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Editing Documents Written by People Speaking English as a Second Language

Alan Kelly

I work in a department responsible for on-the-job training and have experienced the challenges of working with people for whom English is a second language. I see that sometimes they become frustrated, for lack of a better term, when writing. What they have in their minds is not always reflected in the written document. My colleagues are extremely knowledgeable - they just have a language barrier. This is where I come in.

Overcoming Barriers Through Conversation

My colleagues create on-the-job training workbooks that new manufacturing operators
use. Within the workbooks are learning objectives that each operator must know. These objectives ensure that the information an operator needs to efficiently operate a piece of machinery are communicated.

In a manufacturing-type setting, an operator must be able to get information quickly and easily. Therefore, in creating the workbooks, my colleagues must include only the essentials. And because the workbooks are written for novice users, the workbooks must be clear, easy-to-follow and simply written.

I've found that my colleagues take a bit longer to create workbooks than would someone with English as his or her mother tongue. As the editor of these workbooks, I review the final drafts to ensure that the information is grammatically correct, clear and logically correct.

There are times when I have to take the information
and reorganize it so that it is clear. I have also had to repeatedly read workbooks to understand exactly what my colleagues were trying to say.

To overcome this time-consuming process, I find that simple one-on-one interaction with my colleagues facilitates communication. By talking with them about the workbooks' topics, I can better understand what they mean to say and can then modify the text accordingly. My colleagues appreciate my assistance, and I realize that communication is the key.

Tips for Working With Writers

It is our job as technical editors to overcome obstacles when they arise - and there are often numerous obstacles. While some technical editors get frustrated at "decoding" something that is disorganized and unclear, you can minimize your frustration by spending some time with the writer and seeking clarification. I try to follow these basic rules when working with writers with English as a second language, but you can also apply them when working with any writer.

Maintain a relationship with the writer of the documentation. (It saves a lot of time and prevents headaches).

Remember that just because someone cannot speak or write in English as well as you does not mean they are less intelligent than you are. Edit the document, checking for grammar and clarity and writing comments. Then approach the writer to discuss your comments.
  • Be polite with your queries (do not talk down to the writer).
  • Provide assistance when needed. (Again, this can save a lot of time.)
  • Be kind - a helping hand goes a long way (you may need a favor sometime).
Writers will appreciate the time you take to sit down with them to discuss their works - your assistance does serve an important purpose.

In summary, if you do your job in a helpful and intelligent manner, you will thank yourself - and probably be thanked by others - in the end. The time saving benefits; decreased frustration; and an error-free, clear and effective publication will be your rewards.

Page last modified on Friday, December 01, 2000 07:00:00pm EST
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