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Tracey Anderson

Editing the Work of Writers Whose First Language Isn’t English

Copyright: designer491 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: designer491 / 123RF Stock Photo

Canada is a kaleidoscope of cultures and languages from around the world. As the number of residents whose native language isn’t English increases, the need for editors who can edit their writing effectively and sensitively grows, too.

Before my editing career began, I taught English as a second language for over 15 years in China, Macedonia, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Through interactions with people from many cultures, I’ve learned much about how to edit the writing of people whose first language isn’t English. The task brings unique challenges and considerations, but it also brings an added sense of accomplishment with the end result. These are some of my strategies for approaching it.

Adjust Expectations

When I edit the writing of a native speaker, my expectations of the writer’s language level and correctness are fairly high. When the writer isn’t a native speaker, I adjust my expectations so that they are less rigorous: I read the text through a different lens, remembering that the writer is more likely to make errors that come from a lack of knowledge of grammar, spelling or punctuation, or of the appropriate cultural phrasing or usage. When I prepare for these in advance, I’m more patient when I edit.

Approach Editing as Teaching

I explain my changes with more frequent comments and more in-depth explanations than when I edit for native English writers. Rather than only tracking my changes, I explain what the error was and why I made that specific change. My goal is to teach the correct usage; my hope is that the writer will learn from the explanations over time to improve his or her overall English skills — in speaking as well as writing, because the learning transfers — and will become better able to self-correct, with less need for intensive editing.

Simplify Comments

In my comments, I am conscious of my language level and word choices. I follow these general guidelines.

  • Make comments as short as possible while still getting the point across.
  • Avoid complicated clauses within comments.
  • Use the simplest language possible. Avoid complex words and metalanguage that the writer may not know, such as “adjectives” or “clauses.”
  • If multiple comments apply to the same text, separate the comments rather than presenting them as a large block or a long list.
  • As much as possible, highlight only the specific words that a comment applies to rather than the whole sentence or paragraph so that the comment and the related text are easy for the writer to match up and understand.

The process of editing can be more challenging when the writer comes from a different language background, but the results can also be more rewarding. What strategies do you find useful for these situations? What challenges have you encountered?


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20 Comments on “Editing the Work of Writers Whose First Language Isn’t English”

  • I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on content produced by writers from India, and would love a snappy explanation about when and how to use ‘a’ and ‘the’. It’s so obvious for a native speaker and yet something they really struggle with!

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      I consider the language level of the writer when explaining grammar points. A writer with a better understanding of English will be better able to understand a full explanation; I would give a beginner a simple one that will help him/her get it right most of the time and leave the subtleties until the writer is better able to grasp them.

      I suggest that you find an explanation for this point (or any, really) in a grammar book and then rephrase and simplify it to match the level of your writer.

    • Anna Biunno

      says:

      Most of my writers were also from India, and I had encountered the same issue.

      Although this was not something that I had included in my style guide, I eventually sent an email with an explanation of when to use definite and indefinite articles, along with several specific examples. I let them know that they could come see me with any particular challenges they were having in this area with their writing.

      It was no surprise that the responses I received were those of gratitude and appreciation. The writers also felt that finally an editor had understood *their* language idiosyncrasies and had taken the time to guide them through the land mines of the English language.

      • Tracey Anderson

        says:

        That’s a great approach, Anna. It can easily be applied to any grammar point.

      • Trixie Leitz

        says:

        I occasionally edit writing by colleagues from China, who have the same issue with definite articles. I’m not a professional editor; I can correct their writing on a case by case basis, but I’d love to equip them to avoid the issue altogether. Would you be willing to share some examples of how you explained articles to your writers?

        • Tracey Anderson

          says:

          Knowing when to use the articles seems simple enough, but it’s actually complex. Learners need to understand the words «definite» and «indefinite» and understand the difference between count and uncount nouns. Then there’s the issue of when to use «a» and «an.»

          So much depends on the language level of your writer(s) that it’s hard to give one set of examples that will help everyone. Try the set of lessons on articles on this popular ESL teaching website: eslcafe.com/grammar.html

          You’ll see the list has many other topics as well that may help with your ESL writers. If these explanations on articles are too complicated for your writer(s), you can either simplify them yourself or search online for other resources. Plenty are available.

  • Sue Archer

    says:

    I love your tips about simplifying the comments, Tracey. I’m going to be more conscious about applying those last two suggestions.

    I have found working with non-native speakers has actually helped me become a better writer, because you learn to leave out extraneous or confusing words.

    You also learn a lot about how languages differ. I recently obtained feedback from non-native speakers about some writing I was aiming at a global audience, and there was confusion over whether my construction «X, Y or Z» actually meant «X or Y or Z» or if I had intended it to be «X and Y or Z.» It’s these subtleties that can be a true challenge when communicating.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      I have also found that working with non-native speakers, as a teacher and as an editor, has greatly influenced and improved my writing. Those experiences taught me to aim for clear, concise language and to stay aware of the cultural implications of word choices.

  • Margaret F. Sadler

    says:

    I was particularly pleased to work with a MacEwan prof of many languages who wanted to understand every change I made so he could improve his English. That made the job so much fun–and challenged me to be able to explain every change!

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Yes, I do find that explaining my changes gives me opportunities to think through the why and the how of those changes more clearly than I otherwise might.

  • Margaret F. Sadler

    says:

    Lori Burwash’s recent FB post reminds me of the vocabulary of those who learn English as a second (or more) language. I find that they have big-word vocabularies, rather than Plain Language –a lot of latinate prefixes and suffixes. I’m often surprised. I remember using a simple expression with one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words and having to resort to some much longer words to explain it.

    • Lori Burwash

      says:

      Thank you for this, Tracey. And thank you to Margaret for pointing me in its direction. I’m having my first taste of editing people whose first language isn’t English in my volunteer work as an employment coach (mostly editor of resumés) for an immigrant organization in Calgary. It’s certainly an interesting exercise — while my goal is to help people present themselves as strongly as possible, I don’t want to misrepresent their written English skills to potential employers.

      • Tracey Anderson

        says:

        Yes, the line between helping those writers present themselves strongly and misrepresenting their English level is a fine one indeed. Important, though. Do you enjoy working with ESL writers? I certainly do.

        • Lori Burwash

          says:

          These aren’t writers, per se. One was a lawyer with advanced the English, the other a young woman hoping to get into hotel/tourism after working for a few years here as a nannie. So they are not as concerned with exploring their writing as they are with getting a better resumé. However they can see the difference in what I’m suggesting, and I have seen some light bulbs go off, so that’s wonderful. I’ve only worked with two women so far, and it’s been fantastic. I love hearing their stories, seeing their happiness at being here … and their resolve to succeed. And I LOVE the fact that my main skill in life is helping them, in some small way, to do that.

          • Tracey Anderson

            says:

            The light bulb moments are why I enjoy working with ESL writers and students. When you learn a new language, you open up the world, so I am proud to be part of that process for the people I work with.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Vocabulary building is often the focus in early levels of ESL teaching because knowing more words is faster for building understanding in some ways than teaching grammar. The vocabulary that instructors choose to teach can vary widely according to what the instructor decides is important.

  • I’m a little late on this conversation, but it’s better late than never, right? 😉

    Congratulations for a well-written text, Tracey. I have carried out some of the strategies you pointed out in your text (i.e., simplifying comments, highlighting specific words or sentences, and the like). So far, non-native English writers have never criticized the work I’ve done. They have been open-minded to changes made and (hopefully) have taken note of their mistakes to improve their writing.

    It can be time-consuming and difficult—even frustrating—to break through texts that aren’t clear, though, especially when writers are struggling with interference in their mother tongue(s). So here are two questions: What tools could I use when faced with a text filled with unclear syntax and incorrect usage? How do I address these problems to a non-native English writer clearly and constructively?

    Obviously, my goal is not to change the overall meaning of the author’s text. Any feedback would be appreciated.

    • Tracey Anderson

      says:

      Hi Dwain. Thanks for reaching out. I am glad you found my blog post helpful. It’s never too late to ask a question. To answer yours…

      What tools could I use when faced with a text filled with unclear syntax and incorrect usage?

      I think the most important tool is patience. As you say, editing these texts can be frustrating, but I also find the clearer text at the end is a great reward. I have not found any specific editing tools other than what I normally use in MS Word. If I’ve been working with a writer over a period of time, I start to know the typical mistakes he or she makes, and I will often do a search for those in the text and correct them one by one before tackling the text as a whole. Even if it’s a first text you are editing from a writer, you can recognize repeated errors within that text in a short period of time and follow the same procedure. Also, if a text is short, you might find it helpful to do a read-through first without editing to help you get a feel for what to expect and to prepare an editing plan.

      How do I address these problems to a non-native English writer clearly and constructively?

      Much depends on the writer’s English level. Based on what you can see in the text itself and your author interactions, you should be able to gauge how simple you need to make your comments. You may also find it helpful, where possible, to have a verbal discussion with your writer instead of doing it all in writing. Language learning is usually more advanced in speaking than in writing, so the writer may understand spoken feedback better.

      I hope that helps.

      • This helps greatly. Thanks a million, Tracey! 🙂

        • Tracey Anderson

          says:

          Happy to share my knowledge.

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