Does being an “English as a second language” ESL medical writer put you at a disadvantage?
This morning, I typed “telled” instead of “told”.
The word just stayed there with its wobbly red underline, cursor blinking expectantly.
For a second, I couldn’t remember the right word.
This made me think about all the job adverts that ask for native English speakers.
I used to think these ads were a bit snobbish, but…are they correct?
And, does it impair your ability to find work as a health & medical writer?
At this point in my life, I can confidently say I’m bilingual. More than 90% of my work is in English. The other 10% of my work – as well as the rest of my life – is in Portuguese.
As I work on different types of projects for various clients around the world, I receive valuable feedback about my writing.
I want to share some insights for ESL writers who are writing professionally in a different language.
Overcoming common hurdles for ESL medical writers
Write in English from the start
To be clear, I’m assuming your domain of the English language is near perfect.
Your grammar is impeccable, you know where to place (or not) your apostrophes, and you have coherent reasoning in English. (At least inside your head, because accents are another achievement to unlock.)
I’d suggest that, for getting off on the right foot with your writing, you must write in English from the start.
In other words, don’t think about the subject in your native language and then translate it to English as you go.
You’ll have more work, your ideas will get slower, and the result won’t be as good.
Get in the habit of thinking and reasoning in English.
One of the biggest hurdles that ESL writers face is sentence structure.
The English language has a specific way to structure sentences. While many say that English sentence structure is more comfortable than most languages, the point here is that it’s different.
And, at the first sign of confusion (when we’re not 100% clear on what we’re going to say or how we’re going to say it), tiredness, or distraction, we often default to what we’re used to – our native language structure.
That’s how strange sentence constructions appear in our texts.
Understand British vs US English
Another obstacle that ESL writers have is navigating the different “Englishes” that exist: British English is different from US English which is different from other countries’ English.
Besides having different spellings, there are different words for the same things.
For instance, “localize” in the US is “localise” in the UK and Australia, just like many words that have the same ending.
And “localize” isn’t flagged by your spellcheck even if you set it up to British English, because it’s not wrong – it’s just not the preferred way.
For ESL medical writers, cultural differences can be confusing.
In health writing, you may want to avoid referring to them. While some people get it if you make a Game of Thrones joke, others may not (or may get it and dislike it!).
Using cultural references appropriately depends on your audience, your goals for that piece and the overall strategy behind your work.
I’d suggest that, when it comes to cultural references, tread lightly – and perhaps avoid using them altogether if you’re trying to reach a broader audience.
How ESL medical writers can improve their skills
Having more challenges when writing in English doesn’t mean ESL medical writers shouldn’t write in English.
English is the lingua franca of the world; people look for health information online, and they’re increasingly doing it in English.
So, how can you improve your English writing skills?
Read a lot
First, read a lot. Sounds simple, but not everyone does it.
Reading good-quality English texts exposes you to the language, grammar and reasoning of a native English speaker.
Read a lot from multiple sources: academic texts, useful blogs (like this one) and professional magazines – but also novels, children’s books and other types of writing.
With time, writing will be more comfortable. You’ll even start to spot inconsistencies in other people’s writing, too.
Know your weaknesses
If you tend to make the same types of mistakes, be aware of them so you can avoid them.
We are often blind to our weak spots, so it’s useful to ask a friend to assess your writing and provide honest feedback.
In this case, it can be a native or ESL medical writer: a German friend pointed out my weak spot.
And, it’s something I slip on to this day, so I’m grateful to know what it is – so I can avoid it.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes
Don’t be scared to make mistakes, but learn from them.
Writing is hard, and you’ll be continuously learning and improving your skills.
Find someone to help you edit and proofread your texts: this can be someone you hire or a work friend with whom you arrange a text-swap.
A text-swap is a solution to make sure you always provide high-quality work to your clients because it’s usually harder to find your mistakes.
Getting hired as an ESL medical writer
Some people prefer to hire native English writers, while others don’t care as long as you provide excellent work.
The truth is that more clients are now looking for native language speakers because they have had poor experiences with ELS medical writers.
To be completely fluent in a different language requires a lot of effort.
I usually say I wouldn’t starve if you dropped me in the middle of Spain or France.
But, my communication skills don’t allow for a conversation that goes much deeper than water, food and perhaps the weather – let alone being able to write in Spanish or French.
The spread of freelancing platforms and the inherent portability of writing has made it possible for many people to set up a profile and apply for writing jobs.
And, sometimes people may think their English is better than it is.
It’s a tough thing to say, but many ESL medical writers are far from being fluent.
There are two types of clients:
- those who want a native English medical writer
- those who’ll hire a specific person because they’ve had a referral, the writer has a particular field of expertise, etc. – and, they’ll hire this person regardless of whether English is their first or second language.
That’s why, if you want to get work as an ESL medical writer, you must make the language a non-issue and write correctly in English.
As an ESL medical writer, you can’t please everyone
Despite all your efforts, there will always be clients who prefer to work with native English speakers – just like others prefer writers with a medical degree, PhD or someone in their local area.
It’s their preference, and while you can still apply for those projects, don’t be upset if clients don’t choose you because you’re an ESL medical writer.
Instead, focus on the value you can bring to your projects and highlight your areas of expertise.
Over to you
Are you an ESL medical writer?
What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About the author
This post was written by a member of the Health Writer Hub Alumni
Diana Ribeiro is a pharmacist and freelance medical writer based in Cascais, Portugal. Before starting her career in medical writing, Diana worked 10+ years in hospital and community pharmacies, where she helped patients and healthcare professionals with drug management and information. Nowadays, she helps pharma, biotech, and meddev companies communicate with their audiences in a clear, accurate, and compelling way. Diana is an active member of the European Medical Writers Association, where she volunteers for the webinar team. You can find more about her on LinkedIn.