English Scares Me (or Why I Need an Editor)

Yesterday, I tweeted that writing fiction in English is sometimes intimidating to me, because English is my second language (Danish being my first). I got a couple of responses, encouraging me to write about it, and to remember the wonderful writers that came before me, who also wrote in English though it was a second language to them. Joseph Conrad and Karen Blixen come to mind, not that I would otherwise compare myself to these masters.

When I write stuff like what you are reading now, I don’t think so much about my choice of words, sentence and paragraph structure and that sort of thing. When I write fiction, those are all very important elements of portraying characters, describing locations and setting the scene. That is when I am sometimes hit with the intimidation stick – it’s easy to feel like my vocabulary is too limited, or that my style is too heavily influenced by something else.

For writing my initial draft, I try not to let it hold me back too much. The important thing is getting the story down and try to make it hold up structurally. Second draft is where language starts taking a front seat.

Thinking about it, I realized that many native English speakers also struggle with writing, for very similar reasons. Maybe we all compare ourselves to those we admire, whether we want to or not. That might make anyone doubt their abilities. The only real answer I have come up with is this: use an editor!

Best case scenario, find a professional who knows what they are doing, and have them give you notes. You can point out what your exact doubts are, and they will keep an eye out for it. And they will point out stuff you haven’t even thought of. I have written books both with and without the help of an editor, and it just confirmed that having that extra set of eyes does make a huge difference.

I have met writers who say: I can’t afford an editor. I usually counter by asking how long it took them to finish the first draft. Often the answer is several years. My point is: if your story is important enough that you will spend years of your life writing it, it should also be worth a few bucks to have an editor help you polish off the details. Many freelance editors are surprisingly affordable and willing to negotiate (they know most writers aren’t exactly rolling in cash).

If you can’t find an editor you like, use your network – if you’re writing a science fiction novel and your buddy is a hardcore sci-fi nerd, by all means have him take a look – just remember that friends don’t always make the most honest critics, because nobody likes to potentially upset their friends. It helps if your friend is a writing pro of some sort, so they have an understanding of what goes into structuring and writing a story. Librarians, teachers and journalists can make for excellent editor replacements.

One Reply to “English Scares Me (or Why I Need an Editor)”

  1. I’m an editor, and if I didn’t know English was your second language, I wouldn’t have guessed. Very natural for the most part. :-)

    However, I did notice the foreign influence sometimes; for example, in “my choice of words.” Most natives would simply say “my word choice.”

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post and I agree with it. It’s true: word choice and structure are so important for characterization, pacing, and more.

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