Editing non-native English: academic editing

2017 update: the latest players in academic editing

eCPD Webinars’ follow-up to Editing non-native English with Joy Burrough-Boenisch looked specifically at academic and scientific texts:

With so many non-native-English university students, academics and scientists expected to write in English there is huge demand for proofreaders and authors’ editors to make their texts fit for purpose. The presenter will discuss the nature of this work: what it entails, methods and techniques to use, and resources to deploy. Attention will also be given to the ethics of editing texts that are to be assessed by academic institutions and/or are intended to be published in pursuit of academic or scientific kudos.

To recap, typical ‘non-native’ features that need to be corrected include learner English problems and transfers from the author’s language and culture.

A growing number of non-native English (NNE) higher education students are required to write in English because they are studying in Anglophone countries or their courses are being taught in English (not always by native English speakers). Scientists are publishing more in English than in their own language.

Both individuals and companies offers editing help. See American Manuscript Editors, who offer to “correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. He or she will also improve the flow of your paper, eliminate any awkward sentences or phrasing, and ensure that the writing is clear and concise while meeting the formatting requirements of the targeted journal”. This is not just copy or language editing, and could be considered invasive.

In UK universities the language correction services offered to students as ‘proofreading’ (not to be confused with the reading of galley proofs or electronic texts to detect and correct minor errors before the text is published) are often provided by academically trained and generally not commercially-oriented persons.

This term proofreading, which historically the term only applied to the final check of galley proofs against marked-up text, is now used for checking final or near-final version of text and rectifying minor shortcomings. How minor is minor? See True Editing’s Academic Services for details of what they will do.

educateIf the text is to be graded or assessed, there are ethical issues, as writing skills may be part of the assessment. Editing hence entails correcting wrong or strange English, plus addressing other shortcomings.

If the text is an article for a peer reviewed journal or similar the usual aim of editing is to give that person a credible voice in the academic community, and hence editing entails correcting any wrong or strange English and non-Anglophone conventions, plus addressing other shortcomings.

You can choose to edit to educate – the third circle of the Venn diagram.

Ethical editing for students involves fixing language-related errors and flagging errors you think the student should be able to fix. Consider teaching via comments, either via marginal comments or as inline comments inserted in the text, forcing the author to engage with comments and remove them manually.

A further issue is plagiarism – keep an eye open for unexpected changes in style.

Universities are starting to develop policies on proofreading aka academic editing, eg LSE’s Statement on editorial help, Essex on proofreading, which bans noticeboard ads from proofreaders and has developed a register of proofreaders, with regular meetings for ‘control’. Their policy includes, for example, reformatting only a section of a bibliography as an appropriate level of intervention, but rewriting sections, reordering paragraphs or correcting factual errors as not. Substantive or structural editing is the role of the student’s supervisor. (Lots more on this plus examples in slides 57-62. See also Guardian article.

Professional organisation are also beginning to offer guidance. See the Institute of Professional Editors (PDF; 2001; see IPEd) in Australia and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), who have published a guide to checking the language of theses and dissertations.

Bottom line: the editor’s contribution should always be acknowledged. It should be clear whether the editor was responsible for the final or near-final draft. (Authors may ‘improve’ the edited manuscript without consulting the editor.) Examples on slides 65-68.

To edit academic texts you should:

  • be familiar with the jargon and discourse conventions of the given field of science (the ‘tribal language’)
  • know the style and conventions of the text genre (eg research article, grant proposal)
  • for journal articles, be acquainted with the journal’s instructions for authors

Google Scholar (dansk) can be used to check that words and phrases are acceptable jargon in both the SL and the TL. If it is only used in the SL try Google Translate. Alternatively a specialist corpus such as Springer Exemplar can be used – it shows the country or usage, over time etc. (Sometimes words do make it out of the SL into broader usage.) If this does not resolve the issue, ask the author!

From the Q&A:

  • to calculate how long it might take, translate 1K words and add on a margin – if it takes 4 hours, you are going to have to re-examine your level of edit and find a compromise; JBB goes with four double spaced pages of text/hour + 1 page wriggle room
  • state that will charge less if takes a shorter time; what if more?
  • the PhD issue – technical translators don’t usually have PhDs in the subject; you can be self educated due to an interest and gain background knowledge cf Karen Shashok, the main thing is to be linguistically gifted, there are techniques you can use; once you specialise in a field you start to feel comfortable with the ‘tribal language’
  • can’t they get away with dodgy English? – one country’s NNE may not be understood by NNSs from another country, the whole thing will get lost in translation; an international norm is needed which is understandable to all; lowering the bar perpetuates errors and may well lead to dodgy English getting into a corpus, or becoming the norm for a tribe, see EU English

Clearly the further you move up the editing scale the more you can charge. Academic proofreading prices range roughly from £16 for a 2,000-word essay to £600 for a doctoral thesis (from ghostwriting article), but Harwood found offers varied widely, with some charging by the hour and some by the word. JBB charges by the hour for editing, but by the word for translating. EASE allegedly charges £29.60/hour (low), while Libro charges (2014) from £6 per 1000 words (standard) and £9 per 1000 words (urgent).

Links:

See also my post on academic writing, which includes some English for Academic Purposes and style links.

Who does it?

Editing non-native English

eCPD Webinars’ introduction to editing non-native English took place at 12:30 CET on 10 February:

The many types of non-native written English have common characteristics that academic language professionals tasked with editing or proofreading should know to look out for. Focusing mainly on European languages, the presenter will give examples of non-native-English textual features and explain why authors produce them. Understanding what drives the author is only part of the story, so we will also look at what drives the editor or proofreader to change text. Though aimed primarily at novices, the presentation will also benefit more seasoned practitioners, by consolidating their knowledge and enabling them to put their editing in perspective.

Led by Joy Burrough-Boenisch (LinkedIn), who doesn’t look like a novice, so I gave it a whirl, along with ~27 other attendees. It still feels weird to pay for a webinar, but this one was interesting and thought provoking.

I’ve worked as an editor for many a year so I was interested in what would be highlighted as specific to editing non-native English, as opposed to poor English, or even English written in a different style from that required. And what are the particular pitfalls in editing the English written by someone whose language you do not know? (That sentence could do with a little help.)

Like me, but unlike most of the webinar participants, Joy came into translating via editing. She stated however that the translation angle gives you a different way of looking at things.

Useful skills:

  • subject knowledge – gives you access to jargon and ‘tribal usage’
  • cultural knowledge – but bear in mind how personal and other factors can affect your editing, including your knowledge of a language (cf going Dutch)

From old friend NASA’s Levels of edit (1980):

[the levels are] not applicable to editing copy by a foreign born person who is not familiar with idiomatic English usage

This is a non- professionalised field – many people who edit non-native English are not necessarily experienced in the types of editing that professional editors perform. Equally, the English word ‘editing’ means different things to different people, depending on their mother tongue and their field of work. Different connotations are attached to editing and the terminology to describe text processing, even within the language professions (journalism, publishing, copywriting and translation, for example). (See Copyediting and proofreading: similar yet different and Can you pass a proofreading test?)

Traits of non-native English:

  • the writing of non-native authors of English is likely to have faults and inadequacies common to all draft texts, such as typos, spelling errors, omissions and inaccuracies, tautology and redundancy, poor writing – ie the same as in native English, which can be a comfort to the non-native author
  • specifically ‘non-native’ characteristics can be grouped into two categories:
    • learner English problems, not always picked up by spelling and grammar checkers, such as limited vocabulary and inappropriate register
    • transfers from the author’s language and culture, such as idioms, ‘airing cupboards’ (cultural things which need explanation), The Egg of Columbus
  • it helps to be able to speak, or at least to be familiar with the author’s language: ie to be able to use translation strategies
  • language transfers – spelling a word according to how you ‘hear’ it
  • convention transfer – punctuation, eg Danish comma rules, overuse of !; Dutch/German paragraphs (incidentally, are English paras universally still indented?)
  • limited vocabulary, leading to overuse and repetition
  • formal vs informal
  • US vs UK English
  • false friends
  • differing usage of Latin words – someone’s probably written a paper on that
  • different writing cultures – sentence length, linking words (English uses lots, eg moreover, in addition), ways of emphasising words
  • absences may also be transferred – in/definite articles, tenses, gender pronouns, lack of a precise word

Strategies for problem solving:

  • consult web resources on common errors made by writers sharing your author’s native language
  • think laterally
  • back-translate – Google Translate can help here

Usage of corpora was bigged up. Ideally the corpus should cover the area you are editing, but you can always create your own. (See my #corpusmooc posts, esp on language learning, using AntConc and using CQPweb. A year ago already!)

Editing skills:

  • general editorial principles – remove redundancy, ensure accuracy, edit to achieve clarity of expression and logic of presentation
  • importance of consistency – adhere to a self-imposed or prescribed style (spelling, the use of abbreviations, the formatting of references, appropriate standards for international symbols for units of measurement)
  • follow a style manual which prescribes spelling, punctuation, use of typefaces (italics, for example), capitalisation etc
  • be aware of conventions and practices of both main forms of English (in practice, many non-native-speaker authors write in a mixture of British and American English)
  • consult publicly accessible corpora and build up own corpora of published texts
  • awareness of genre theory – analysing and comparing genres from the author’s culture with the equivalent genres in English can be revealing (eg meeting minutes tense)
  • usage of the mark-up techniques used by (proper) copyeditors is not essential

Translation skills:

  • familiarisation with differences between the source language and the target language acquired from translation means you become particularly alert to false friends and other linguistic and cultural transfers
  • comparing style guides in English with style guides in the author’s language (sprogpolitik) reveals differences in conventions (punctuation, alphabetisation and usage of Latin)
  • back-translating ‘nonsense’ sentences or phrases into the author’s language.  The Internet translation tool will reveal alternative translations for a highlighted word, and this can lead the editor directly or indirectly (via a false friend) to the editorial solution

Some of the above comes from Joy’s article on editing non-native English. See also Supporting research writing: roles and challenges in multilingual settings (co-editor with V Matarese). Finally, membership of  SENSE (Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors; mainly NL, has some DK members) and MET (Mediterranean Editors & Translators; lots of lovely links) can help avoid language attrition, and also be good for networking.

#acwri: academic writing

Updates: the Academic book of the future project kicked off in October 2014, holding #acbookweek from 9-16 November….see the open access essay collection, written as an “accelerated publishing challenge” during #acbookweek…på dansk, the poetic turn in academic writing and a moan about academic writing as incomprehensible to normal folk

I may have spent over 10 years editing writing by academics into something more accessible, but heck! academic writing is a thing, and as written by non-native speakers offers some opportunities for editorial and translation interventions. Can we boil things down to some rules?

First off, I took a look at FutureLearn/Reading’s Beginner’s guide to writing in English for university study, aka #FLeng4study, which started on 6 October and ran for five weeks. According to the organisers there were over 28K learners from 55 countries enrolled. Like most FutureLearn MOOCs the level felt sub-HE to me, but the following emerged:

  • the key features of academic writing are content (the main ideas and information you want to give plus evidence, ie details and examples), organisation (well structured and linked, giving a coherent whole), language (accurate grammar, good spelling, formal and objective rather than personal style)
  • more on organisation:
    • introduction – two parts; the first part gives some background to the topic, the second part has a narrower focus, telling the reader exactly why you are writing the essay (the thesis statement)
    • paragraphs – also two parts; the first part introduces the reader to the focus of the paragraph (the paragraph leader or topic sentence), the second, the paragraph body, develops the idea as introduced in the first part
    • conclusion – the first part summarises the ideas in the essay, the second part has a wider focus, giving a suggestion for the future, eg a prediction, recommendation or solution to a problem

Week 3 was on using academic language, perhaps rather basic, but illustrates some basic errors:

  • use the present simple for facts, which are permanent or always true and activities, which are repeated or regular; note that the auxiliary verb do is used with the present simple to form negative sentences and questions
  • use there is/are to introduce new information, followed by more information in the rest of the sentence or the next sentence
  • describe general situations using plural nouns without ‘the’
  • use the present continuous for situations which are temporary or changing; formed by using the auxiliary verb to be and the present participle
  • use a variety of clause structures:
    • compound sentences with two simple clauses linked by linking words (and, but, or, so)
    • complex sentences using subordinators (although, because, when, whereas)

Week 4 had some tips on writing a plan, perhaps using mindmapping software:

  • collect all the ideas you have
  • identify the main points and focus on these
  • draw a diagram to show which ideas and evidence to use, organised in a way to answer the hidden question in the title
  • don’t forget evidence (details, examples, facts) to expand on your points

Next up, #acwrimo, aka Academic Writing Month, which with impeccable timing started on 1 November. Find it on Twitter | Facebook | Scoop.it | spreadsheet | map. Launched in 2011 on PhD2Published, #acwrimo is not about quantity over quality but rather about “positive attitudes to writing and established regular and sustainable practices”, with participants encouraged to commit to six basic rules. There’s loads of activity already. Interesting reflections from regular participant Explorations of Style (2012 | 2013).

There’s also a permanent hashtag, #acwri, with fortnightly chats, which I shall keep an eye on no longer run, plus subhash #acwribomo,

And cue linkage!

English for Academic Purposes (EAP):

Style and alternatives:

Apps:

Blogs: