Why you need a copy editor (even if English is your first language)

If I had a dime for every time someone told me “I’m a native speaker, I don’t need a copy editor,” I could afford a box of my favorite pens.


(By the way, that would be the Faber-Castell Uni-ball Micro Point, black, please. My birthday is in January. Thank you in advance.)


Most academic writing is bad


We must highlight one thing up front: most academic writing is bad. Some of it is really bad. There are many reasons for this, none of which have to do with the intelligence of the writers.


Writing in Foreign Policy in 2013, Stephen M. Walt suggested that there are several reasons for lousy academic writing. According to Walt, the first and most obvious reason is that academic subject matter tends to be complicated and confusing to explain in plain English. Fair enough, but as Walt points out, many great thinkers manage to turn out beautifully written papers. I don’t read German, but the English translations of Einstein’s papers are easily accessible even to the non-physicist (right up to the point that Einstein whips out the mathematics, at which point he loses me.)


The second reason cited by Walt is subtler. Bad academic writing often emerges from a failure to understand the distinction between what Walt calls “the logic of discovery” and “the logic of presentation.” The way that a scientist approaches and solves a problem is like a narrative because it happens in real time. Unfortunately, narrative form happens to be an utterly terrible way to write a scientific article. Scientific writers must learn empathy for the reader. You have to appreciate that the reader does not already know what you know. This is tougher than it sounds.


Fear of being wrong


The final primary reason for bad academic writing, according to Walt, is fear of being wrong. If a writer feels unsure about the data or the conclusions drawn from them, they will hide behind convoluted language to be able to claim that they were misunderstood if later shown to be wrong by their colleagues. Confident writers, on the other hand, can afford to use straightforward declarative language.


Science as I-language


I have a much simpler reason why so much scientific writing is bad: most writers don’t know how to do it. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016, Noah Berlatsky suggested that many great scientists are simply bad writers. Writing is a talent, like doing math or getting a great tan. Some people can do it, and some people can’t.



I think of scientific writing as being a language unto itself. The actual idiom used (English, German, etc.) is merely the externalization of this language. Linguists will hear me echoing Noam Chomsky here. Chomsky argues that there is really only one language, and the English and Portuguese that we speak are merely the externalizations of that language.


As with Chomsky’s internal language, so it is with scientific writing. The latter has a structure and a logic that precedes the data and its presentation. Unlike Chomsky’s “I-language,” however, scientific writing is not innate and must be learned.


You’ve spent years learning the science: why learn the language of scientific writing now? There are two significant reasons: you’ll publish more, and your career will benefit from knowing how to write scientific papers


Faster publication


In my career as a science/medicine copy editor, I’ve noticed that the best writers turn out the highest volumes of papers. It has nothing to do with their typing ability – for all I know they use the hunt-and-peck method. The most productive writers just get it. They speak the language of writing scientific papers, and they spend less time in front of their computers with their heads in their hands.


Enhanced reputation


Publish or perish is not just a slogan. You must publish to advance your career. If your writing is not holding you back, you can spend more time on the bench or in the field doing the work. A high volume of quality papers on your CV won’t guarantee you tenure, but a thin CV full of poorly written papers isn’t going to help you much.


Second opinion


If you just cannot learn the language of science writing and you need to get a high volume of papers out, a science copy editor can help you. I speak the “I-language” of science papers already, so you don’t need to learn how to do it yourself. I am also another set of eyes. A second opinion may be difficult for some scientists to solicit, but it can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.