Editing Manuscripts by Non-Native Speakers: 7 Things

Here continues the series 7 Things—basic lists for editors and writers. (Why 7? in lists? )

Editing manuscripts to clarify meaning and correct errors in English can be a particular challenge if the writer’s first language is not English. Of course, writers vary hugely and some people who speak (and write) English as their second, third, fourth, or fifth language might have a better grasp than some for whom it’s their first language, but let me generalize with 7 tips.

  1. Dig deep to find the writer’s meaning. The intended meaning is key. When the meaning is not clear, dig deep into good, thick, authoritative dictionaries. Is the writer using an uncommon word for his or her meaning? or using the third or fourth meaning of a familiar word?  Use dictionaries to clarify the intent.
  2. But make the reader your test for the edit. Even if the word or expression is legitimate and supported by dictionaries and style guides, will it work for the intended reader? Ask the writer to describe the reader to you and his or her goals. For example, I recently heard this: “The reader is someone who knows computer programming and earlier versions of this program. I want this to read as though written by a native-English speaker.”
  3. Watch for common, colloquial phrasing, jargon, trendiness, and hype. The author might have learned some English from popular media—TV, radio, the Internet. What’s learned in popular culture might (or might not) be suitable to his or her subject, reader, and writing purpose. For example, does “awesome” work in a business report to colleagues?
  4. See and note patterns. We are all creatures of habit. If you see repeated errors, a punctuation mark that is often misused, or the same phrase that need adjusting, note it, note the fix on a style sheet, and look for that problem again. It will save time, which makes your edit more efficient for everyone.
  5. Query and give options. If you are unsure of the meaning, you can’t edit it. Simple as that. Could the original take you in 3 different directions? If so, ask? For example, “I think this means this____ but it could mean this __ or this ___? Please choose one or explain to me.”
  6. Say it aloud. If a sentence seems too tangled to make sense on the first or second reading, read it out loud. Is there a verb missing? How might words with a similar sound make sense?
  7. Do no harm. Check authoritative sources such as the Oxford quick guides or Merriam Webster online. Make no changes unless you can defend them. “I like it!” and “It sounds right” won’t stand up.


© Laura Edlund 2010