Native English Only

One of the things that I’ve learned as an editor is that every time I think I’ve got the knack for selecting good contracts and projects, I learn something new. New lessons tend to be expensive lessons. I now have a series of questions that I ask all of my clients during the interview process. My least favorite of these questions is “Are you a Native English speaker?”

I’ve seen plenty of  job postings that read “Native English Only,” and that makes perfect sense. If you’re writing for an English speaking audience, you want the work to be flawless. But as a contractor, asking this question of clients is very uncomfortable.

I hate the question. I hate feeling like I’m being judgmental. I feel somehow dirty when I ask that question, and it sometimes makes me feel like I’m inadvertently acting racist. That is not my intention, but getting it out of the way is important.

Last fall, I took on an editing job for a fantastic book. The project was great. I grew to love the writer and I lived vicariously through her adventures (it was a travel memoir). We got along well, and she was thrilled with my work. When the project was completed, she raved about me in her acknowledgments and then asked me if she could pass along my contact to her “writers club.” I of course agreed, always looking for good leads on possible jobs.

A few weeks after that, I was contacted via email by someone from the writers club looking for help editing a book. I was sent a sample chapter, we discussed payment terms and deadlines; we spent nearly two weeks ironing out the arrangement. The sample chapter had been short but engaging, and looked like it was in pretty good shape. The word count was reasonable, and it looked like it was going to be a straightforward job.

Then I got the full manuscript. It was a mess. She had already had that first chapter edited before it was sent to me, but not the rest of the book. By mid-way through the 3rd chapter, I and sent her an email asking, “Is English your first language?”

Her reply made my heart sink; it was not. She had grown up and spent more than half her life in Europe, and only learned to speak English when she retired and began traveling.

Why on earth would you write a book in a language you didn’t speak fluently?

Well, she was much more confident in her own ability to speak English than she should have been. Over the next few days, I alternated between trying to edit the manuscript and sending her emails asking her to try and clarify what she meant. I learned that when we were ironing out the contract, she’d also had someone helping her write her emails, which hid the fact that her English was really lacking. By the end of the week, I figured I had already done enough work to earn the agreed upon price, and we were barely half-way through the first edit.

When I finally managed to complete the first edit, she decided to take the book in an entirely different direction. She told me she was re-writing the book from a different perspective. She began re-sending me chapters, and I had to go back through it all again. I tried explaining to her tactfully that this was outside the scope of our agreement, but she didn’t understand. She became very frustrated and accused me of trying to rip her off. I spent the better part of the weekend in tears trying to figure it out. I needed the money from the contract desperately, but the more it dragged on, the less money I was making.

She resisted my developmental suggestions and didn’t understand some of my critiques, no matter how hard I tried to explain them. She wrote things I was certain would alienate some of her readers, but refused to allow me to change them, because she was certain of the message she wanted to get across. While I had managed to correct the language issues and improve the word flow, the book was weak. It was full of inconsistencies, ran off on tangents, and had no clear purpose, other than for her to vent some frustrations about a person she didn’t like. I tried to tell her that it made her look like she was being petty, and she told me I had it all wrong. That I had not understood what she was saying, that the other person was in the wrong. I gave up trying to help her make the book better, and just focused on improving the language.

After many revisions and weeks of frustration on my part, and hers I’m sure, the job was done. She paid me. I didn’t even think of asking her to leave me any feedback or reviews, as I was certain it would not be good. As I began applying for new writing jobs again, that uncomfortable question began creeping into almost all of my interviews.

In many cases, the very reason a writer is looking for an editor was because English is not their first language. I have no problem with that. I have mad respect for anyone who can write anything in a language they didn’t grow up with; I certainly couldn’t do it. I’m more than willing to help someone try to improve their writing, and if a non-native speaker is asking for help improving their sentence structure and syntax, I don’t shy away from those jobs. In fact, many of my best clients are academics that are foreigners studying at US universities, and just need everything looked over for English grammar and flow before they submit it.

But this was something different. I felt like I had been cheated by this woman. I felt like she had deliberately set me up by sending me an already edited sample, and by having her son write her initial emails, hiding the fact that her writing was atrocious. I was supposed to be helping proofread and review a short novel, only to realize that I had to essentially rewrite the entire book before I could get to that point. She had indicated that she lived in an English-speaking country, and I had no reason initially to expect anything else.

I wanted to protect myself from being swindled again, and so I started asking. And I squirm with shame every time I do it. It just feels wrong to pass judgment on a potential client because of something like their background. But a good friend told me that facts are facts, and that asking that question was perfectly acceptable when trying to find out how much to charge someone. For some reason though, I still don’t like it.

I’ve recently taken on another similar project. A non-native English speaker has written a novel and needs help editing. But this time, I asked first. Going into the project knowing that there is a language issue makes a world of difference. I was able to charge appropriately, and was aware ahead of time that we might have some trouble understanding each other when discussing details. It’s still frustrating sometimes, but with adequate compensation and the up-front knowledge that this was going to be a problem, we’re working through it just fine. We’re taking it slow, and we’re making a point to clarify things whenever there is a question, to make sure we’re on the same page. And I don’t feel like I was cheated or taken advantage of this time.


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