An American Editor

December 9, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining (ESL) clients, Part 3

Geoff Hart

In Part 1 of this discussion, I 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 insights into ethical issues you might encounter in working with ESL authors.

Ethical issues

Sometimes ethical issues arise because of different standards in different countries. These can pose dilemmas for editors. For example, the teaching of statistical analysis in China is of widely uneven quality, and many of the manuscripts I edit don’t meet the standard of proof expected by western journals. As a result, I spend a lot of time teaching my authors basic statistics so they can revise their analyses or do a better job in their future research.

In China, as in the west, graduate students often aren’t taught best practices for experimental design, so their first few studies are often poorly designed. Editing to improve a manuscript’s clarity can have the unfortunate side effect of revealing flaws in the design and statistical analysis more clearly. Rather than trying to hide these deficiencies, I often find myself suggesting justifications for problems with the research (e.g., clearly emphasizing that it is preliminary or constrained by budget considerations) or suggesting additional work or analysis the author can do to fill holes in their research.

A particularly common problem relates to what appears to be plagiarism. This arises most often because authors have been taught (incorrectly) that as long as they cite the source of a quotation, they can simply copy someone else’s words. This is increasingly causing problems for authors because publishers are increasingly using software to check for such plagiarism. You can often spot problem sentences because they require no editing, unlike the rest of the manuscript, or they use a distinctively different writing style. Copying the text into Google is one way to quickly reveal such copying, and you can then suggest a way to legitimately paraphrase the copied text. Because paraphrasing takes practice, I periodically remind my ESL authors that if they can’t figure out how to paraphrase, they can copy the original text and highlight it to tell me that it’s copied and that I should help them come up with a different wording.

Confidentiality of information is another issue to keep in mind. This is particularly important when personal information is involved (e.g., in medical research), but is also important when an author is working in a competitive field where industrial espionage or academic precedence is an issue. Being able to prevent information from being leaked is essential for patent applications, and in academia, being the first to publish specific research results is important for the author’s career.

If there’s a risk of harming a client’s interests because their information was seen by someone inappropriate, look for a secure way to transfer information. E-mail is not secure. Encrypted e-mail exists and is one option; for example, consider using the ProtonMail software ( Using confidential file transfer sites is another option, but it can be hard to send the password to your author in a way that prevents interception.

Note: It should be obvious that using a secure file transfer site, but then sending the site’s password in simple e-mail is a bad idea. Yet people do this so often that I’ve stopped counting the times. Find another way to transfer the password, such as by voicemail or a text message to the client’s cellphone, or sending two parts of the password separately from two e-mail accounts.

One issue that comes up sometimes is that mainland China (the People’s Republic) considers Taiwan to be a province of China; the Taiwanese disagree. On the one hand, changing this so Taiwan is described as an independent nation can cause problems for the author if they’re a government employee and their employer notices this. On the other hand, pretending that Taiwan is a Chinese province can create a hostile review from a Taiwanese peer reviewer. There’s no really good solution to this problem, other than to raise the issue and let the author decide how they feel most comfortable dealing with it. They usually know how to handle the problem better than we do.

Note: Antivirus and anti-malware software is not optional, even if you use a Mac for your work. The ethical cost of passing along a virus or other malware to a client is too high to be cavalier about this problem. I use Bitdefender ( because it’s been consistently reliable and shown to be effective in rigorous testing. Many other options exist (

Getting paid

In my experience, my ESL authors are eager to do the right thing and pay me for my work. However, they may face many constraints on transmitting a payment. For example, Chinese university accounts payable departments often close during the summer, so invoices submitted from June through August may not get paid before September. Italian universities are infamously slow at payments, and can take months — despite sometimes heroic efforts by an author to prod the bureaucracy into motion.

Rather than getting angry about this, I’ve learned to accept that authors sometimes have little or no say in when I get paid. Thus, I recommend that you be flexible but firm about payments. For routinely tardy clients, automatically add your standard late fee into your invoice. Sending a second invoice with this fee added to the total may get you the additional money you’ve requested; more often, it only further delays your payment because the invoice re-enters the payment process at the beginning rather than holding its place in line.

Particularly for the benefit of new authors who haven’t yet learned how western editors do business, create a “standard terms” document that describes the nature of your work. I’ve provided examples of this document that you can download from my website ( Feel free to modify these documents to meet your own needs.

The goal of such a document is to ensure that the author understands their responsibilities and yours, not to provide a legal bludgeon to wield against recalcitrant authors. Ask each new client to read this document and confirm that they have done so and understand all of the terms, and offer to discuss and explain anything that isn’t clear. For example, specify that you own the work you’ve done until you’ve been paid. You can send a copy of the edited manuscript to a journal editor or publisher and tell them that they cannot legally publish your work until the author pays (I’ve done this successfully a couple times), but this creates bad blood. Ensuring that the author understands their relationship with you avoids a great many potential misunderstandings.

To the extent that this is possible, ask authors to pay you in your own currency. This is because converting money between currencies incurs conversion fees that the bank will subtract from your payment. These deductions can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually, so you should eliminate them wherever possible and mitigate them where you can’t avoid them. If you’re not American, some authors will find it difficult to pay you in your native currency; in that case, it may end up being cheaper and faster if you accept payment in U.S. dollars. In addition, each payment method incurs different fees, and you need to know what those fees are so you can add them to your invoices. (Just like charging sales tax in jurisdictions where this is required, authors — not editors — should pay these fees. However, services such as PayPal specifically prohibit charging their fees to the client.) However, if you use a payment service’s invoicing features, carefully check the terms of service instead of just e-mailing a PDF to your client. For example, PayPal prohibits charging its service fees to your clients.

Many payment options are available, and they’re changing rapidly. As a result, any list I provide will be out of date by the time you read this article. For that reason, I haven’t provided the fees charged by each service. Research these fees in advance so you can set up an account with each of these services (usually free or inexpensive) and offer them to your authors as a payment method. You’ll also need to talk to your bank to learn whether they charge any fees. That being said, here are several methods that I’ve used successfully for several years.

•       SWIFT: the standard method for transferring money internationally, directly between two bank accounts. This currently costs a fixed fee, and for large invoices (more than about US$800), it may be the least-expensive payment method. For smaller invoices, these other methods are typically less expensive.

•       PayPal ( the standard method of exchanging money in the west, and increasingly available in China, too.

•       Western Union ( this service has the advantage of operating in most countries around the world and its offices are usually easy to find; if you have a bank ATM card that’s compatible with their system, you can often get your payment transferred directly into your account. Walmart’s Western Union office can usually do this; the Western Union outlet at your local grocery store probably can’t.

•       Moneygram ( This is a significant competitor for Western Union that often has an outlet at the client’s local post office and at your post office.

•       In Canada, Interac e-transfers ( between bank accounts are free for many banks and inexpensive for others. However, that’s only an option within Canada.

•       Credit cards: PayPal currently offers the easiest and least-expensive way to receive payments from a client’s credit card. There’s no ongoing fee, unlike with most credit card processors, and the fee per transaction is reasonable.

•       AliPay or WeChat: These two services are China’s equivalent to Amazon and Facebook (or Twitter), respectively. They have highly refined systems for payment using a smartphone, and their fees are quite low. When your account is established, they’ll send you a QR code that you can send to clients along with your invoice. When the client scans it, they can transfer payment directly into your bank account. If you’re not working in China, you may need to sign up with a third party. In Canada, I use SnapPay (; in the U.S., you may need to create an account for the international versions of those services: for AliPay, <; and for WeChat, download the correct app for your smartphone’s operating system.

•       Transferwise ( This option deposits money directly into your bank account once you’ve registered your bank account with them.

•       Arrange payment via a client’s friends, family, or colleagues who live in your country — some of my Chinese clients ask their colleagues in the U.S. to send me the payment. They then repay their colleague using the Chinese banking system.

I offer all of these alternatives to my clients because my goal is to make payment as easy as possible. They greatly appreciate the flexibility of being able to choose the least-expensive method for a given invoice or the most-convenient option based on their location or available technology.

How to retain (ESL) clients

My experience has been that if your only relationship with a client centers on how they will pay you, the relationship is weak, and there are enough editors who do comparable work that you’re going to be relatively easy to replace. That’s why I prefer to frame my relationship with authors as one in which my primary goal is to help them publish their work, and I’ll go out of my way to help them with that goal.

I don’t pretend in any way that my work isn’t valuable or that it’s not important to pay me for that work. As a freelancer, I occasionally have to remind authors that I don’t earn a salary, since many assume that I’m a university professor or work at a research institute; to correct that false assumption, I occasionally have to remind an author that my only income comes from my freelance editing work. But that’s never the priority in my relationship with them.

Remember that any commitment you make (e.g., to finish work by a certain date) is a promise, and you must honor your promises if you want authors to trust you. You can’t avoid being struck by lightning, but you can build a network of colleagues who can replace you if “life happens” (e.g., an illness, a death in the family). This became particularly clear to me when I received a positive COVID-19 test result in late 2020 (which turned out to be a false positive). Since there was suddenly a real risk I would become seriously ill with little warning, I immediately contacted the colleagues who’d agreed to take referrals from me to warn them they might receive inquiries from my regular clients. I then sent their contact information to my clients, with the warning that “if you write to me and don’t receive a reply within 1 day, here’s why and here’s what to do about it.” This took me perhaps half an hour, greatly eased my conscience, and reassured everyone that I had their best interests in mind.

Another good way to build trust and loyalty is to underpromise and overdeliver. For example, if a manuscript must be returned to the author by a certain date, try to plan your schedule so you can finish your work a few days earlier. That way, if anything happens to you before that earlier date, you have a chance to ask a colleague to take over and finish it by the actual due date. If you finish early, the author gains extra time to review your work. If you “only” finish on the proposed date, then at least you’re still on time.

I always try to go the extra mile for my clients. I occasionally deal with publishers on their behalf when an author runs into trouble they can’t resolve, whether from lack of experience or simple language difficulties. I encourage my authors to include my name and contact information in their letters to publishers so I can speak directly to the publisher to clarify any misunderstandings. A couple times, an author has sent their original manuscript to a publisher instead of the edited manuscript, and incorrectly claimed that I edited it; when the publisher contacted me to ask whether the author was lying, I explained what probably happened and resolved the problem. I also maintain easily accessible backups of the manuscripts I’ve edited in perpetuity. Every year or two, an author needs to retrieve a copy of some ancient manuscript, and is very pleased when I’m able to provide it.

If, like me, your goal is to build a relationship with your authors, remember that successful relationships are all about communication. One of the promises I’ve made to my authors is that our relationship is between equals: we are both experts in our respective fields, and must respect each other’s expertise. As a result, I emphasize that we work by consensus, not by editorial “diktat.”

Where possible and appropriate, I communicate about more than just work. For example, I keep track of major national holidays, such as China’s national holiday in the first week of October, as well as the Chinese new year in the spring. If I’m going to do something special, like going for a dim sum breakfast, I’ll mention that and send along my hope that they will also have time to celebrate by dining with friends. Where appropriate, I try to learn a bit about them as people. For example, one of my clients is a classically trained violinist, and has sent me samples of his music. Another enjoys teaching me occasional phrases in his language, but particularly enjoys the opportunity to “edit the editor” when I try to use what I’ve learned.

Although cultures do tend to have certain overall characteristics, be careful about making assumptions about behavior based on those characteristics. People differ within a culture, and there are no “universal” approaches that work for everyone within a culture. For example, I know that Europeans are as crazy about soccer (“football”) as Americans are about baseball and Canadians are about hockey, so when Spain won the FIFA World Cup in 2010, I wrote to all my Spanish authors to congratulate them. One wrote back (rather sheepishly) to note that he actually didn’t care much for the sport and had no idea that his team had won.

Being culturally sensitive is important, particularly if you’re an English westerner. Most non-westerners have learned to deal with western conventions, and expect a certain amount of cultural ignorance from us. I try to learn enough about their culture to surprise them. Most greatly appreciate my efforts to understand and accommodate their culture rather than insisting they adapt to my culture.

Exerting this extra effort has resulted in strong relationships with most of my authors, and stronger loyalty. It also makes the work far more rewarding because I have a personal connection with these people that enriches me far beyond the money I earn. I’ve been invited to stay in one client’s home when I visited their country — in a country where this is rarely done — and another asked me to spend a few days teaching his graduate students how to write better. These opportunities are priceless.


Much though I enjoy my work, there are occasional frustrations I need to deal with. One of the biggest is authors who don’t learn from my editing and keep making the same mistakes again and again. Sometimes this is just the nature of the game: not everyone is a born writer, and the vast majority of the scientists I’ve worked with would rather do research than write. This can also be “attitude”: A couple of my authors have made it clear that they don’t believe they should need to learn how to write better; “That’s why I pay you.” Fair enough.

Payment delays can be frustrating, particularly if you’re living on a low income. Once you develop a large-enough clientele that you have invoices going out steadily, you’ll start receiving a steady inflow of payments. The degree of “steady” varies over time, but if you pay attention, you’ll start to notice slow periods and you can budget accordingly (i.e., save some extra money during busy periods to tide you over during slow periods). For example, many of my authors are hard at work doing field research during the summer, when the weather is more suitable and their students are on holiday. This means that I have a three-month slow period every year when they’re not writing and I’m editing less often.

Scheduling is an issue, particularly once you have a large clientele. Many authors simply refuse to learn to reserve my time in advance, and write (disingenuously or otherwise) to request that I drop everything and edit their manuscript immediately. I’ve learned to be tough about this. I remind authors at least twice per year that they have to contact me three weeks before they need me to start work so I can reserve time for a manuscript; that’s just how busy I am during most of the year. The ones who refuse to learn that lesson have alternatives; they can check whether one of my colleagues might be available on short notice, or they can (surprisingly often) ask their publisher for an extension.

Of course, writing doesn’t always go according to plan, so I always contact authors a week before their reservation to confirm whether it’s still valid, or whether they’ll need more time. This gives me much more flexibility in managing my schedule, and the authors also appreciate my reminders.

Since working with ESL authors means, by definition, working in different languages, miscommunication is a constant risk. Most often, this results in incomprehension rather than hurt feelings, but I always keep in mind the need to be exceptionally careful in how I communicate. I review all my e-mail communication at least once (twice for tricky diplomatic situations) to ensure that I’ve made my assumptions explicit, and haven’t misspoken. I hunt down typos, since nothing undermines trust in an editor quite like an e-mail full of preventable errors. Wherever possible, I practice redundant communication — if I don’t understand what an author wrote, I will use a comment such as: “If you mean [meaning 1], change this to [revision 1]; if you mean [meaning 2], change this to [revision 2]. If neither meaning is correct, please send me an explanation and I will help you choose clearer wording.”

The last part of that comment is a subliminal reminder that my goal is to work together with the author, as partners, and that I’m not going to leave them helpless if there’s any way I can prevent that from happening.

A rewarding career option

Despite the occasional frustrations, I wouldn’t trade my work for any other job. For some clients, our relationship is nothing more than business, but it’s as amicable as possible and thus efficient, pleasant, and mostly free of frustrations. For others, it’s more of a personal relationship, which I find more satisfying. Keep that in mind whether, like me, you choose to specialize in working with ESL authors or just add a few of them to your clientele to make your work more interesting and diverse, not to mention more lucrative.

Even if editing is your primary work, think outside that box to find ways to expand your relationship. If you can edit, maybe you can write, too? Currently, in response to a Japanese client’s request, I’m writing a twice-monthly series of articles about writing for peer-reviewed science journals. It’s a nice change from editing, and just as satisfying, since I know I’m making life easier for many authors who never learned the things I’m teaching.


(These references apply to all three sections of this discussion.)

Hart, G. 2003. Technical communication in China: a personal perspective. <>

Hart, G. 2006. Finding work in tough times. Intercom December 2006:8–11. <>

Hart, G. 2007. Successful cross-cultural communication requires us to test our assumptions. The Write Stuff, newsletter of the European Medical Writers Association 16(3):111–113. <>

Hart, G. 2013. Working with authors who speak English as a second language. Copyediting August/September 2013: 3–5. <>

Hart, G. 2014. Writing for Science Journals: Tips, Tricks, and a Learning Plan. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. <>

Hart, G. 2019. Effective Onscreen Editing: New Tools for an Old Profession. 4th ed. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. <>


Notes from lectures I presented at the Beijing Forestry University, October 2010:

•       Writing an English journal paper: <>

•       Working with research journals: <>

•       Common problems of the English language: <>

My standard contract terms:

•       For westerners: <>

•       For Chinese 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, and 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.

December 2, 2020

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

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:24 am
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

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