How to... prepare papers if English is not your first language Part: 2

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How to... prepare papers if English is not your first language

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Using an editing service

This means using the service of a professional editor who is not a subject expert (unlike a journal editor) but who specializes in helping authors express themselves in language that is as clear as possible, so that they can communicate with their intended audience.

They are highly skilled professionals whose work often contributes to the end product but if they are lucky, will get a modest fee and an acknowledgement in the author's preface after everyone else. Most have heard of the American author, Ernest Hemingway, but few of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, who is actually responsible for a good part of his prose.

What types of editing are there?

Structural editing is concerned with what one might term 'high level' language considerations:

  • Is there a logical argument, does the paper follow a structure, does the author avoid sudden jumps in the sense (non sequiturs)?
  • Does the author avoid using words ambiguously?
  • Has the author followed the format and style requirements of the journal to which he/she is submitting?
  • Is the paper's use of headings appropriate?
  • Ditto paragraphs?

Copy editing is concerned with such matters of language as punctuation, grammar, spelling, hyphenation, and following bibliographical style.

What is the cost involved?

You would need to discuss costs with the editor concerned who is only likely to give a quote if you send a paper by email. Costs, however, are likely to be quoted by the hour or by the page, and may vary from £18/£20 per hour (the lower end) through £25-£35 per hour up to £50 to £100 per hour (for very highly technical work).

If the editor works 'on screen', the rate will be higher – for example €10 per 400 word page for a paper edit and €15 for an on-screen edit, while a telephone discussion to resolve issues could cost €50 per hour. The amount of time varies too – one 'average' is given as €175 for a 'standard' 15 page article, and estimates vary between 3-4 hours to 8-12 hours.

The following professional societies' websites should provide some guidance, but remember that this is essentially for relatively straightforward work:

It is generally worthwhile to gain an idea from the editor what level of work will be undertaken, and how thoroughly the person will edit.

"Editors are expensive – especially if you are working in a country with a weaker currency than your editor's. (This is true for most non-European academics trying to hire editors in the UK.) Most of my clients do not pay for their editing out of their own pockets, but get the assistance of their university or another funding agency, and such funds are usually available if the author knows to whom they should make such enquiries at their university.

In e-mailing for an estimate of how much the editing will cost, you should attach the document to be edited so that the editor can see how much work is required.

Do not try to haggle with editors or to try to use guilt ('I'm just a poor academic') in order to intimidate the editor into reducing the quoted price – most editors are struggling to make ends meet as well. If they take jobs for less than their usual rate, they may lose money. Treat editors as you would treat other professionals, and as you would like to be treated if you were in such a position.

You should be prepared to pay the editor immediately upon receiving their work."

Dr Lynne Murphy
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Sussex, UK

What else to expect

Most editors will consider it important to allow what is called the 'author's voice' , i.e. the authentic style of the author, to show through, and it should also be remembered that much of the language may be intrinsic to the specific academic discipline rather than to natural, spoken English.

"I attempt to keep the author's style, as far as possible, although I try to draw his attention to what I would consider would be inappropriate styles for the destined publication, with suggestions for improvement. I find that many EFL authors [those to whom English is a freign language] may write a part of a paper in one verbal tense and suddenly switch to another tense. In cases like this, I suggest whichever is the more appropriate. For example, if writing for Popular Science, I would suggest a more informal present tense style, whereas the British Medical Journal would exact more formal scientific paper style writing. This has to be agreed beforehand between the author and the editor."

Brian W. Ellis
Specialist in scientific editing based in Cyprus

"I always remain non-intrusive for general editing, but when I feel that something is unclear or should be changed, I draw the attention of the writer to this and make suggestions in UPPER CASE. The author also then has the option of discussing these with me."

Dr Brian Bloch
Specialist German-English editor/translator

The editor will also check the format and style of the journal to which you are submitting – so make sure you provide this information. (You can also save money by checking this yourself.)

The same goes for references – so you will save considerable time and money if you do that yourself – see our How to.. use the Harvard reference system guide.

You should not expect your editor to solve all your English problems! You may well find that they need to contact you to resolve queries, caused by ambiguities in the English.

"Often with well-written EFL, there are subtle changes of meaning that may not actually be intended. For example, if I see the word 'anxiety' written by a French speaker, it could cover a range of meanings from 'anxiété', 'inquiétude', 'appréhension' or 'angoisse', all of which are found as equivalents in dictionaries. For the meaning to be clear, I would need to know the original word or, at least, what the author had in mind, so that I could qualify the noun with an appropriate adjective, if necessary (or select a different word). An editor cannot second-guess an author, if he is to do a good job, and my experience dictates that such subtle changes are often more time-consuming than the poor quality original, especially as the author is more likely to wish to debate terminology or phraseology, simply because he has a better knowledge of English to start with."

Brian W. Ellis
Specialist in scientific editing based in Cyprus

"You should not expect that the paper will be ready to submit to the journal/publisher on the day that you receive it back from the editor. In most cases, the editor will have written some queries regarding sections of the paper that were ambiguous or contradictory or that could use further information that the editor could not provide. Attending to such matters will often take a couple of days."

Dr Lynne Murphy
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Sussex, UK 

When should you contact an editor?

The general advice is first to contact the editor informally with a working draft and the promise to tidy up the English, but to get the English sorted out before entering the more formal, peer-reviewed publishing process. Note the following comment, where it is suggested that it may be a waste of time to get a relatively clear manuscript edited when its content may change as a result of editorial or peer review.

"If one is faced with a fairly good article, which obviously needs a bit of polishing but is generally quite clear, I have been inclined to say, '"This is good enough for an editor to make a judgement. Don't spend money on it now', so that the author can make sure they only spend money on the final version. It would be expensive to have a lot of correction done on an 8,000 word article, and then have the editor insist that 3,000 words are cut. In several cases I have advised that the authors check whether the editor is interested in the topic, and that they say they will have the English revised for the final version.

The other thing that one often faces is an article with reviewers' comments with very specific suggestions for revision – elaboration of the methodology section or more developed conclusions are the most common – which I cannot do anything about without more information from the author. Why had they chosen to do it this way, or which of the possible conclusions do they favour? If I start editing at that point, I am going to get involved in a lengthy (costly) exchange with the author trying to pull the information out of them. I would normally suggest that they answer those very specific questions before I begin, so that I have everything that I need for a final edit before I start.

Thinking about it, I think that I am more than likely to refuse to edit the first version of the article I am sent – between those that I suggest are good enough for an editor to decide whether they are interested in the article in principle, and those that I ask for more information before I can start."

Professor David Turner
Editor based in Wales

Some editors will also recommend a final edit before submission.