Red Flags for ESL Writers

Those writers who speak English as their second (or third, or fourth) language can come from any country, culture or background, so everyone experiences different sorts of issues in their writing that stand out to native audiences. Believe me, the natives aren’t perfect either. Understand, of course, that native audiences aren’t always right, and they certainly aren’t perfect, but if you’re working for US-based clients selling to people primarily in the United States, you’ll likely want to do everything you can to write in a way that resonates with that particular audience. Unfortunately, there are little slips and blunders that make it very obvious to casual readers and clients that an author is not from around these parts.

“Esteemed Sir”

Here in the land of milk and honey and traffic jams we’re pretty laid back. We don’t praise each other with phrases like ‘esteemed one’ or even ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ unless we’re speaking to a police officer or a school administrator. So if you write me a casual pitch and lead off by calling me an esteemed sir, I’ll have a pretty good idea you’re not speaking from the same place I am and you’ll also give me an identity complex. The exception to this, however, is a formal business letter. The formal letter can lead off with “Sirs”, “Dear Sir” or (my favorite) “Dear Sir or Madam” However, for the most part the internet is a casual place – save the formal letter openings for disputing real estate taxes.

“The Client Is God”

I recently read a post by a writer from India describing some common issues for writers specifically from his country. In the post he explained that the client is a god and that everything the client wants he should have – even if the desires conflict with the morality of the writer. Morality aside, here in the US we tend to be pretty brutal to each other. We cut each other off in traffic and have few, if any, qualms about sharing opinions – especially those of us who work in the online community.

Professionals are confident in what they do and they are usually rather cocky or at least sure of what they are offering to clients. Groveling to a client and treating him like a god will likely leave a bad taste in his gilded mouth. No abject apologies or endless compliments on his great merit. If there’s been a mistake, simply apologize and work with the client to figure out how to fix it. We’re all human here.

“Our Writing Heart Is Filled with Blood of Adulation.”

I found this sentence immediately followed by “That is the reason why unnecessary use of adjectives is rather a rule than exception for Indian web writers.” There are two easy problems here to avoid if you’re trying to improve your English. One – please use articles in your writing. It’s hard to spot at times, but the word “the” should be used before objects in a sentence for clarification. For example, try “THE unnecessary use of adjectives” or “THE blood of adulation.”

Two – Lay off the adjectives. When you use describing words, opt for simple ones that paint a picture for us rather than ones that showcase your skills with a thesaurus. If your intended audience needs a dictionary or thesaurus to figure out what you’re saying, you’re over the top. Scale way back. Your writing should be active in most cases – not descriptive. Use short sentences to explain your point in a pithy way. For those of you who also wondered like I did, the original phrase here (which is actually written in mostly correct English) translates to “We like to write with excessive flattery.” Irony?

Profile image for Rebecca Garland
Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

Get More Content Like This in Your Inbox

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter where you'll be notified of new blog articles and receive subscribers-only content.

Subscribe now.

2 thoughts on “Red Flags for ESL Writers”

  1. Really enjoyed your article. I teach academic writing to university students in South Korea and one of my big jobs is undoing all the bizarre stuff they’ve picked up over the years which sounds totally inauthentic.

    • I’ve always been curious as to why certain mistakes are so common. It can be as simple as referring to everyone, including women, as “sir.” Or, one of my favorites, constantly mixing up “advice” and “advise.” Neither is specifically related to South Koreans, but they’re common among ESL folks in general. Do you find that students are taught incorrectly at some point? Or is it more that they aren’t exposed to enough material from native English speakers while they’re learning the language? Or perhaps something else?


Leave a Comment