AMITIAE - Tuesday 2 June 2015

Miracles I can do now: Fixing your English will Take a Little Longer

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Apart from teaching, one of the major tasks I have had since I have been working in Thailand has been editing the writing of others. My students want to start with a finished product and take a while to adjust to the idea of a series of drafts. It is not easy to convince them that a piece of writing evolves from ideas in the head, through a plan or outline to a developing series of versions of the paper. Fortunately, I have a big stick (metaphorically) and am able to force most of them into complying.

It is less easy with those who have graduated and are already at work. There are several approaches writers take, although I will first outline my approach as someone who has been writing professionally for over 40 years and who is a native speaker of English. One of my best (albeit accidental) teachers was a Chief Inspector at a police unit I worked at. Not one of my reports ever passed through his hands without some comment or the need for a correction. He would frequently say "We cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs". He was right, although I could not see it at the time.

I begin with ideas. This may be a sudden flash of a topic idea while sitting on a bus; or it may be a partly-developed subject that I have been mulling over in my brain for several days. I take some notes. While I am fleshing out the ideas, some headings or even sentences will begin to form. I write these down too. A process, such as a review of software, is relatively easy as the chronological order of events - actions and reaction - can be jotted down with comments almost as they happen.

writing I like to provide reasons for the topic: an introduction that often includes background, as well as an anecdote or personal experience to bring the subject to life. Towards the end, there will be concluding ideas that may include a justification for the writing and, in the case of a software review, a recommendation; or not.

When ready, I move to the computer and open a text editor such as TextWrangler or iA Edit: the most basic of screens, so that I am not distracted by rulers and formatting tools. As I write, I edit: changing my original hand-written vocabulary and sometimes weak sentences to a stronger-sounding form. I let the sounds of the words be my guide in such choices.

When I am done, I go away. Perhaps I make tea, or watch a movie. I may go shopping. Whatever I do, I need to give myself some distance from the text I have written as familiarity is dangerous. As a writer, I need to separate myself from what has been written, so that I can re-assess properly. I find that different formatting helps: going from the hand-written page to the computer screen usually finds some problems; and from the text editor to a formatted page (such as html and a browser display) will often find more. Time also helps, so coming back hours or even days later, I may find some obvious problems.

I explain all this to my students, adding that this is what I have to do as a native speaker of English. I add that when I write, I expect that I will make mistakes. I therefore understand that my students, whose English is not always good, will have greater problems. And then they ignore what I have told them.

As a form of confirmation, the ideas in this text had been floating round my head for a couple of days before I typed them out (ignoring the paper and pen stage) one afternoon. I then left them for several hours (as per above) before looking at the text afresh, finding a number of areas for improvement.

The writers of papers I am asked to edit take one of three approaches. The easiest to work with is a doctor whom I have known for several years. His English is reasonable, but flawed. He and I have no problem with that. His ideas are advanced and he sketches out the sentences before sending the early drafts along to me. I have a fairly free hand in what I can do and he tells me, "Make it sexy." By this, he means that I should take his basic ideas and form the sentences in a way that is easy to read, but not boring. Often (and I prefer this) he will send them back for a second edit before submitting them for publication.

writing Some other writers take a similar approach. Although they have almost fully-developed the paper, they send me a copy in a form that has larger text (Times New Roman 14 is common) and with double-spaced lines. This gives me a paper that is easy to view and has plenty of space for editing changes, comments and questions.

A number of writers write the paper completely then, in camera-ready format, send it to me and ask me to fix it. This is more common, particularly as some journals (e.g. IEEE) insist that a native speaker examine the paper before submission. The font size for many journals is tiny, which puts a strain on the eyes and is difficult to gauge as a whole paper: I am reading line by line, rather than by the paragraph (or more). The minuscule spaces between lines do not allow neat comments to be written. There is a good chance that I may miss something with this type of text.

The worst approach is from those who turn to me after a paper has been rejected because of the English. They contact me because the journal insist that the paper be edited by a native speaker. I find this last-resort approach to be arrogant because the writers have presumed that their English is faultless. This approach pervades some societies who seem to believe that native speaker help is not needed. In the worst case, a writer has a paper rejected; but other examples exist in advertising and also in documentation (government and business). This both annoys and amuses native speakers.

If I see a paper that has been rejected because the English has not been properly checked; or any other writing that could have easily been fixed by a few seconds of work by a native speaker, I am contemptuous.

Most of the errors I am asked to fix come from a small set of causes: translation; ignoring basic grammar points; and copying from outside sources, in many cases bordering on plagiarism.

I explain to my students that translation is the kiss of death to their English. While Thai grammar and vocabulary work fine in a Thai environment, it is not possible to simply pour one language into another. There are a number of key words and phrases that indicate to me early on that this has been the main approach taken. In many cases, the only way round is for a complete rewrite of the offending passage.

The problem of basic grammar errors is linked to the translation approach. In many instances, the writer shows ignorance of the differences between nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. These are not interchangeable, which seems to surprise some writers. Most of the errors I find in terms of grammar are those which were learned during the first years of high school (M1 - M3): subject-verb agreement; verb use (tenses, active/passive); prepositions. A major area in which improvements might be made is in identifying countable and uncountable nouns: from this also comes the use (or not) of indirect and indirect articles.

writing The Internet has been one of the greatest benefits to writers; it is also one of the greatest dangers. Before the age of computers and connected networks, a library search was often tedious and time-consuming. Depending on the library, some journals might be unobtainable, perhaps needing a trip to another city to track them down. Finding information these days is much easier, particularly with the availability and benefits of search engines.

Some writers, however, are more willing to copy and paste (far easier than when working with a typewriter), rather than writing their own words. With some inexperienced writers, the quantity of such outside information may increase to unacceptably high levels. With Thai students whose high schools encourage copying of information for reports, the line is not clear and the idea of citing references has not been taught: they are unaware when copying can become plagiarism; and some are insistent that the information included was what they knew, despite having read it, or having been taught, only a short time earlier.

I am firm on this with my students, but I cannot police all writers. I usually catch the inclusion of un-cited text while editing student papers, although in one or two cases it is hard to convince the students that this is not their knowledge. Sooner or later some will be called out for plagiarism.

Involving an editor in the writing process should not be an option. It should certainly not be a last resort: a band-aid approach that - at best - confirms the writer's misplaced over-confidence.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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