under pressure to publish their research in peer-reviewed, indexed academic journals, so some of my workshops addressed these issues. In this month’s post, Associate Professor Gerriet Janssen, my connection at los Andes, writes about second language (L2) writers in Colombia and beyond.


Pressing Concerns for L2 Graduate Students and New Academics in Professional Written Communication

One of the biggest challenges I see L2 scholars having is related to “connecting into” their scholarly community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and gaining traction with their work inside this research community. The biggest problem with getting their ideas published is principally sociocultural in nature and then linguistic. In Colombia, some L2 scholars experience a relative silence in their research community compared to their peers in North America or Europe; that silence doesn’t help with generating research ideas or understanding what ideas are interesting to editors and readers…and what is less interesting.

Concerning this topic, my los Andes colleague Kelley Crites and I interviewed six L2 scholars for a forthcoming article. These scholars described how during internships or postdocs in North America or Europe, they tend to be surrounded by vibrant research communities. Conferences are easier to attend (no expensive, long-distance travel required), and their labs have frequent visitors. Because of these visitors, the Colombian scholars are in regular contact with current conversations in their fields. One of our interviewees, “Eli,” described how this contact helps him when he is writing. Through these constant conversations, he can digest his various ideas (i.e., ideas in a developing paper) and then distill and set forth in his paper his main points. Eli explained that it is one thing to understand or apply key concepts in the lab, but quite another to describe these concepts clearly to another person in a publication! For him, discussion cuts through the layers of understanding to get to an idea’s core.

Eli also commented that in Colombia, his research area is much less developed, with comparatively few scholars working on his topic, so the conversation is less invigorating. As a result of this silence, he found that his writing projects in Colombia stagnate and his work remains unpublished. Happily, our research also indicates that you don’t have to go to North America or Europe to be involved in an active research network. Several interviewees described very productive Colombian research networks in scholarly fields related to Colombia’s agricultural and biological wealth. These experiences, to Crites and me, indicate that energized social experiences help people enter and gain traction within their scholarly community; not having these communities is a critical concern.

Challenging Genres

Challenges arise especially when writers need to create a specific relationship with their readers—establishing their position in front of field knowledge and experts—and establish the appropriate tone. In research papers, intros and discussions are difficult, as writers have to synthesize the field’s conversations and position their contribution “just so” in relation to that conversation. This requires lots of mitigation strategies, which is done differently in different cultures. In terms of more occluded genres, I’d say job cover letters may be the toughest, because it is difficult to strike the best tone: confident, knowledgeable, productive, and a nice colleague, all the while “still being you.”

Setting the Appropriate Tone in Genres: The Stakes

Without adequate positioning of one’s research, writing can sound overconfident or maybe even obnoxious; most research is adding a small piece to a very big conversation, not solving an age-old mystery! So, awkward positioning or tone can be interpreted as “sounding amateur,” which can alienate journal editors. While in applied linguistics, editors or peer reviewers may provide more instruction about achieving a more justifiable positioning (see Cárdenas & Rainey, 2018, for interesting work on this topic), other fields may be less forgiving.

Supporting L2 English Writers in Developing Their Abilities to Write in These Genres

Los Andes has two programs that support L2 English scholars and their writing for publication. The first is the Inglés para doctorados [IPD; English for PhD students] program. The main thrust of this EAP program is to develop genre-related writing tasks across four course levels. While lower levels develop academic genres like literature reviews and annotated bibliographies from the students’ areas of study, the last course focuses specifically on writing for publication, using Swales and Feak (2012).

Los Andes also has a tutoring program, TIPPs (Tutorías de inglés para propósitos profesionales), which supports graduate students, professors, and administrators in the production of professional texts. The program is staffed by language professors, with most tutoring time focused on developing publications in English, though TIPPs also supports development of occluded genres such as CVs, cover letters, statements of purpose, or PowerPoint presentations. Key in both of these programs is the ongoing support of the los Andes vice-chancellor of research, Dr. Silvia Restrepo, who is interested in understanding and supporting our university’s scholars when publishing.

Improving Your Writing for Professional Communication: Advice

Be an active member of your research community! Go to conferences, meet people, collaborate in others’ research, invite people to help you in yours, participate in reading or writing groups. Reading and writing groups are important for ongoing consideration of the literature and providing support when writing: to remember who your target audience is, how this target audience is best addressed; how to frame or organize concepts, to see whether or not your ideas are clearly written. I really enjoy coauthoring, as I get to think about and describe the content with other interested people.

Recommendations for L2 Writing Instructors Who Want to Support Their Students or Colleagues in Writing These Genres

In terms of noticing genre features, I ask students to find texts from their field of study that develop the genre or rhetorical feature at hand. I then ask students to compare their text samples with their partners and then produce a similar text (see Curry & Lillis, 2013, for the complete process).

In terms of production, I like collaborative writing. In my classes, student teams write on the whiteboard, followed by a “rotating peer review.” Students thus practice producing genre features, they get and give feedback about these genre features, and they also move around and interact, which I think they find energizing. Recently, in light of comments from my interviewee “Lina,” I have considered collaborative writing for larger text sections. She commented that she never writes alone in her field, so why should she write alone in a writing course? I think Lina is on to something.

References

Cárdenas, M. L., & Rainey, I. (2018). Publishing from the ELT periphery: The Profile journal experience in Colombia. In M. J. Curry & T. Lillis (Eds.), Global academic publishing: Policies, perspectives and pedagogies (pp. 151–165). Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Curry, M. J., & Lillis, T. (2013). A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


Gerriet Janssen is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Culture at Universidad de los Andes–Colombia. While his PhD is in second language evaluation, Gerriet has developed much of his practical and research work on academic writing, building language programs focused on academic writing, or writing for publication purposes.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she is chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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