By Allison Whalen
My ESL editing career came to life by accident, inextricably linked to the recession, coconuts and rock ‘n’ roll music. I’d obtained an MA from Carleton U and found that the cozy, bookshelved world of the grad student was nothing like real life, otherwise known as Ottawa in an economic recession.
What did they mean, the government wasn’t really hiring? Students of the double-cohort demographic were finally filtering out of the school system and into a local job market that couldn’t accommodate them. And yes, I’d looked on http://www.charityvillage.com; we all had, evidently. It seemed like half the city was out of work.
Fortunately, my husband was working as an ESL teacher-trainer with United TESOL at the time, and had the opportunity to pilot a teacher’s training program in Costa Rica. Did I mention it was winter? I happily ditched my resume obsessing for this “once-in-a-lifetime,” seasonal opportunity. We packed our swimsuits and hoped for the best.
I taught English in small communities for a local eco-tourism organization, Peninsula Papagayo, where I was eventually hired to edit brochures, newsletters, press releases and web material. There wasn’t much competition for editing work there — I had the best English skills in town. And oh, the beaches and the coconuts! (For more on my ESL teacher experience in Costa Rica:http://www.quarterlives.com/a-quarterlifer-abroad-part-3-a-costa-rica-love-story/)
When we returned to Ottawa and got over the reverse-culture-shock, the job market hadn’t changed much. I was back where I’d started. It was when I was sniffing out editing work at Carleton that I got hired as an editorial assistant for submissions to The Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. This job married two of my great loves: modern music and the written word, but the real emphasis should have been on the word World. In short, my job was to tidy up each article while maintaining the foreign author’s voice. I learned about everything from German Krautrock to Greek bouzoukis in many variations of ESL English. Common error patterns in sentence structure began to reveal themselves, and I learned to coax a unique voice out of a mess of misused words. Working on my own time at a location of my choosing proved to be wonderfully addictive, too.
When I moved to the health administration sector, I began to take on independent clients as a second job, editing graduate theses in an ESL context. The patience, time and methods required to carve messages out of miscommunications were challenging, but because I had already gained some unique skills in the area, it seemed logical to continue.
More recently as a full-time freelancer, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many ESL writers from Asia and the Middle East. Meeting with Chinese and Arabic speakers has helped me understand a given culture that influences the writer, right down to the order in which they present their ideas. Having a sense for my client’s background has definitely made my work easier, and sometimes bonuses come in the form of exotic food! (I actually have sugar dates all the way from Al Qassim, Saudi Arabia, in my fridge right now. You’re not getting those from a client in Ottawa!)
Compared with other languages, English is pretty wordy and complex, so to understand where a writer is coming from (literally!) is crucial to understanding their meaning. Getting lost in specific words tends to be beside the point and can add extra hours to a difficult project. It’s often necessary to read an entire sentence, or paragraph, to distinguish between important and useless or misused words.
See? ESL editors do exist! I may have had unconventional experience, but it led to a lucrative and interesting position. What started with a frustrated response to an economic recession turned into a career, and I’m pretty excited to see where it will take me next.