Publishing as ESL writer

People ask: English is not my first language, can I make money as a writer?

My first reaction to this would be: hold the phone, who says that you can’t publish no matter what your first language is.

There are numerous traditionally published authors whose first language isn’t English. When you think of it, the concept of first language is a sliding scale anyway. If someone learns to speak another language in the childhood but then went to an English school, is that still a first language?

But let’s just suppose you did not grow up speaking English for any part of your life, and you live in a country where English is not a main language.

Can you still publish in English?

You are probably thinking of those cases where reviewers make nasty comments like: I don’t think this writer’s first language is English. They mean this as an insult, and just to be sure, it gets directed at writers whose first language is English, too. Not only that, it doesn’t always mean that there is something wrong with the author’s English. It’s often the reader’s perception of it.

English is a very varied language, and there are many different flavours. As an exercise, I once tried to write a story in Indian English. They use sentence constructions and words that are perfectly correct English, but are not used in the same way in some other parts of the world.

So, before you get hung up about English not being your first language, consider that English is a fairly wide spectrum and that the insult that English is not the writer’s first language gets levelled at native English speakers, too.

Now, of course this does not absolve you from having to learn English grammar and spelling. But I know many non-English speaking people whose English is better than that of people who grew up speaking English. So it is completely possible.

In the beginning, with your first book in English, you are probably going to need an extra layer of editing. You will need an editor who is clued in about your native language and the common mistakes that people make when writing English.

I would recommend that you read a lot in English and absorb the right phrases and terminology through books that you love.

One thing you should never do is apologise. When you publish a book to the best of your ability and have used a native English speaking editor, don’t tell anyone that English is not your first language.

Why not?

Because people are going to put copious amounts of extra nitty-gritty attention into looking for flaws (that mostly aren’t flaws at all) and all you’ll do is put words about English not being your first language in people’s mouths when they write reviews. You will end up with stupid comments like “I enjoyed this book despite the fact that it was written by someone whose native language isn’t English”. Seriously, don’t even give people a reason to say dumb stuff like this.

Even in the self publishing world there are many writers who neither live in an English speaking country nor speak English at home. Some of them are very successful, some of them have published under an English sounding name. If you want to be like them, that is totally possible.

Initially, you may need to work a bit harder on your prose, but there is no reason at all why you can’t take part in the fun.

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