English Second Language (ESL) proofreading

This is a topic that I have been meaning to write about for some time.

I have a massive amount of respect for people who can write in a second language; it can be difficult enough to write well in a native mother tongue. An author's focus is best placed on the content and the meaning of the work, without needing to worry about how best to express this in a non-native language, so I always welcome enquiries from non-native speakers and never judge an author on the standard of their English language.

The first step that is usually taken by an author who wants their second-language work to be improved is to ask for it to be proofread. I don't believe that it is fair to expect a client to be familiar with the terms that are used by the traditional publishing industry in the UK, so if someone asks me to proofread their document, then I'm not going to reply with "it isn't ready for a proofread." Instead, I will always ask to see a sample of the work and then recommend the most appropriate way forward to improve the document so that it can achieve its potential.

In many cases, the language and grammar are excellent, but the choice of words or ordering of words is not as it would be if it were written by a native English speaker. By the strict definition of proofreading, re-phrasing a sentence to make it sound more native would not be included but it is likely that this is exactly what the author wants.

In some cases, what is required is actually a heavy edit, involving re-writing of sentences or a process of re-writing and re-checking once the originally intended meaning has been established by the author and the proofreader together.

To demonstrate this, I have made an info-graphic to show the different levels of editing that might be needed for non native-English documents; hopefully this provides some insight into the process of proofreading an ESL document.

Sometimes, expressing an idea in one language is easy, but is much harder in another, and there are times when a document simply has too many instances of unclear meaning to be worked on. In these cases, the document needs to be translated, or edited in English face-to-face with a bilingual colleague or friend, prior to being submitted for proofreading.

Heavy editing
Throughout a document, even when written by a native English-speaker, there are some places where it is simply not possible to tell what the author is trying to say. These fall into two categories:

  • Where the originally intended meaning of a sentence cannot be understood.
    This is flagged using a comment box, asking the author to re-word the sentence, or to describe the attempted meaning by email. Then, I can re-write the sentence in a clearer and more natural way.
  • Where the originally intended meaning can be deduced from what has been written.
    In these cases, I will re-write the sentence in clearer and more natural English and make a comment for the author to check that I have not altered the intended meaning. Where more than one possible meaning is identified, then the sentence is re-worked to give options for clear and natural ways to express the idea; these are provided in comment boxes for the author to select and use.

Copy-editing and proofreading
Where the meaning is clear, then I can apply the traditional copy-editing and proofreading tasks that are defined on my services and academic services pages.