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Working with authors who speak English as a second language

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2013. Working with authors who speak English as a second language. Copyediting August/September 2013: 3–5.

For 25 years, I’ve had an intellectually and financially rewarding career working with authors who speak English as their second language (ESL authors). In this article, I’ll share my experience so that you can seek the same rewards. I’ll build on Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s article in the December 2011 issue of Copyediting through additional perspectives and tricks of the trade. Though I’ll focus on editing for peer-reviewed science journals, the advice applies to all types of ESL editing.

Finding work

I launched my career by contacting editors of science journals published by Springer, Elsevier, and Sage. Contact information is generally available online, and the same approach would work for magazines, books, and websites. Colleagues and librarians can suggest sources for other subjects. I created an intimidating list, but contacting 10 journals a day for several months made the task manageable.
Persuading publishers to work with you is—surprisingly—not about your skills and experience. What they really want to know is what problems you’ll solve for them. In my case, the problem was that journal editors often received articles so poorly written they couldn’t tell whether they were worth reviewing. I offered to solve this problem by dealing directly with the authors to produce a clear manuscript so that the reviewers were free to focus on the science rather than the English. Only after stating my solution did I present my credentials. I also provided a PDF that explained my services and pointed to my Web site; journal editors often forwarded it to authors.

TIP: Publishers consider editing an annoying, unproductive expense and rarely pay well. You’ll earn much more working directly for authors.

When authors contacted me, I clarified our mutual responsibilities via a concise document that you can download and modify to meet your needs. It explains that I can fix the language and suggest improvements in the content or logic but can’t make bad science publishable. The author is responsible for ensuring that my edits are correct and requesting clarification if they are unsure. Although formal contracts permit legal action if problems arise, your goal should be to eliminate misunderstandings that might lead to legal action.

My experience

Most of my clients are Japanese or Chinese, but I have clients in more than a dozen other countries. The specific problems you’ll face depend on the differences between the conventions of English and those of the other language and culture.

For example, Chinese doesn’t use articles, subject-verb accord, or (usually) pronouns. Investing time to understand your authors’ culture increases the likelihood of productive working relationships, and sometimes even friendships. To understand Chinese culture, I studied Scott Seligman’s Chinese Business Etiquette and Greg Bissky’s Wearing Chinese Glasses. I’ve learned enough Chinese to craft polite emails and to communicate occasionally about non-business matters (e.g., wishes for a happy lunar new year). This kind of respect weakens the adversarial feeling many Asian authors have for clueless Westerners.

Nonetheless, there are more similarities than differences among authors who must write in an unfamiliar language. Chinese and Japanese cultures discourage direct criticism, for example, but editing is inherently adversarial in any culture: each edit implies the author is wrong. To diminish the sting of my edits of Chinese and Japanese manuscripts, I revise my comments to focus on the language problem, not on the author’s error—an approach that works well with all authors.

My authors are experts in science, not in writing or Word, so I provide resources that make writing easier. For example:

Feel free to modify these documents to meet your needs, but please retain the attribution.

Strategies

Working in another language is intimidating and harsh feedback is demotivating. Thus, make your comments as gentle and considerate as possible. Overuse please, particularly for imperative statements. Focus your wording on the problem (e.g., “in English, we do [description]”) rather than on the author. Be patient, even when you’re ready to shoot your computer. It’s tempting to believe that someone who writes poorly is stupid or careless, but many exceptionally smart people never learn to write well.

Most ESL authors understand technical English better than everyday English because they’ve read so many English manuscripts. Thus, when you review your comments and queries, simplify your wording as much as possible without creating telegraphic phrases or sentence fragments. Words that seem superfluous, such as articles, provide important clues to understanding. Make objects or subjects explicit, since pronouns are problematic for many authors. Never report the existence of a problem (“I don’t understand”) if you can describe the problem (“does it represent the experiment or the study site?”). Use precise words, even if authors will have to consult a dictionary, whenever simpler words would be unclear or have multiple plausible interpretations.

Explain redundantly. An author who can’t understand one explanation may understand the other explanation or their combination. For example, visual descriptions strengthen verbal descriptions: “In this graph, please use white circles (o) for Chinese data and black circles (•) for global data.” Avoid using terms like asterisk or dagger if you can type the symbols (* and †). Other tricks include coloring the names of colors (e.g., red, green), applying formatting (e.g., italicize, boldface, or underline words that require these formats), and using numbers instead of words for numerical concepts (e.g., “change 10 to 11”, not "change ten to eleven"). If you have graphics software, annotate graphics directly instead of describing problems.

When you describe solutions, provide phrases the author can emulate. Don’t explain obscure grammatical issues; provide solutions. For example:

Don’t overwhelm authors with too many choices. Even native English speakers expect you to provide your best guess, not all possibilities.

Optimal communication methods vary among cultures, but more among individuals within a culture. Many of my Chinese authors are uncomfortable with spoken English and prefer email because they can carefully revise their words; however, a colleague’s Chinese authors prefer phone calls because this establishes a more personal relationship.

Misunderstandings are common, so attribute problems to misunderstandings first before you attribute them to malice. For example, never assume that authors receive your e-mail: spam filters block e-mail, and computer failures delay messages. Thus, ask authors to confirm that they have received your message. If there’s no reply, try again from a second address so that nobody misses a deadline or thinks you’re ignoring them.

Sometimes their messages to us are blocked. My wife once edited a Nigerian banker’s book, and all his messages were flagged as spam. I have two primary email addresses, and periodically remind my authors to contact me via the second address if they receive no reply from the first. Similarly, I warn clients when I’ll be away from the office, and check my email while I travel. Authors with other priorities sometimes forget we’re away.

Offer to intervene on a client’s behalf by talking to a journal’s editor. Papers are often rejected for language reasons without ever being read. Always edit letters to the journal, since some journals will reject the edited manuscript unread if the letter is gibberish. Ask authors to include your name and contact information in the letter so the journal can contact you with questions.

TIP: Rename the files authors send to follow your own naming system. This makes it difficult for them to confuse their original file with the edited file.

Watch for plagiarism. In communal cultures such as China, authors often misunderstand Western concepts of intellectual property and copy text directly from published works. They believe citing the source is sufficient, but Western convention is to paraphrase unless direct quotes are essential. Journals use software to detect such plagiarism, and getting caught can blacken an author’s reputation.

Such plagiarism isn’t always obvious, but two clues help: unusually lucid writing amidst confusion, and radical stylistic changes. Googling suspect phrases often reveals the source. When I spot such problems, I highlight the copied text and paraphrase it for the author in case they can’t find their own wording.

Deciphering the meaning

Understanding the subject makes guessing the meaning of incomprehensible phrases easier. A phrase that makes no sense at first glance often becomes clearer if you read to the end of the paragraph before trying to solve the problem. When the logical sequence must be from A to B and then from B to C, and you can only understand A and C, asking what B must mean to complete this chain of logic solves many problems. If a word is clearly wrong but you can’t guess the right word, look for false cognates and phonetic misspellings. Some recent examples:

Some misused words are near-synonyms for the correct word, and a thesaurus may reveal the correct word. If you speak the author’s native language, you may know of words that changed meaning through linguistic evolution. For example, the French assister means “participate,” not “assist.”

If you work with a given author frequently, you’ll start seeing patterns in how they construct sentences. Familiarity with those patterns leads to standard solutions you can apply for each type of problem.

Clear communication

Authors who can’t understand you can’t review your edits. To communicate clearly:

Reminders required

Working with ESL authors requires patience. People who aren’t professional writers (e.g., most scientists) write too infrequently to learn from their mistakes. When this leads to repeated revisions of the same phrase, it creates revision fatigue, and authors stop paying close attention to your edits. This can lead to serious errors when, inevitably, you misinterpret something.

Periodically remind authors to check your revisions. I do this several times per manuscript, particularly for obscure points, using wording such as “please confirm that I did not change your meaning.” Encourage collaboration. I remind authors at least once per manuscript that if my revision appears incorrect, they should describe their meaning in different words so that I can try again.

Remind authors that you can only guarantee the manuscript’s language. If the content is weak, you can’t guarantee acceptance; however, as you gain experience with a type of editing, you can help authors avoid common pitfalls that lead to rejection. If you have expertise or an advanced degree in a subject, critique their logic and assumptions, but don’t guarantee that you’ll spot all the problems. Peer reviewers often spot subtle errors most editors can’t detect.

If you earn an author’s loyalty, beware the snowball effect. Authors will introduce you to their friends, who will introduce you to their friends. Your workload can increase exponentially, particularly in highly networked cultures like China. I didn’t know this and ended up with more clients than time to work with them. Thus, a final tip: Build a network of colleagues who can help out when you’re overwhelmed. Good colleagues will reciprocate.


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