KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf
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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Writer-Responsible Versus Reader-Responsible Languages

The blog Language Log has a wonderful post on that discusses a major distinction in the mind-set of writers with different native languages: writer-responsible languages versus reader-responsible languages. This distinction is one that I had intuited after years of editing manuscripts for authors who are non-native English speakers from many different nations, but until now, I had not had terminology for it.

The post quotes this excerpt from the 2011 post "Who Is Responsible for the Message?" on the CAL Learning (Culture and Language Training for a Multicultural Workplace) blog by Lauren Supraner:

English is a writer-responsible language. That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous. Schools teach from early on the importance of structure, thesis statement and topic sentences when writing in English. A good writer assumes no or little background knowledge on the part of the reader.

Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are reader-responsible languages. That means the reader is responsible for deciphering the message, which is often not stated explicitly. For an American who is expecting direct and explicit information, this style can be very confusing.

I can say with confidence, because of my work with authors from other nations, that Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are not the only reader-responsible languages. Reader versus writer responsibility is the element that causes my international authors the most difficulty in writing for US English-language biomedical journals, because they are asked to write in a style that they see as antagonizing readers:

  • It's rude because it's direct.
  • It's rude because the writer doesn't take time to build a rapport with the reader.
  • It's insulting because it assumes that readers don't know much about the subject matter and thus it entails explaining and defining material that intelligent, experienced readers likely already know.
  • It's stiff because it requires many levels of parallel structure (such as parallel headings).
  • It's unimaginative because writers are expected to avoid speculation about the meaning of their scientific findings.
My international authors are used to writing in a way that they see as more reader friendly:

  • Most important is not explaining material that readers with advanced experience in the subject matter likely already know. This is seen as respectful of the reader's intelligence.
  • Readers, being intelligent, are expected to read between the lines and interpret what they read.
  • The writer uses a good deal of description.
  • The writer tries to draw the reader into a discussion of the possibilities. This may involve expressing opinions rather than just reporting findings.
If we, as editors, can understand both styles of writing, we will be better able to assist our international authors when they are required to write in the arena of US English.

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4 comments:

LyzzyBee said...

This was fascinating (I know I'm a bit behind). It also reminds me I have a great book on the To Be Read pile about how Language 1 bleeds through into Language 2 (English) production. I've referred to it, but I want to read it all the way through! Anyway, great post, which I've just shared.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Thanks so much, LyzzyBee.

Here's another great resource: video clips from the documentary Writing Across Borders, in which international students and those who work with them explain the difficulties these students encounter when writing for English-language courses and publications. The full documentary can be purchased here.

Alea Walstrom said...

What other languages can be seen as "writer-responsible"? It seems that the reader-responsible languages are more often identified then contrasted with English as the sole "writer-responsible" language. English can't possibly be the only on though, right?

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Alea, I'm sure there are other "writer-responsible" languages besides English. I don't know enough about linguistics to identify them, though.

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