Common issues on ESL manuscripts
Below is a list of issues I found when editing a series of stories by an author who speaks English quite well, but for whom English is definitely a second language, and that is reflected in her writing. I have edited for ESL writers from many language backgrounds, and these are common issues. By the way–these are also amazingly common issues for writers who’ve spoken English all their lives, so if that’s you, why not check out the list below; you might find some good tips, too!
Self-edit before submitting the manuscript for editing
If you are an English second-language writer, you may want to keep an eye out for these issues in your writing and make an effort to self-edit them before hiring an editor. Many of these are relatively easy to correct and will make a big difference in the quality of your manuscript–as well as save you money on editing.
Ways to get help with your ESL writing issues
If you can’t figure out how to correct these kinds of issues, I recommend you get a good basic English grammar book/handbook and use the index or table of contents to find the appropriate sections. If an issue is still hard to understand, ask a friend with strong English skills to help, or take a basic course in English grammar for writers, or even hire an editor (or other English language teacher) to spend an hour or two explaining particular issues to you; then you can apply what you’ve learned to your manuscript. This is often a better approach than just submitting your manuscript for editing, and ending up paying a large sum to have simple errors pointed out over and over. An hour or two of targeted explanations can be of great assistance; then you can self-edit those issues on your manuscript before having a full edit done.
Another possibility is to find an editor who will do a one-hour sample edit of your first chapter; ask the editor to specifically look for and point out/explain common mistakes that you personally make repeatedly; then do one of the above activities to learn how to correct those issues.
Common ESL writing issues to watch for:
- inconsistent tenses. I advise ESL writers to try to write in a way in which they need only the basic tenses: past, present or future. Choose one tense to be the major one, and use the others only if really needed. Later on, as your English writing ability improves, you can start using less common tenses.
- repetition of words, information, and ideas. This is common when writers are unsure of their ability to express an idea in English, and so repeat it to make sure they are getting it across. Better to figure out how to express it clearly once!).
- problems with homonyms. So many words in English sound alike, but have different spellings and meanings. Some words even have the same spelling, but very different meanings. I recommend getting a good book on homonyms and keeping it handy as you write. Don’t depend on software programs to catch all these kinds of errors. Even English first-language writers make these errors frequently. This is such a common issue that I’ve made a couple homonym reference booklets you can download very inexpensively: Part 1 A-L and Part 2 M-Z.
- how you record a person’s thoughts (rather than what they say aloud). For thoughts, use italics. Reserve question marks for spoken dialogue. And don’t overdo “thoughts.” Find other ways to express them–perhaps have the character express his/her thoughts to another character, or demonstrate his/her thoughts through actions.
- family names like “Mom” and “Dad.” Capitalize (use uppercase letters) these kinds of words when using them as the person’s name (examples: I saw Mom coming down the road OR “Can you help me with this, Dad?”). But use lowercase when using them as a common noun (examples: I saw my mom coming down the road OR I wonder if my dad can help me with this?).
- sentence structure. As I am sure you are aware, sentences are structured differently in different languages. This is where you might want to ask a couple of friends with good English skills to beta-read your manuscript for you. In fact, I would advise ESL writers to start this process early–either with the first chapter or two of your book manuscript before you write the rest, or even start out by writing short stories. Sit down with your beta-readers and have them explain to you where you need to work on your sentence structure. Even if you have to pay them, it is well worth it, as this is one of the biggest problems for ESL writers. Interestingly, many writers for whom English is a second language may speak English quite fluently–but in writing, the patterns of the original language may turn up. This is true of wording within sentences, and even with sentence order in paragraphs. Another good idea is to join a local (or, if necessary, online) writers’ group–you’ll find most writers are happy to share advice!
- dialogue punctuation and paragraphing. Different languages use different symbols and rules for dialogue. In fact, even in different English countries, punctuation rules can vary. It is important to figure out where you hope to sell your manuscript, and then check out the most recent copy of a good handbook such as The Chicago Manual of Style (American and Canadian rules). In fact, every serious writer should have a copy of this kind of manual handy for reference. It is an important investment, whether English is your first language or second or third! If you can’t afford one right away, most public or university libraries have these manuals in their reference sections. If you are writing a particular kind of writing, such as journalistic writing, or articles in the social sciences, or academic writing, make sure you are using the style manual required by the institution or organization or company you are writing for.
- showing vs telling. This is actually a really common issue for many writers, no matter their experience with English. If you can “show” what is happening, rather than just “tell” about it, you will draw in your reader much more effectively, and will also increase the tension and flow of the story. So first of all, check your manuscript to see where you can effectively change a “tell” section to a “show” section–through plot activity, use of senses, strong dialogue, character actions, and so on. For ESL writers, there is a temptation to first “show”–but then to “tell” as well, in case the reader might not “get” the showing. Learn to use strong writing to “show,” and then you won’t need to feel anxious and add telling.
- verb usage. Wherever possible, use concise, direct, strong verbs instead of those “ing” endings (and then you won’t need all those extra adverbs either; use concise, direct nouns too!). Even in simple sentences, it makes a big difference to the flow and strength of your writing. (Example: I was driving quickly down the road. –> I speeded down the highway. [or: I sped…]). This will also help you with keeping your tenses simple, as discussed above.
- word usage that isn’t quite “right.” ESL writers often use words that are similar to the word they mean, but with a limited English vocabulary, it isn’t quite the word you mean. Make sure you have a good dictionary and a good thesaurus handy (or use a good online one) to choose a synonym from a list in the thesaurus and then check its meaning in the dictionary. Even if you think the word you’ve chosen is the one you want, but you’re feeling just a bit unsure, check the dictionary meaning. If possible, use a dictionary that gives sample sentences–or post a question on Quora if you’re still in doubt. I write answers on Quora, so if you have a specific question, and you can’t find the answer yourself from reference materials or from a friend, I can try to answer it for you–but it is a much better learning experience if you research it yourself first. This is also a case where a beta-reader can be very helpful in pointing out those “not quite right” words.
- confusion between articles: “a” or “an” or “the.” These are such basic words in English, but they can be very confusing for ESL writers–which one to use, or whether or not they need to be included in a sentence. A beta-reader can be very helpful in spotting these in your work. I also recommend that as you read well written English-language works, you watch out for how these words are used. In fact, in all the above points I’ve been making, if you are having the kind of issues I’ve discussed, this is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing: make a list of your “issues,” and then, as you read, watch very carefully to see how good English-language writers handle this issues. It’s even useful to “copy” examples of good writing, or to practice good writing by “modeling” a piece of writing: change the topic, but follow the original writing otherwise.
- varying sentence length. In my experience editing for ESL writers, I find they often do one of two extremes. They may write very short sentences, usually in an attempt to be very clear and accurate with their English. Or they may write long, rambling sentences–this often reflects an attempt to make themselves understood, in case the reader doesn’t understand their writing very well. It is a very good idea to take a course or study a workbook on sentence construction in English. Sometimes the best source is a workbook or textbook designed for elementary-aged school children that explains simple sentences, complex sentences and compound sentences and provides exercises to practice sentence writing. Actually, many of the issues being discussed here are well described and taught in simple children’s workbooks–much better than the complicated ones that are required for high school or college level courses. If English is difficult for you, these workbooks might be a big help, and once you’ve completed them, you’ll find the advanced handbooks much easier to use and understand. It is wise for a writer to use a variety of sentence lengths and styles, as doing so moves a story along better and makes it easier to understand. Reading well-written children’s and middle-grade novels is also a good idea, as they tend to use more simple language and sentence structure–yet do it very effectively. Oh–and save most of those short sentences for sections in which you want to build tension–this can be very effective.
- transition words and conjunctions. Be careful with those little words like “then, and, but, or, since, after, therefore, however.” They each have very specific uses, and it is confusing for readers when you use the wrong one. Using “and” in a sentence where “but” should be used, can change the whole meaning of the sentence! This is also true of prepositions (on, in, at, for, etc.). This can be really difficult for ESL writers. A good table of prepositions with examples of their uses can be found here. As with other uses, carefully study examples of good English when you are reading, keeping in mind that you need to learn to use these little words correctly.
- pronouns. In some languages, there are only male and female pronouns. English also has a neutral gender (as in “it”) which refers to almost anything that isn’t human. If we know the gender of an animal, we can use “he” or “she” but if in doubt, use “it.” Of course, “they” can be used for the plural of “it” as well as the plural of “he” and “she.” And then there are object pronouns and possessive pronouns and…. Confusing, right? Again, really pay attention when you are reading well-written English so you get the “feel” for pronoun use. Children’s workbooks can also be surprisingly helpful. And here are some good charts you can refer to.
Certainly there are other issues that English-second-language writers often struggle with–as do writers who’ve spoken and written English all their lives, believe it or not! I hope this list of tips has been helpful for you.
What other issues do you, as an English-second-language writer, struggle with? What tips would you like to share?
We’d love to have you share your tips and experiences in the comments–and I’ll try to give you some tips on dealing with other issues you may be having.