An American Editor

December 2, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining (ESL) clients, Part 2

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:24 am
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Geoff Hart, Contributing Writer

For Part 1 of this discussion, go to:

Cultural considerations

Different cultures have different approaches to communication, and many misunderstandings can be avoided if you learn about and account for these differences. For example, some cultures are more relationship-centered (e.g., Chinese, Spanish) than English-based cultures, whereas others are more “businesslike” (e.g., German). In China, authors often want to get to know you before they’ll trust you enough to discuss business. The first time a Chinese author brought me to China to meet him and his colleagues, my stay in Beijing began with a dinner where we all talked about simple personal and social things. There was no discussion about our plans for the visit before the end of the dinner, when it was necessary to discuss the following day’s activities. In contrast, business meetings with most North Americans begin with a cursory exchange of informalities, then dive right into the business at hand. ESL authors tend to be familiar with western customs, and expect you to behave like a barbarian who’s ignorant of their culture. I take great pleasure in pleasantly surprising them.

Note: Avoid falling into the trap of stereotyping. People from any culture are individuals, and behave individually. You’ll need to follow your author’s cues, whether explicit or implicit, to know how to proceed. When in doubt, ask!

In high-context cultures, such as China, much is left unsaid and must be inferred. For example, when you receive a compliment in North America, it’s assumed that you will thank the person for their compliment; saying nothing suggests that you feel the compliment was deserved, and can suggest arrogance. In China, the opposite may be true. Accepting a compliment by thanking the giver can convey arrogance by suggesting you feel you’re worthy of the compliment. Ignoring or downplaying the compliment expresses humility by not drawing attention to yourself.

Better still, try diverting the compliment. At the end of one stay in China, my host complimented me for being “very Chinese,” since I’d made considerable effort to learn and practice correct social etiquette — a worthwhile investment. I thanked him before I could stifle the reflex, but quickly added: “I think it would be more correct to say that I am more Chinese now than when I arrived in China; there is still so much to learn.” His smile told me I’d handled my mistake well.

Definitely learn about your author’s cultural etiquette, particularly if you will be meeting them in person. For example, Japanese bow to each other in formal situations, with the depth of the bow proportional to the importance of the other person. Chinese do not bow. In China, business card exchanges are an important greeting, since the cards are your way to ensure you heard the person’s name correctly. Rather than tucking the card into your pocket, like we do in the west, receive it with both hands, read it carefully, pronounce the person’s name (and position, such as “Director Wang”), then lay the card on the table before you if you are sitting or continue holding it in your hand if standing. Similarly, when you offer your business card, hold it in both hands, with the text facing the recipient so they can read it without having to rotate the card.

Learn your author’s cultural assumptions. For example, the Chinese concept of guanxi is extremely important. Although the word is often translated as “networking,” that misses crucial nuances: an assumption of mutual aid and a careful accounting for favors given or received. In a western network, it’s assumed that you’ll simply refuse an unreasonable or inconvenient request from a colleague, but when you become part of an author’s guanxiwang (guanxi network), you are expected to go far beyond the call of duty to help them and any member of their guanxiwang if they ask you for help.

This can be problematic for eager young authors who seem to work 24/7 and expect us to do the same. It also leads to problems when an author who trusts your work wants you to work with their colleagues, too, which is common practice in China. That’s great when you’re starting out and need more clients, but can rapidly become impossible to manage because your number of clients grows exponentially as each new client introduces you to everyone in their guanxiwang. I solved this problem by explaining that although I understood the importance of guanxi, I could no longer accept new work due to a lack of time. Instead, to honor our guanxi, I told them I was happy to introduce them to other editors in my own guanxiwang.

If you’re interested in forming more than a business relationship with your clients, learn about their important holidays. For example, most people are familiar with the Chinese new year, which occurs in February. It’s an important time for getting together with family and friends to celebrate. Far fewer westerners are familiar with the Chinese national holiday in the first week of October, which is the busiest travel time of the year, since the length of the holiday lets far-flung families come together from all corners of China to celebrate. Most authors appreciate it when you send greetings, particularly if those greetings show an understanding of their culture. For example, when I send Chinese new year greetings, I always research which animal is featured in a given year, and seek ways to relate the characteristics of that animal to the work we do together.

It’s also fun to contact your authors on your own national or cultural holidays. For example, I send western new year’s greetings to my clients, thank them for our work together, and tell them how much I look forward to working with them again in the new year. However, although you’d think this should go without saying, don’t assume you know their religion and particularly don’t assume that they’re Christian. (No, really! I’ve seen many people make this mistake.) If you’re Christian and want to wish a ESL author a merry Christmas, do so by explaining what it means to you and why it feels so important. Emphasizing family occasions is a good way to build connections; emphasizing Christian theology is not.

On the more-amusing side, don’t jump to conclusions when an author with an unusual name contacts you. I’ve long since lost the original e-mail and couldn’t retrieve the correct name, but I was once contacted by someone whose name resembled “I.M. Beçilić” — which I misread as “imbecilic,” and thus assumed it was probably a scam. Just when I was about to delete their message without responding, instinct suggested that I Google them — and I quickly discovered they were a real person. We ended up not working together, but I introduced them to a colleague. Similarly, a colleague once received a request to work with a “Nigerian banker” — who proved to be a real Nigerian banker in need of editing assistance for their book.

Rhetorical issues

Different cultures often adopt different rhetorical styles, and you’ll begin to recognize these differences as you gain experience. For example, Chinese authors often describe the literature of a field in their literature review in what western authors would consider to be reverse chronological order. The rhetorical difference arises because western writers proceed forward from oldest to most-recent to show how the research has evolved, whereas Chinese authors consider the recent research to be more important, and believe that it’s implicitly clear that the new work evolved from the older work. Thus, they present the newer work first. Their approach isn’t wrong, but it is unusual in English, so I usually suggest that my authors use English chronological order.

Sometimes you’ll discover interesting historical artefacts in an author’s writing. For example, older Chinese authors may not have learned how to use western data presentation devices such as tables and graphs. My Chinese friends tell me that this is because Mao discouraged the use of such forms of information. As a result, older writers often explain a concept using only words and numbers, when a figure or table would be more efficient. Because I do primarily substantive and developmental editing, I look for opportunities to present information more efficiently using graphs or tables, teach my authors how to use graphs and tables, and improve the quality of any graphs or tables they used ineffectively.

Editing tips

Because ESL authors are generally less-skilled with English than native speakers, editing is likely to create more changes in a manuscript than with native English authors. This turns reviewing your edits into a challenge. It also means you should take more care about how you edit a manuscript to make it easier for an author to review your changes and reduce the risk of errors when they review your changes. (The greater the number of small errors they must accept or reject, the greater the number of errors they’ll make. This is also true for native English speakers.)

Here are some suggestions how to make your edits easier to review:

•       Replace entire phrases or even whole sentences; never ask an author to decipher complex puzzles created from many small changes.

•       Polish your comments, explanations, and questions until they shine with lucidity.

•       Don’t just report problems; provide solutions they can emulate. If your proposed change is perfect, they can copy it and paste it into the manuscript. If it’s imperfect, they can still copy and modify it. (Because many authors are not experts at using their word processors, it’s helpful to remind them they can copy and paste text from your comments.)

•       When you need to describe a problem, use the most-precise words, even if they seem complex. Authors who write in a second language will own a bilingual dictionary, and the more precise your wording, the easier it will be for them to find the correct meaning. That being said, use the tips in Part 1 of this article to illustrate a problem if you can, instead of relying on editorial jargon.

•       Don’t track changes they must accept (e.g., a publisher’s format requirements) — but do add a comment to describe what you’ve done so they never begin to suspect that you’re changing things behind their back. This can lead to a loss of trust, particularly early in a relationship.

•       Teach them how to review your edits effectively (both quickly and accurately). For example, refer them to my primers on revision tracking ( Feel free to download these primers and modify them to meet your needs.

These tricks not only make it faster and easier for the author to review your work; they also mean there will be fewer errors for you to correct when you review the revised manuscript again.

It’s also worth noting that every language has its quirks, and authors who have learned those quirks for their native language often carry those quirks into how they use their new language. For example, with Chinese authors:

•       Definite and indefinite articles are rarely used in Chinese, so they’re often misused when authors write in English. (I’ve provided a concise tutorial on this subject [GH1] on my website. See the “Downloads” section at the end of this article for details.)

•       Pronouns are rarely used in Chinese, including possessives such as “their.” This leads to much repetition of the full words where a native writer would simply use a pronoun.

•       Similarly, possessives are poorly understood. For example, you’ll often see “of China” instead of “China’s.” The problem is exacerbated for combining possessives with long institutional names. You’ll often see “the X of the [10-word institute name] instead of “the institute’s X.”

•       Chinese authors tend to cite literature, figures, and tables late in the paragraph, after they’ve finished describing these things, instead of citing them early to provide context for the information that follows. Authors for whom English is their native language often start a paragraph with words such as “Table 1 summarizes …,” followed by a paragraph describing that summary. In a Chinese manuscript, you’ll often find the table cited only at the end of the last sentence of the paragraph.

•       Bilingual dictionaries that help them translate from Chinese to English can contain errors. For example, many Chinese authors use few, rare, or scarce when they really mean none.

As I noted earlier, authors who are writing in their second language are usually better in the language of their subject than they are in conversation. As a result, they often use phrases that don’t quite mean what you think they mean. Sometimes, those phrases even seem potentially offensive. Before you respond emotionally, assume that the author has good intentions, and ask yourself what they think they’re saying. For example, my authors often wish me “good luck.” In English, this sometimes means “you’ll need all the luck you can get with this one,” but more often, a Chinese author really means “I wish you good fortune,” which is a standard and warm closing phrase in Chinese. Another example is “I will pay for this when [condition is met].” This is rarely an attempt to escape payment by suggesting they’ll pay only when they’re satisfied with your work; more often, it’s a simple reassurance that they really do intend to pay.

Phonetic spelling errors are a particularly common problem. These often result from false cognates (faux amis in French; falsi amici in Italian, jiǎ tóng yuán cí in Chinese) or simple near-misses. My Japanese authors often write glass when they mean grass, for instance, but Chinese authors rarely have this problem; Japanese doesn’t use L, and because of how Japanese is pronounced, authors often substitute R for L. In contrast, my Chinese authors often write conversation when they mean conservation.

Authors who natively use a non-Roman script often spell names incorrectly (both theirs and those of their colleagues); thus, don’t assume any names in a manuscript have been correctly spelled. The problem also goes the other way. When I write to my authors in pinyin (a standardized romanization of Chinese characters), I have to be very careful about the tones if the  context of the message is at all unclear.

For authors who use a symbol-based language, problems often result from confusing two English letters that have similar shapes. Understanding these visual errors often helps me decipher problem words that seem to make no sense in context. Examples of shape confusion include:

•       Letters with strongly similar shapes: c / e, r n / m, K / X, k / x, f i / h, lower-case L / 1, u / ii

•       Letters that are similar, but with a single missing stroke: r / n, h / n

•       Letters that have been rotated or flipped or both: Z / N, p / b, p / d, p / q

As experts in English, we tend to correct these errors subconsciously as we read. Thus, while we’re editing, we need to find ways to not overlook these problems. Some will be caught by your spellchecker, but many won’t be because the letter replacement still leaves a valid word. You can use tricks like creating an exclusion dictionary in Word, or recording search-and-replace macros that highlight specific words you have trouble with. In the end, though, you just have to be alert to these kinds of problems and force yourself to slow down and pay attention.

For authors who repeatedly make the same error and don’t seem able to memorize the correct form, it can be fatiguing making the same correction over and over again. One solution is to master search-and-replace so you can make these corrections globally. Another is to use a tool such as PerfectIt (

Note: With ESL authors, it’s particularly important to never do a global search-and-replace if you won’t have time to review the entire manuscript. Errors are easy to make, and can undermine the author’s confidence in you. The same caution applies to native English authors, of course.

In the final part of this discussion, I’ll discuss ethical issues, how to get paid, and how to retain (ESL) clients, as well as some of the frustrations and rewards of working with these authors.”

Geoff Hart (he/him) ( works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.

1 Comment »

  1. […] discussed how to find and work with authors who have English as a second language (ESL authors). In Part 2, I discussed cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips. Now for some […]


    Pingback by Finding, working with, and retaining (ESL) clients, Part 3 | An American Editor — December 9, 2020 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

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