How to Break into English-Speaking Media as a Non-Native-English Speaker

  Léelo en Español

3D illustration of a conceptual maze, with black pawns from a chess set moving between nodes on a surface. A direct path across the surface is shown in gold.
Olivier Le Moal/iStock

 

“How the heck did you do that?” one of my colleagues asked me soon after I published my first piece in the science magazine Eos. I couldn’t believe it, either. Before I pitched Eos, the last time I wrote something in English had been during high school. “Good mentors and a bit of luck,” I told her.

During the four years I studied journalism in Mexico, no professor told me it was possible to write for media outlets in other countries, much less make a living from it. Of course, I never asked them about it, because I never imagined it could be possible.

Sending pitches to such big-name media outlets is intimidating even for journalists whose first language is English. It is not uncommon for non-native speakers to lack confidence in their English, their connections, and their understanding of a rather confusing world.

Still, many journalists who did not grow up in English-speaking countries have built successful careers working with major media outlets. They have built relationships with editors who see their backgrounds as a differentiator that gives them an advantage as writers.

Now, when I think about how I broke into English-speaking journalism, I think less about luck than about the practical advice and support I have received from other journalists. In the end, luck is a result of taking action.

 

Is Your English Good Enough?

While working as a staff reporter at the G1-O news portal at Globo in Brazil, Brazilian journalist Mariana Lenharo—like me—never considered writing for an international publication. “I thought that with my level of English I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says. Then, she realized that some of her more experienced colleagues, whom she knew had similar English speaking and writing skills as her, were already doing so.

After six years of writing for publications like Nature, Scientific American, and Undark, Lenharo says that working in another language will always be difficult. “I still take longer to write in English compared to a native-English speaker, and I still make mistakes, but I believe it does get better with time.”

So just how proficient do you have to be in English to start publishing stories? When I started, I was able to read texts and understand English speakers, but I worried that I didn’t know enough higher-level vocabulary. And that’s not the only challenge, of course—you also have to be comfortable writing and interviewing in English.

But you may not need to know as much English as you think. While writing my first story for Eos, I was very nervous because I thought my English vocabulary was not extensive enough. Then, science journalist Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, who was one of my mentors at the time, gave me a piece of advice that helped me transform that insecurity: In journalism, writing in a simple way is necessary. “English sentences are usually much more concise and direct than in Spanish. Writing with simplicity is an advantage for you,” he said. He meant that having a somewhat limited vocabulary can actually be an advantage: It forces you to write short, straightforward sentences, which can be helpful to the reader.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to sound like an English-speaking robot. Hakai Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jude Isabella, says that editing non-native-English speakers is also an enriching language exercise for editors. “I love charming use of English words in a way that I would never use but isn’t necessarily wrong,” Isabella says, “I try to leave those [in] as much as I can because it’s an unexpected way to use the language and I think that it gets readers interested.”

There are also tools you can use to help polish your language and introduce you to words you don’t know. Lenharo and other journalists, including me, often use a translator called DeepL. It manages 28 languages and provides a variety of synonyms, which allows you to keep your word choice from being repetitive. (For one thing, it has helped me find more conjunctions and connectors—beyond although, yet, or even so—to string my clauses and paragraphs together.)

DeepL translations have a less artificial tone than Google Translate. For instance, I translated from Spanish to English a short explanation of what atmospheric aerosols are. Google translated it as, “Atmospheric aerosols are the set formed by breathable air and solid or liquid particles that remain in suspension.” DeepL, on the other hand, says, “Atmospheric aerosols are the mixture of breathable air and solid or liquid particles held in suspension.”

The difference is small, but crucial. Also, if you click on each section of the sentence, DeepL offers a variety of alternatives in case something doesn’t sound convincing or natural. And although it has a subscription plan ranging from $7 to $46 USD per month, the free version (like the free versions of other tools included in this story) works great.

Another helpful tool is Grammarly, which not only corrects basic grammatical errors, but also offers syntax recommendations and generates a report on the clarity, correctness, and engagement of your text. Grammarly works when writing any text in your computer, not just in the Grammarly app. The free version is quite good, but you can also get a premium version for $12 per month.

Of course, with both Grammarly and DeepL, you have to check to make sure that the translation and the tips make sense. It’s also important to continue to challenge yourself to improve instead of leaning too much on the tools.

Once you begin to get a better handle on English, you can take the next step and propose stories for media whose style is more narrative, which will let you begin to experiment with a more complex vocabulary.

In the beginning, I would write complete paragraphs in Spanish, paste them in DeepL, and give the translation a final check to verify that nothing looked or sounded weird. Then I realized that writing directly in English, and using the tool for translating words that I didn’t know or finding synonyms when I thought that I was overusing words, was the best option to push me to practice my writing.

It also helps to know where you are most likely to make a mistake. “I always make mistakes with prepositions like in and on,” says Lenharo. “I know that I’m gonna get those wrong, so I always double-check.” DeepL also helped me to stop misusing the apostrophe in possessive nouns, something that had always been my torment because they are rarely used in Spanish.

You should also consider the publication’s writing style when pitching. Some places prefer writers to take a just-the-facts approach, while others want some literary flair. “Being aware of our English-writing skills will help us know which media we can adjust to,” says Sebastián Rodríguez, Climate Home News’s special projects editor. Understanding your abilities will help you know what you can propose and deliver to an editor, Rodríguez says.

One of the hardest parts of writing in English is interviewing. To make it easier, Lenharo recommends preparing English-language questions in a scripted format ahead of time. That way you can have a visual backup in case things get tough. (Of course, this can be helpful in any language, even if you’re fluent!)

It is also very useful to have the complete interviews transcribed so that you can refer back to them whenever necessary. (Again, this is a good standard practice.) This is particularly useful with sources who use a lot of jargon or speak very fast. I first started transcribing everything manually because services like Trint or Otter were too expensive for me. But some months ago I started using Pinpoint from Google Journalist Studio, which transcribes in seven different languages and, unlike many others, is free.

 

Breaking In

Sarah Lewin Frasier, an editor at Scientific American, says that as long as writers can express themselves clearly and communicate the science accurately, they don’t need to have native-English proficiency. “If the idea is strong enough, I’m sort of more motivated to go back and forth to develop the pitch with the writer and to work with them,” she says. This is particularly true if you don’t have clips of previously published work in English to demonstrate your writing skills. A well-structured pitch should show that the writer understands the subject they want to explain, and that they can identify a good fit for the magazine. “That will tell me a lot about how you would handle writing something, even if I can’t see a sample,” Frasier says.

To find a good fit, it is necessary to know the magazine or publication well. The most recognized media outlets typically have their own submissions section on their websites, where they explain in detail what kind of stories they are looking for, in what formats, and even how many words or paragraphs to include in a pitch. You can often find them by searching for the publication name and “pitch guide” or “submission guide.” (You can also find about 60 outlets’ pitching guides here.) Generally, these outlets are not looking for completed stories.

Being a frequent reader of Discover and National Geographic allowed Malaysia-based journalist Yao-Hua Law to understand the types of stories those magazines told and the formats in which they presented them: long feature stories or brief articles based on a single scientific study.

In 2013, Law sent a 600-word story to The Scientist, and while sending a completed piece instead of a pitch worked twice for him in two months, thinking that was the way to work got him into trouble. “It misled me into thinking that this is an easy career and I will always get it,” Law says, “but my next accepted piece was like two months later. [Then] I realized how difficult it was.”

As a result of that experience, Law began researching and asking questions about how to write pitches properly and what were the most appropriate ways to approach editors.

According to Martin Enserink, Science magazine’s international news editor, short stories like Law’s are the best way to make the first approach to an editor. Science rarely assigns a full feature story to someone they haven’t worked with before, Enserink says. “Pitch a [600–800 word] news story that we simply can’t refuse because it’s too interesting,” he says. “In that way, you can see if you like working with us and we see if we like working with you.”

While finding interesting scientific studies that staff writers haven’t found and written about yet can be tricky, being a journalist based outside the U.S. or the U.K. can also be an advantage.

News agencies such as Thomson Reuters Foundation News or SciDev.Net, which tend to publish short news stories in an inverted pyramid format, can be some good options to start. The Xylom is a publication that is explicitly looking to help early-career journalists to publish their first pieces. Once you begin to get a better handle on English, you can take the next step and propose stories for media whose style is more narrative, which will let you begin to experiment with a more complex vocabulary.

While finding interesting scientific studies that staff writers haven’t found and written about yet can be tricky, being a journalist based outside the U.S. or the U.K. can also be an advantage. Many of the big press services like EurekAlert! don’t include as many studies or papers from non-English-speaking countries. You can also keep an eye open for small local science stories, even if they do not come from academic papers.

Italian journalist Lou Del Bello, who lives in Delhi, India, used this tactic to pitch a short story in 2017 to New Scientist. Endemic ancient shrimps from a small lake tucked away in the mountains of central Italy were endangered by climate change and an earthquake that hit the area in 2016. She first heard about the shrimp from her parents, who live in Italy. “That’s the trick,” says Del Bello, speaking from her experience both as a writer and as an editor. “Try to find something that’s unseen and take advantage of your unique language skills.”

You can also use your expertise when a local story goes global. Lenharo’s first time writing a story in English came in 2016, when she was a fellow with an International Center for Journalists program that placed foreign reporters in U.S. media outlets to learn about digital tools. She was assigned to Mother Jones magazine and worked there for a month. That same year, the Zika epidemic broke out in Brazil. Although it was not the program’s objective, the magazine’s editor suggested she write an article.

Overwhelmed, she told her editor that she didn’t think she could write in the publication’s style. As they discussed it, though, Lenharo began to feel more confident because Zika was a topic she had already been covering in Brazil, and although her English writing wasn’t fluent, she knew the subject well. “My editor told me that if I made any [writing] mistakes, he would correct them through the editing process. That made me feel much more comfortable.” Lenharo wrote a story about the unusual ways Zika was affecting Brazilians and received a boost of confidence after editors and writers at Mother Jones and other media outlets told her it was a great article.

Once you have an assignment, it is important to check with your editor about the publication’s policies. Being clear up front about expectations will help you avoid potential problems down the road.

That experience helped Lenharo gain more confidence in her abilities. “Objectively compare the stories you publish in your own country with those in the international media,” she says. “You may realize that you already have what it takes to reach that goal.”

Once you have an assignment, it is important to check with your editor about the publication’s policies around things like when to disclose a conflict of interest, whether you can show your draft to sources, and so on, as this is different at every publication. Being clear up front about expectations will help you avoid potential problems down the road. You should also ask what the workflow around editing will be. Sometimes writers will work with more than one editor for a piece, which will make the editing process more extensive. (I’m writing these lines in the fifth round of editing after the first draft, and also have re-contacted two of my sources at least three times to refine details.)

Fact-checking procedures can also be a surprise. When Lenharo worked with Undark for the first time, she was asked to highlight every fact she wrote and add a comment with the exact source that the information came from. In the case of interviews, she was asked to send audio files and transcripts pointing to the exact minute where her interviewees said what she was writing. Although it is a very intense process, Lenharo says, in the end “you feel much more confident [especially] with long stories.” Such arduous processes are more common in longform and investigative reporting. For many other stories, especially short ones, adding links to authoritative documentary sources that back up key statements may be enough.

 

Getting Used to Heavy Editing

Receiving an edited story with much of your prose crossed out in red can be discouraging, but it is a normal part of the process—and in the long run, writers can learn and improve a lot from it.

Enserink says that when he’s working with writers who don’t know the language quite as well, stories might need to go back and forth a few more times than expected. That’s why editors need to have patience and plan for those stories to take a bit of extra time.

Line editing from a fluent English speaker will always make the stories shine, says journalist Dyna Rochmyaningsih, who lives in Deli Serdang, Indonesia. She says she readily accepts the language changes her editors make to her articles. The editing makes fixes to word use and structure that always takes the vocabulary to the next level. “I think most native speakers will understand that English is not our first language and they will be happy to edit,” says Rochmyaningsih.

Networking with other journalists is essential to staying updated about opportunities. That includes following and DMing journalists on Twitter who are doing what you aspire to do; joining WhatsApp and email groups to find mentors; or joining formal journalist associations.

Sometimes, editors will have to make major changes to stories to make them fit the allotted space or make them suitable for their audiences, especially if they are short articles where words are limited.

However, writers shouldn’t feel obligated to accept every edit from an editor, particularly when they understand the local context best. Enserink says it’s very important for writers to take an active role in the editing process. “Writers from other countries know better [their countries’] cultural issues,” he says. “It’s your story. If there’s something that you didn’t like in the edit, tell me—don’t just accept all changes.”

In 2018, Rochmyaningsih reported how the measles immunization rate in Sumatra was falling because some Muslim families were refusing to inoculate their children with vaccines that contained pork elements such as gelatin and the enzyme trypsin. Tired of seeing the mainstream media only publishing articles about how vaccines had been “forbidden” by Islam, Rochmyaningsih decided to write an in-depth story that explained certain Islamic legal terms and described the situation in greater detail, recognizing that some Muslim clerics took a more nuanced view of the vaccine-production process and permitted use of vaccines that contain pork products. During the editing process, some details that Rochmyaningsih considered important were edited out. But after she communicated her point of view, her editor understood and reinstated the deleted material.

 

Building a Community to Rely On

The journey will always be more bearable with colleagues by our side to accompany us. In 2018, while Lenharo was a student at Columbia University Journalism School, a colleague invited her to join Study Hall, a digital publication and online community for freelance media workers dedicated to sharing job opportunities, organizing talks, seminars, workshops, and more.

Through reading and listening to other colleagues’ advice and experiences, Lenharo got editors’ emails, sent her first pitches, and learned that having pitches rejected was much more common than she thought. She also learned that some big media outlets pay $1 per word or more (others, including many smaller outlets and those with less-healthy freelance budgets, pay significantly less). Knowing this helped Lenharo make decisions when negotiating rates.

Networking with other journalists is essential to staying updated about opportunities within any profession. “Build a community,” says India-based journalist Disha Shetty. That includes following and DMing journalists on Twitter who are doing what you aspire to do; joining WhatsApp and email groups to find mentors; or joining formal journalist associations. Shetty says those are all useful ways to get advice and find out about grants, fellowships, and opportunities to grow.

In my case, joining the Mexican Network of Science Journalists (RedMPC) was a big step. There, I met the mentors who would later help me gain the confidence to send my first pitches. Similarly, other countries have their own national science journalism associations. Joining or even just exploring if your country has a national association in the membership list of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) might be a good starting point for finding other professionals. And even if your country doesn’t, other organizations, like the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, or the Association of Health Care Journalists accept members from all around the world to help them get immersed in the craft.

“Connections are the most important thing for a lonely freelancer,” says Rochmyaningsih, who through WFSJ found a journalism training space, her first mentor, and a network of contacts that would help boost her career. “Networks with journalists generate networks with scientists, and that means you have more chances to write more science stories,” she says.

And once you have colleagues to lean on, it will be easier to leap into the void.

 

 

Humberto Basilio Yanin Mendoza

Humberto Basilio is a Mexican freelance science writer. He has written for Eos, SciDev.Net, World Wildlife magazine, and other publications. He is a member of the Mexican Network of Science Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @HumbertoBasilio.

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