Editors can overcome language and cultural barriers when working with non-native English speakers by flexibly adapting their editing approach to the author’s needs.

As a university writing tutor, I’ve had the opportunity to help English as a second language (ESL) students with their academic writing. Though I enjoyed our consultations, I was repeatedly perplexed as to why some of the ESL students felt confused or frustrated by my feedback even though many native English-speaking students felt encouraged and confident after consultations. Tutors and editors who work with authors from multilingual backgrounds may have experienced similar situations. Why do such misunderstandings occur, and what steps can editors take to avoid them?


In the article “Comparing Cultural Perceptions of Editing from the Author’s Point of View,” Angela Eaton et al. (2008) conducted an online survey to identify the differences between the editing preferences of native and non-native English-speaking authors and their reactions to editing advice. The survey asked respondents to rate their English speaking, reading, and writing abilities from “intermediate” to “native.” It then asked general questions about the respondents’ past experiences with editors and requested that the respondents rate editors’ comments, which offered the same edit using different sentence constructions, as more obligatory or less obligatory. The researchers received 417 responses. 

After analyzing the results, the researchers learned that a higher percentage of non-native English speakers negatively rated their past editing experiences as compared to native English speakers (158). While the researchers do not indicate a root cause for this difference, their other findings may offer two plausible explanations. 

  1. Non-native English speakers may prefer a completely different editing approach than native speakers. While native speakers generally view hedging phrases—like “you could” and “I would”—as less obligatory, non-native speakers found them more obligatory and preferred “imperative” feedback that explained the “why” behind an edit (151, 158). 
  2. Non-native speakers may feel limited by the editor’s stylistic preferences. The survey showed that 24% of native English speakers and 10% of non-native English speakers would ignore comments they disagreed with. Eaton et al. concluded, “[Non-native English speakers] will follow style comments even when they disagree significantly more often than authors with higher self-assessed abilities” (158). 

“[Nonnative English speakers] will follow style comments even when they disagree significantly more often than authors with higher self-assessed abilities”

—Angela Eaton Et Al. (2008)


Those specific results from Eaton et al.’s study may explain why my ESL students struggled during consultations:

First, I used the same “hedging” tutoring approach for native and non-native English speakers without considering the students’ cultural and linguistic abilities. Tutors and editors, like me, who struggle to work with multilingual authors can step back and rethink their editing techniques in light of Eaton et al.’s study, recognizing that an author’s unique experiences may influence his or her expectations for the editing process. Instead of cushioning feedback, editors can be direct and descriptive, allowing multilingual authors to fully understand what edit they should make and why that edit would be beneficial.

Second, I did not clarify whether my edits were stylistic or grammatical. Instead of leaving unexplained stylistic edits, editors can label the edits as grammatical or stylistic and allow authors to accept or reject them, granting authors greater control over their writing.

By reassessing and adapting editing techniques to an author’s needs, editors can improve the editing experience for non-native English speakers.

To learn more about the differences between non-native and native English speaker’s editing experiences and preferences, read the full article:

Eaton, Angela, Pamela Estes Brewer, Tiffany Craft Portewig, Cynthia R. Davidson, and Cynthia Craft Portewig. 2008. “Comparing Cultural Perceptions of Editing from the Author’s Point of View.” Technical Communication 55, no. 2: 140–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43092428.

—Abigail Tree, Editing Research


Find more research

Take a look at Angela Eaton et al.’s (2008) article in Technical Communications to learn more about what authors really think about their editors and editing experiences: “Examining Editing in the Workplace from the Author’s Point of View: Results of an Online Survey” Technical Communication 11 (2): 111–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43092427.

Read Marc Street, Dennis Bozeman, and J. Michael Whitfield’s (1998) article in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality to learn more about what authors think are good and bad editing practices: “Author Perceptions of Positive and Negative Editor Behaviors in the Manuscript Review Process.” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 13 (1): 1–22. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/author-perceptions-positive-negative-editor/docview/1292311157/se-2.