Writing Professionally in a Second Language
I just finished an article that will be published in this month's Web+DB Press magazine, a monthly web-related programming magazine in Japan. The entire magazine, including my article, is in Japanese. I want to reflect on the process of writing professionally in a second language and contrast this with my first experience when writing the 2nd chapter of Professional Python Programming 3rd edition (PyPro3).
Picking a Topic
Unless you're writing for yourself, the general topic is going to be decided for you. The company I work for writes regularly for Web+DB Press. GraphQL's been gaining popularity lately, and since I've built a few projects with it, a co-worker asked if I was interested in writing an article about GraphQL. Remembering how difficult it was to write PyPro3, I was a bit hesitant at first, but thought it'd be a good test to see how much my Japanese had I'd improved over the years. I also wanted share what I'd learned building GraphQL APIs with Django.
Outlining is the process where you set the scope and decide in in more detail what you want to write about and the general order that you'll write. Before you can start outlining you need to first decide roughly how long of an article you want to write. The length of a magazine article is often decided for you, so it's mostly a matter of figuring out what you can fit into the allocated space.
My outline was fairly basic, just a bullet list to help guide me along as I wrote and the base idea for what we'd build in the article.
Writing in your first language is difficult enough. Writing in a second language maintains the challenges of writing in your first, but also adds an extra layer on top. Not all idioms or expressions in your native language can be expressed in eloquently or in a similar manner in a different language.
Having a solid outline of what you're going to write about, including the order and main points you want to cover makes writing much easier. This applies to writing in your first language as well, but it's doubly important in a second language.
When writing PyPro3, I could write and speak Japanese, but writing a narrative piece was difficult. Many of the words I was using weren't quite yet internalized and reading what I wrote 5 minutes prior was a challenge. So I ended up writing the gist of what I wanted to say in English, and then translating it as best as I could before a native speaker cleaned it up for me.
This time around, 3 years later, my outline was in Japanese and I didn't write any of the article in English first and then translate. Writing was a lot quicker too as I had become used to explaining code and what it's doing from work. I made the quickest progress when I was focusing on writing for a specific co-worker and explaining GraphQL to them.
Editing in a second language is difficult. I won't say I'm useless, but I don't have that feeling when something sounds "off" like I do with English. Without that sense, it was difficult to know exactly how to fix feedback from internal reviews and the editor at the magazine.
The actual process of editing this time around was much easier, however. A co-worker and I would pair edit, where I'd pull up the document on my screen via Zoom and we'd work through the comments together. This made it much easier to ask for advice or for clarification or a second opinion.
Beyond not having a native feel for the language, skimming is also much more difficult. This makes finding the paragraph a particular comment is referencing a bit slow. I got better as I practiced, but I also found that copying a snippet of the comment and using the Find feature of my editor helped immensely.
Good writing in any language requires clear thinking and proper planning. Being able to stay in the same language for planning, drafting, and editing makes the entire process much easier. Having native speakers check and edit your work allows you to gain a better understanding of your second language, not only at the grammatical level, but with sentence patterns and flow as well.
I'm grateful to have been given the opportunity to be published, especially in my non-native language and hope I'll have another chance in the future.