Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 26 seconds

Reading the Non-Native Writer

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 26 seconds

This blog needs to be written. And it needs to be read. If you supervise non-native speakers of English (or whatever language you use academically), you need to read this.

I have had friends doing PhDs who have complained bitterly that their supervisors focus so much on correcting their English and their grammar and end up not giving them substantive feedback on their work. They suffer from this. And I don’t know if it helps their English much, either. I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope most Universities offer some type of writing support outside of the supervision itself, so supervisors can focus on what they do best. Their academic area and hopefully nurturing the relationship with the student. I understand how difficult it is to read incoherent student work. But you need to find a way to help students express themselves clearly so you can focus on the substance of their work.


Now here’s another part. I’ve been fluent in English most of my life, been a relatively good writer most of my life, and even though I am human and make editorial mistakes in my own writing, I am usually a good editor of other people’s work. This means that I know that even though I can pick out mistakes in the work of others, I can often miss mistakes in my own. I have corrected written work of native speakers who teach English, who teach literature, who teach composition. I have.

Now here’s the other thing. I write for different spaces. My writing gets “edited” by different people. And not all editing styles suit me. Some editors use a very heavy hand that can modify meaning to the extent it’s ridiculous and feels colonizing. Some editors try to modify style to an extent it’s insulting. Some are very good at getting what they need from a writer without imposing, and end up helping the writer do it better – the process with them makes me feel like it’s still my article but better. You know which ones I like 🙂

So here’s the thing. If you’re not the editor of a work I am submitting to, and I ask your feedback, I am asking your feedback on the substance of what I wrote, not asking you to correct my English or modify my style. That is downright insulting, even though I know you don’t mean it to be. Even though you may be rephrasing me in ways that do end up sounding slightly better, it’s not worth insulting me that way. I know I am a writer, it’s part of my identity, and I write in English. Not even my PhD supervisors corrected my English because my English is good dammit and unless you’re correcting a glaring typo, there’s no need to rephrase my stuff because that’s not what I asked you for, it’s not your role.

Thanks for listening. Xo

10 thoughts on “Reading the Non-Native Writer

  1. Great piece. It is actually something that I struggle with when I teach – in part because I teach how to teach online – which is predominately a written medium – and it does matter that things get written well. For example, the train-of-thought style I’m using here is often not appropriate. So I struggle with how much to teach and how much to correct. I know that my students do well with English, so my corrections are often technical – like highlighting the difference between a numbered list and a bulleted list. Actually, I think the biggest challenge comes with different English dialects. I teach at an American school, but some of my students are international – so they speak and write with a different style of English. I know that when they speak they may add an “s” to things that are plural (for example, I get a lot of “feedbacks” – which is technically wrong – but if they are writing for an audience that uses that term, then it might not be). The struggle then becomes how much of that do I correct? I often find myself thinking, would I correct this if someone else wrote it? Is it a matter of voice?
    I’m actually thinking of teaching a model on technical writing for online courses next semester – but I wonder – how much do you allow for the “voice” of the author, and how much to do ensure is technically/professionally correct? There are times when the “voice” makes more sense than worrying about the grammar – but then there are times when stream of consciousness writing isn’t appropriate, or the overuse of !!!! (drive me crazy). This actually would be a great discussion item for my class 🙂 especially since giving feedback online is an important part of teaching online.
    Anyways, I value your thoughts on this.

  2. I have learned over the years that when someone asks me to edit or otherwise respond to their writing, that different people have very different expectations, so I ask them – what kind of feedback would be most useful to you? Likewise, I would recommend to anyone that when you ask someone to read your writing, tell the reviewer how they can be helpful to you. Some just want you to correct errors. Others want to engage intellectually. Most people (not all of course!) will respond positively to this guidance. Unless it’s made explicit, you may get a response that’s less than helpful. I realize in a teaching or publishing situation people may base their assumptions on their roles but it never hurts to ask in my experience.

    1. Yeah, that’s useful, Michael. Although still insulting that someone would assume I meant for them to do that, given how good my English is (they didn’t correct typos, they rephrased a few paragraphs – for better, but unnecessarily so)

  3. certainly agree we all need to talk about Kevin (delete that word, replace with ‘language’) – the experience of which you speak here flies all too often under the radar. There are so many things to discuss here, and the rant prompts too much thinking for me to summarise here (this being the kind of problem my job exists to deal with)… so, not to bore readers of your blog, I’ll limit my comment to a couple of questions 🙂

    – are you (anyone reading here) keen to discuss this topic in any depth? I ask because if so, I’ll write a post in response to what you’ve brought up here, if it might help. I don’t assume many people are interested to discuss it too much though, the post may be more intended as a strategic and momentary vent for an occasional frustration than an invitation for an ongoing dialogue. But a couple of good comments are coming in, and if I don’t ask… who knows?

    – and (this is more of a thought teaser to consider)… can you see how it might helpfully apply in your own areas of education to make a clear distinction between a) learning language, b) learning through language, and c) learning about language? I ask this because it’s a good way to frame the post I’d write (if anyone’s interested). It’s a critical distinction made by the linguist whose work I follow most closely.

    I’m always up for discussing language and language education in universities…. but it’s the weekend and time to leave such concerns just now – unless I plan rabbit hole / pandora’s box conversations, I risk leaping in and finding my day disappearing in a puff of electrons… when I could have been doing something completely different, involving vegetables (!)

  4. When I used to do drop-in academic support – students would often come to me asking me to proofread their work (which technically we do not do) – and I would say that my task was to help them to see whether or not the writing had tackled the question – whether the structure was as good as it could be … and that i would probably point out a few technical errors on the way because I’m a bit OCD that way and I used to be a magazine editor…I would stress that the best way to make the most of me was to say what they wanted me to focus on;; to know and say where i could be the most useful to them…

    When I talk to academic staff about student writing, they nearly all tend to focus on spelling, punctuation, grammar – this is what they tend to identify as the student writing issue; my work with students indicated that the problem for them in re academic writing was nothing of the sort – it was fear of failure – fear of getting it wrong – fear of being made to feel a fool…

    The trick is in bringing these perspectives together in a helpful and productive way… for staff I recommend ending seminars with a ten minute writing activity – that they review or where they encourage peer review. In this way students get to develop a writing habit – start to lose their fear of writing and lo they actually do get better at writing; for students I recommend blogging their learning – and experimenting with free writing to get started.

    1. Same academic support field as danceswithcloud – we’re the ‘some type of writing support’ you mention above. I also get frustrated with the focus on the surface features of writing at the expense of learning – unless your degree is in MFL (as mine was) – grammar is not the primary objective of the assessment! it’s really misleading often too – the only word some academic staff seem to have in their feedback arsenal is ‘grammar’ when very often it’s no such thing, or certainly not the main issue. And half the time it’s not accuracy but personal taste – language evolves and diversifies. I don’t proofread or teach grammar either – I talk to students about the kind of identity they may need to project or create through text for their reader, in order to come across as persuasive in this context. Grammatical accuracy is a small part of this, but there are far more important aspects to that textual, academic writerly identity. I certainly would be horrified at attempts to rewrite a student’s work – that’s ‘colonising’ as you say their identity – how is that supposed to help them become independent learners with their own distinctive voice and ideas?

      One concern I have is that neither we learning developers, nor EAP tutors I’ve spoken to, see their remit as teaching grammar ie fluency, but something more profound. But universities think that’s what we do but that’s not the problem we’re solving. But who is? Can it even be addressed at university level? I say this as someone who studied MFL and is aware of the enormity of the task of becoming fluent in a second language, even for those of us for whom it was their primary interest!

      1. It’s a difficult thing right? Even when I taught language (not what i am trained to do) I thought of it as helping students find confidence to write in a new language (red marks for grammar and spelling make ppl often take fewer risks, right?) so next semester again when I ask students to blog but not be grading them on grammar but on self-expression… I will wonder if I am shortchanging them or empowering them?

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