Sunday, September 12, 2010

Editing English as a Second Language

The article "One Paragraph, Three Ways" brings up the important point of maintaining authorial style, but I'm curious how one goes about doing this when English is the writer's second language. How do you balance the need to maintain the author's style when there are severe errors in the author's writing that require sentence structure to be altered or even re-written?


Pat said...

In my response to your question about editing nineteenth-century British writing, I had this paragraph:

"P. 3: 'Heavier intervention may be needed, for example, when the author does not have native or near-native fluency in English, when the author is a professional or a technical expert writing for a lay audience, or when the author has not been careful in preparing the manuscript.' Note that here Einsohn is talking about a manuscript that not only can be made to conform to a certain standard but should be made to conform."

How heavy is "heavier"? That depends in large part on the guidelines given to you by the publisher. If you are working for a journal that frequently publishes work by authors who are not native speakers of English, you will probably be allowed more freedom to edit.

If you are a freelance editor and, say, authors in other countries come to you for help in publishing their papers in English-language journals, you will have to work out with them how heavily edited they want their manuscripts to be.

You might want to correspond with my friend Gary Mawyer, who is the editor of a prominent medical journal published by the University of Virginia. Gary frequently gets manuscripts from researchers who are not native speakers, and he does freelance editing as well.

Pat said...

Lisa, I remembered this wonderful resource for ESL students: Purdue Online Writing Laboratory. Your job as an editor certainly isn't to teach someone how to write English, but I think you'll still find this to be a good resource when helping non-native writers.

Let me close my comments on your question by telling you a story.

Many years ago now, a young man from the PRC was referred to me. He was getting his master's degree in communications, and his committee had suggested he find a copyeditor for his thesis. (This is a common practice at the graduate level.) His paper was on a certain period in the seventies, when the PRC was more open to the West and strict media guidelines were relaxed. In the course of working on his thesis, I did quite a bit of editing; and earning my admiration, he made an effort to understand every mark I made and why I made it. When he couldn't figure something out, he would come to me for an explanation.

His thesis turned out well, and he earned his master's degree.

I think about him now and then because not only did he learn from me, but I learned a great deal from him. To me he had the best combination of graduate-student traits: persistence, diligence, resourcefulness, and respect for what he didn't know--and the desire to master it.