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Top 5 Tips for ESL Proofreading

As a proofreader, you are almost certain to encounter clients who do not speak English as a first language. This may seem daunting, but never fear! In this post, we have five top tips for working with ESL (English as a second language) clients and documents.

1. Be Clear and Patient in Your Communication

The most important thing about working with an ESL client is clear communication. You need to be sure that both of you are on the same page regarding the job, including what needs doing and what services you, as a proofreader or editor, are willing to provide.

To start with, stick to the most important points, which are the same for any client:

  • What they want you to do
  • Whether you can deliver what they want
  • How quickly you can do it
  • How much it will cost

If you are struggling to establish these details via email, try contacting the client via phone or Skype. It may be that they are more comfortable speaking English than writing it. And if you find it hard to understand each other, keep things brief and clear.

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to treat clients as if not speaking English like a native is a sign of their being stupid. Ask yourself – could you create a complex document in a second language that you do not know that well without making any mistakes?

2. Consider Your Rates

As ESL documents can be significantly harder to proofread than native ones, many proofreaders will offer ESL proofreading at a slightly higher rate. This is not obligatory, of course, but it can be helpful. Either way, you should make sure that your rates are made clear from the outset, and that the client knows what they are paying for.

3. Know What to Expect

There are several errors you may see in ESL documents more than others. Look out for:

  • Article misuse: ESL clients will often add articles where they should be none (e.g. I like listening to the music) or leave them out (e.g. Queen is [the] best band).
  • Irregular words treated as regular: Some words (especially in English, which is notoriously hard to learn) simply don’t play by the rules. Therefore, ESL clients may not always know to write well instead of goodly or went instead of goed, for example. These are particularly simplistic examples, but it’s worth looking out for similar errors.
  • Order of adjectives: In English, we know that it’s a big bad wolf (rather than a bad big wolf) and a little green bag (rather than a green little bag) intuitively. This is not always clear to ESL clients, so keep an eye out for bad big wolves and other such errors.
  • Incorrect preposition choice: As with articles, ESL clients may have trouble picking the right preposition for a sentence. For instance, since both ‘at’ and ‘on’ can be used with times (e.g. ‘at 9pm’ or ‘on Thursday’), they are easy to mix up if you are less confident with English than a native speaker might be. As such, you could see formulations such as ‘on 9pm’ or ‘at Thursday’, which will need to be corrected during proofreading.

4. Leave Simple, Easy-to-Follow Advice in Comments

Just as when establishing the work required with an ESL client, your comments should be clear and concise. Do not use technical jargon; keep things simple instead.

For instance, you could highlight an informal phrase like ‘not bad’ in an essay by saying:

Instances of litotes such as this may not be consistent with the tone of your document.

But even most native speakers won’t know what ‘litotes’ means. And there’s little point in leaving comments if the client can’t understand you or follow the advice you give. As such, it would be more helpful to say something along the following lines:

The phrase ‘not bad’ is fine in informal English, but probably not an essay.

Much clearer! If you can also suggest an alternative that fits the context, even better.

5. Remember the Peril of Plagiarism

Proofreading for ESL clients may require more rewording than for native clients. If you are working on an academic document, this could leave you and your client open to accusations of plagiarism. Remember, though, that proofreading is not a rewriting service.

Any edits you make to an ESL document should preserve the meaning of the original text. This means focusing on how ideas are expressed. And if you ever find yourself adding extra information or correcting factual details in an essay, you’ve gone too far!

If an ESL client’s work truly needs so much work you cannot edit it without making substantial changes, you could gently suggest that the client redrafts before you can proofread it. Otherwise, though, you may need to explain the issue and decline the job.