Finding the Story Behind the Writing: Working with ESL Writers

Editing student David Johnson shares his experience of working with ESL writers to preserve their voices.

Earlier this year, I took an online creative writing course in my spare time. The course was a massive open online course (MOOC) with tens of thousands of participants from around the world. As a student on the course, I had to review three of my fellow students’ assignments for each one I submitted. The course interface would spit-out the titles of five submissions until I had completed my peer reviews.

Whenever I saw an entry from a student whose native language wasn’t English, I’d pause and consider whether I had enough time to unpack the prose — I wanted to give useful feedback. Often I would move on, as the work involved in analysing the mechanics of the writing was considerable. Pangs of guilt told me I should have laboured through their submissions, but it took half an hour to complete each review for people fluent in English. So, as part of a collaboration project for an editing class I was studying at RMIT, I took the opportunity to work with Soyeon Ahn, a photography student from South Korea preparing her photo-book for publication, which I saw as a chance to spend some time developing the skills to unpack the prose of a non-native speaker of English.

After meeting Soyeon Ahn and establishing a respectful rapport, I received copy that varied wildly in grammar and style. It became obvious to me that she had a trusted friend with a strong grasp of English grammar rules helping her. However, Soyeon had more to say after the initial paragraph that contained correct grammar.

I consider myself fortunate to have read her own writing, as this showed Soyeon’s true proficiency in English. From examining the sentences directly, we achieved a result that was both more meaningful to her and apt for the final direction she decided the book should take.

Soyeon also forwarded content redrafted by someone I presume was a tutor on her photography course: all the better to have the style and meaning settled in one session where I could take care to examine any ambiguities in the text and forge a consistent style for all the copy going in her book.

Despite bouncing content back and forth through email and preparing some copy in advance of our master session, it was during the final sitting when we made all the changes necessary to represent Soyeon’s intentions for the book. The writing became more meaningful to her, and her voice became more apparent on the page.

Communication has many flaws and moments of frailty. One way to strengthen communication with someone whose primary language is not your own is through non-verbal cues. By learning which physical gestures mean affirmation, confusion and negation, any holes in the primary language spoken can be overcome. In addition, a quiet pause or laughter can set up the next attempt to achieve understanding. With Soyeon, I had established through two previous meetings that I was supportive of her project, was willing to be patient when creating understanding where meaning was unclear, and that I would not put stress into our work together. I had laid the groundwork for a solid collaborative effort.

There are three essential stages for an editor to go through to respect the voice of a client whose primary language is not English:

Firstly, get the client’s original written expression in English. Clear away multiple interpretations on that primary copy. Use the interpreted copy loosely as a guide to understanding, but don’t reinterpret the material as if it is the voice of the client.

Secondly, discuss every clause and sentence. Examine it to discover was written–find the story behind the writing.

Thirdly, having corrected for missing articles, number verb agreement and any errors with the language, step back. I had respected the structure of the clauses and syntax as part of Soyeon’s voice in the writing. Only after receiving feedback from an editor with a fresh pair of eyes, who identified the problem with the order of clauses, was the copyediting phase of production completed by rearranged the syntax of the sentences.

I feel empowered to help clients whose primary language is not English through working with Soyeon. The look on her face when the writing reflected her intentions was wonderful. She became more engaged in her book.

Now, I can contribute to the peer review for the MOOCs I keep taking.