Copyright © 2007 Paul E. McKenney

Writing Lessons From a Non-Native English Speaker

My father always said that people who have nothing to say, but who can say it well, will always do better than those that have something important to say, but who cannot say it. He repeatedly stressed the importance of both spoken and written communication.

Early English Teachers

Fortunately, I had good English teachers in grade school and high school. I breezed through college writing, had no trouble with the written communication required of a self-employed contract programmer, and even published a few technical papers, all on the strength of my early English education. In short, my teachers were quite good: engaging, knowledgeable, and well-organized.

But they all had one fatal flaw.

They were way too nice.

Learning to Write on the Job

After a few years as a contract programmer, I got married. At that point, I reconsidered my vocation. Somehow, the 14-hour days in a small boat off the Los Angeles harbor debugging acoustic-navigation software seemed unlikely to result in domestic bliss.

At that point, a college friend called, offering me a real job at a Bay Area research institute named SRI International. This position seemed much more conducive to married life, plus they offered to pay my way to Stanford University.

As a contract-research organization, SRI's main output was reports: stacks of paper with writing on them. Given the sums that its clients were paying for these stacks of paper, SRI felt that high-quality professional writing was absolutely essential. SRI therefore employed technical editors.

Serious technical editors.

Of course, some of the technical editors were more friendly than others. However, given that my department's brilliance did not often extend to careful project planning, I never did work with those technical editors. Instead, I always got Savel.

English was either Savel's third or fourth language out of seven, but he knew it better than this native English speaker ever will. And he was quite free of the flaw of my early English teachers. Not that he was angry or malevolent--on the contrary, he was quite polite and gentlemanly. But given the choice between protecting my ego and making sure that I was always made aware of the weaknesses in my writing, Savel's priorities were always completely consistent and crystal clear.

Savel's reputation was legendary, but that in no way prevented me from being insanely overconfident of my abilities when I gave him my first report. My overconfidence died immediately upon seeing Savel's mark-ups. There wasn't a line anywhere that didn't have at least one correction, and most lines had several.

It is only natural to be irritated and angry when faced with such an overwhelming critique. Nonetheless, I sat down in my office and started to work. For the first few hour or so, I railed at each correction, only to realize that each correction was in fact completely justified. I eventually swallowed my pride, and started simply accepting every change that Savel had suggested, the only exceptions being those that changed the meaning. I then met with Savel to go over those few exceptions, and, after some spirited discussion, we would eventually agree on wording that was both grammatically and technically correct. I quickly learned not to complain to Savel about the many peculiarities and inconsistencies of the English language, a tactic that had won me much sympathy from earlier English teachers. But Savel's response was always the same: "Mr. McKenney, it is your language, not mine!"

Of course, I got better as time went on. After a while, there would be lines, even paragraphs, that Savel didn't feel the need to mark up. But these lines and paragraphs were still the exception rather than the rule.

Then one day I was assigned the task of getting another group's report past the technical editors. As always, this was a last-minute task, so, as always, I got Savel. I edited the report ahead of time, fixing numerous problems. In particular, there were two pages of extremely contorted and unclear writing that I spent hours reworking. I was extremely proud and happy to reduce this passage to half a page, while at the same time greatly increasing its clarity.

Surely, this was half a page that Savel would approve of!

And when I got the report back, that half page was indeed free of markings! Instead, Savel had simply circled it, labelling the entire passage as "awkward".

Although "awkward" made Savel's assessment of my work excruciatingly clear, it was otherwise unhelpful. So I made the rest of Savel's suggested changes, as always, and, as always, met with Savel to go over the result, especially the "awkward" passage.

The conversation did not go well. My questions as to what precisely was wrong with the passage were met with nothing more than "It is awkward!". I spent quite some time trying to get some suggestion for improvement out of Savel, but all for naught. Eventually, out of frustration, I said, "Savel, when it comes to English, you are the expert. So why don't I tell you what that passage is trying to say, and then you tell me how to say it!"

A look of total shock passed over Savel's face. However, after a moment, he agreed to this unconventional approach, and so I spent several minutes explaining the passage to him. He then stared at the ceiling for all of 30 seconds, then turned to me and gave me two sentences -- two short sentences -- that said everything that the original two pages said, and said it in a way that was almost painfully clear.

At that point, I realized that I was hopelessly outclassed. I sat in awe of what a true expert can do with the English language.

The years passed. I moved back to Oregon and Savel retired. I wrote many technical papers, even a dissertation, making good use of the many lessons I learned from him.

One day, I read an article in Scientific American, where James Flynn held forth on his Flynn Effect, in which the measured average intelligence of humans has increased markedly over the past several decades. Flynn asserted that this measured increase could not possibly be real, asking, "Why aren't we undergoing a renaissance unparalleled in human history?" Of course, I couldn't let that pass unanswered, so I wrote a letter to the editor summarizing the accomplishments of the previous few decades, asking "if this is not a renaissance, what is?"

Of course Scientific American also has editors. When the letter appeared in print, it was almost a factor of three shorter than my original, but retaining 95% of my original meaning.

Even after all these years, the editing process can still be a bit irritating. Sometime long after the irritation faded, I smiled. Had Scientific American had Savel on staff, he would no doubt have squeezed out another factor of two, while retaining fully 100% of the original meaning.

Writing Without Savel

Savel no longer edits anyone's work, but there are some things we can do to at least partially compensate.

In short, although there was only one Savel, there are quite a few things that we all can do to improve our written English.