Editing non-native English: academic editing

Updates: the latest players in academic editingworking for an essay mill

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).


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.

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.

Translating architecture

Spotting that eCPD Webinars (@eCPDWebinars) were offering a series on translating architecture I signed up for the first session on architexts. The series was led by Pierre Fuentes (@ArcTranslations | Proz), a qualified architect living in Edinburgh.

The webinar used GoToWebinar, and took place at 15:30 CET, closing at 16:50. Now I’ve attended any number of webinars for free, and my issues with the format are well documented – see in particular Video video, The webinar experience and In class. I’ve also participated in any number of MOOCs. Clearly as a priced product eCPD’s webinars have a different economic model, and not least need to be rather more closed than a MOOC, however I do wonder if more interactivity could be built around the sessions, particularly as in this case they took the form of a series. While there were opportunities to interact at the start and beginning in the form of polls, it was not a social event – there was no chat during the session and no invitation to take things forward afterwards.

The session took the form of a lecture, with much of the time spent on the presentation of slides with bulleted lists of (fairly basic) information, lacking pace and drive. (As they say on R4’s Just a minute: “he’s listing again!”) These could have been sent to participants beforehand, allowing more of the session to be spent on substantive issues actually related to translation and the skills required in this particular field, or even to go into more depth on some aspects of the information – it’s a waste of a webinar to use it mainly for knowledge transmission (what rather than why), and the end result is not very engaging. I switched to surfing with half an ear mode after about 15 minutes.

Post webinar I received an email with the slides and a four page list of resources to cover the whole series, mainly relating to French, with two pages taken up by a list of texts about architecture from Plato’s Republic onwards. Hrmph. In total I received six emails relating to the webinar, from four different email addresses.

Following an email exchange with eCPD Webinars I decided not to attend the rest of the series, which didn’t seem to be what I was looking for, suggesting that a flipped webinar might have been more substantial. I will however be giving the webinar on editing non-native English next week a go – stand by!

Below is an overview of the #archiseries gleaned from the website and Twitter.


Building on translation studies theory, we will look at who ‘writes’ architecture and what text types they produce. Some particular genres, which occur more regularly in the workload of translators, will be looked at in more detail.

Translation is “about guiding the intended co-operation over cultural barriers enabling functionally oriented communication”. This quote from guru Jeremy Munday’s Introducing translation studies (2001/13) from Holz-Mänttäri (1984:8) is useful, as it encapsulates an issue around both translation and non-native English – cultural differences may get in the way of what you are trying to say.

Different types of texts (or genres) are shaped by three functional characteristics, ie the purpose of the text:

  • informative – content focus
  • expressive – aesthetic focus
  • operative – reader focus, reactive

All three may be present, but one will predominate. See diagram presenting how different text types relate to this classification:


See also Katharina Reiss’ ‘Type, kind and individuality of text: decision making in translation’, in L Venuti, The translation studies reader, London: Routledge, 2000.

The webinar was informative, where it could have been more operative : D To offer more meat Pierre could have started with the diagram and then moved on to how different linguistic devices relate to the process of translation.

Translating graphic communication is an issue – this uses tight and particular language aka jargon and specialised terminology, with lots of acronyms and abbreviations.  One to one literal translations will often not do. It may be presented as a PDF, which is a pain, or worse! as a drawing, requiring special software. (No hints offered on what to do about this.)


What is this ‘technicality’ that translators are all talking about? What does this term imply for texts related to architecture? We will identify the links between architecture and technical fields such as engineering, design, law, property, sustainability, etc – from fancy pedantry to essential jargon. A picture being worth a thousands words, we will also discuss how to translate drawings (or not).

The mother art

Architecture and translation are both about design, but there is a fine line between skills and style. Using architects’ favourite figure of speech, the analogy, this presentation will look at recurrent stylistic problems and how to approach them.

From proportion to moderation: a brief history of architecture

Architecture is older than literature. It has shaped human life as soon as the human soul sought means to protect its cell, the body. It has shaped the dimensions of the chairs we sit on as well as the borders between some of our countries, sometimes more radically than nature itself. Through a brief history of western architectural theory, this final presentation will define what architecture has meant, means and might mean to people.

More useful was an article on terminology found on @sandersonkim’s website:

  • source text (ST): a 1911 German dissertation on Le Corbusier’s writings on German urban planning sources for a client in New Zealand – so that’s how and where requests may come from!
  • how far should your target text (TT) be country specific, in particular if you don’t know the jargon aka canon of specialist vocabulary in that country? and bear in mind the time the text was written in – in this case the TT should not sound too modern
  • have the texts referred to been translated before? usage may be established in this way
  • what to call the discipline itself? In French ‘urbanisme’, in German ‘Städtebau’, while in English there is a choice between town/city/urban, planning/design – again, what is/are the convention/s?
  • ditto re ‘ville’ or ‘Stadt’ – UK English tends to favour ‘town’ and US English ‘city’ planning, while ‘urban’ covers both
  • do ‘rues’/’Straßen’ translate as streets or roads? do the two English terms cover different ranges of meaning? checking usage in architectural texts can help
  • ingenuity and lateral thinking may be more important than deep subject knowledge and technical expertise – architects tend to creative use of language, making architrans where ‘art’ meets ‘technical’ translation

Capturing the learning experience: footprints of emergence

(Post copied from Danegeld blog, 24 Feb 2015.)

At #altc 2013 I got a bit more to grips with footprints of emergence (examples), a visualisation technique for learning, which I first encountered on Jenny Mackness’ blog. At first sight it looked a bit onerous but an interesting idea, so I was eager to listen in on the Capturing the learning experience webinars, held on the SCoPE platform on 19 and 26 November.

19 November: emergent learning

  • recording (Blackboard) and materials | Jenny’s follow-up post
  • issues: is it possible to assess emergent learning? how do you ‘capture’ learning that is not expected? how do you measure or value it? are these the right questions or are they flawed? thread

26 November: drawing a footprint

footprint palette

footprint palette

Cut to the chase with Lisa Lane’s blog post.


  • the topography of the 2D palette almost makes sense –  it’s not necessarily a dichotomy (unlike Visitors/Residents?), rather a balancing act which may vary according to time, inclination, eg sometimes you may feel more warm towards the outer circle of chaos (Dante?) and risk, with its leanings towards innovation, while at other times this may feel too confusing, with too much information
  • a 3D version has prescribed learning as a valley in between ridges of emergence – both have a value
  • it’s a mapping not a scoring
  • it’s a palette not a template – not all factors may apply, new factors can be added
  • can be completed from two perspectives: learner or designer
  • learners: consider how each factor affected 1) you 2) your learning

The webinar participants seemed to struggle with the tech, making the whole process seem very very hard…some work defo still needed on this. Many of the factors are still opaque to me, use jargon and are just not clear to non edtech pple – it is hard to describe learning, but I’m sensing some over-thinking going on. The whole thing just doesn’t feel very intuitive. Would some writing for the web help and simplification make the process feel more engaging and inviting?

I’ve taken the MOOC approach to the discussion forum and not tried to read the lot : D but a post from Nick Kearney in the metaphors for emergent learning thread sums up the issues:

Footprints are a step in the right direction, in that they help to visualise the situation, but in the wrong direction in the sense that that serious engagement with them requires a whole new literacy. So, I see it as a great research tool but forget ease of use. Just a quick look at this makes me think I would hesitate to use it even if I could dedicate a couple of months to it:) It is very very rich, but there are more than 20 elements to assimilate in this particular version, and then the way the data is visually represented.

I would echo a question from Roy Williams’ response:  Is this an ‘app’, and should it be an app that can be downloaded and used in the first 5 minutes, or is it a new tool that requires two webinars and two weeks of discussion to use?

Can’t it be both? I’m really keen to apply the footprint approach to my latest MOOCs, in particular #kierkegaard with its implied special approach to learning, and to compare it with Jenny Connected’s #modpo experiences. I see it as an alternative approach to my lengthy blog posts, which may surface tacit knowledge and move my reflections on a step. Unfortunately, without Word this is not a straightforward process, but Jenny has offered to help out. We shall see how I get on! Answer: not too well, although I did present an alternative #kierkegaard footprint.

Update, September 2014: Jenny presented a new footprint platform at a recent conference.

#vandr: the webinar experience

(Post copied from Danegeld blog, 7 Feb 2015.)

Updates and postscripts: Visitors and Residents is a concept which just won’t go away – see the foot of the post. And, Jakob Nielsen debunks teenagers as digital natives (Feb 2013).

On 9 December I tuned into the #vandr webinar, presenting findings from the JISC/OCLC Visitors and Residents project.

To get the most out of a webinar, or any webcast for that matter, you need to engage – either synchronously by contributing to the chat or livetweeting, or asychronously by reflecting later in a blog post like this one (what used to be called writing up your notes.) For that the session needs to be engaging, in terms of both content and delivery.

The visitors and residents continuum: the content

The content of the webinar centred around digital literacy and in particular students’ engagement with the digital information environment in higher education. Digital natives or no, according to JISC’s Developing Digital Literacies Programme Manager “it’s easy to overstate the digital competence of today’s undergraduate students and even postgraduate researchers”.

At the heart of the project is the visitors and residents continuum, which has Visitors, unseen, instrumental, functional and individual, at one end and Residents, visible, networked, communicative and communal, at the other. So, visitors lurk or consume, while residents participate and produce.

I’ve previously commented on the visitors and residents concept,  which I find problematic, in particular in relation to my own concept of the anti-social social networker. Not least do most people lurk (see the 90% rule), but there are also different ways of using the same tool, for example Twitter can be used for information sharing and gathering (sometimes classed as broadcasting) or for conversation – both methods result in learning. While I ‘lurked’ during the webinar (to concentrate on the task) I have now produced a blog post – where does that place me on the continuum?

However in his First Monday paper on a new typology for online engagement Dave White states: “the visitors and residents continuum accounts for people behaving in different ways when using technology, depending on their motivation and context” (my emphasis). The paper explores in detail concepts of ‘tool’ and ‘place’, allowing for a range of other factors which may affect behaviour – for example, the researchers have added a personal:institutional axis in order to plot a student’s online learning activity (described further in a post on the learning black market), and other axes could be added, perhaps consumer vs producer, individual vs social learners…the concept of a typology is more attractive than that of a continuum, which to me implies a progression.

The paper concludes that the majority of Internet use, including doubtless my own, takes place in the middle of the continuum. On that basis the visitors and residents paradigm may well have relevance in contexts beyond that of digital literacy – for example those promoting purely task based website architectures might like to consider that such approaches may only fit the behaviour of a minority of visitors (rather than Visitors).

The social webinar: the delivery

The chat during the webinar, which I downloaded and scanned afterwards, was pretty lively and added a lot to my understanding of the core concepts.  I suspect the most vocal of the 55 attendees were already familiar with the research – there’s no way I could have followed both the presentation and the chat, not least because of the constraints imposed by a netbook screen.

the #vandr webinar experience

multi-tasking on a netbook can be a challenge

Is lively chat a sign of a successful webinar, or was the presentation in effect providing background for a chatroom? In the same way as a conventional seminar should not consist solely of a presentation a webinar should offer opportunities for interaction – the idea of the flipped webinar takes this a step further, proposing a social webinar model where a short formal presentation is followed by a longer collaborative section.

The post-webinar page offers slides, audio and a recording of the session, but no summing up of the chat or listing of blog posts (I’ve found three – from Dave White, Helen Beetham and Alan Cann). This is a similar approach to that which prevails for most amplified events, and similarly a participant has done some of the job instead – see @digitalfingerprint’s live notes.


The #vandr webinar took place in Blackboard Collaborate (was Elluminate). The first time I attended a webinar I was initially slightly bemused, but the average Visitor (or Resident) should be able to tune in without needing specific guidance. Having said that it’s useful to be aware of the following:

  • you may need to install new applications or update them, so test your setup prior to the start of the session
  • other potential barriers to entry include firewalls, broadband speed and incompatible operating systems
  • the session takes place in a desktop console typically made up of windows for participants, chat (maximise to be usable), audio (ie take mike), whiteboard (for slides etc), video (talking head)
  • if you want to participate actively you may well need two screens to accommodate all the windows

Marieke Guy has written useful reviews of using both Adobe Connect and BB Collaborate (plus its predecessor Elluminate). These are high cost products for institutional use, with features such as VoIP, webcams and screensharing, but lower end systems exist, such as the open source Big Blue Button, GoToWebinar, Panopto…

Turning to the organiser’s side of things, it’s helpful to keep participants updated with what’s going on and what resources will be available from the webinar – here’s an excellent example from JISC.  After the session, consider preparing a summary, drawing in the main themes from the chat and linking to any blog posts or other social media, in particular for those of little patience with video or who simply don’t have the time to relive the whole thing. And, although I don’t think I’ve come across it yet, in order to make your webinar accessible add a transcript or subtitles. It’s not over when you turn off the mic!

Other webinars I’ve attended:

  • webinar about webinars by Ole Bach Anderson (på dansk) – nicely done post summing up the main points plus a lot of background information. Recording  on Vimeo.
  • couple by Gerry McGovern – dispappointing; uses GoToWebinar with just slides and audio, no chat or other interaction. While a talking head doesn’t really offer that much, you do need something to engage with.