How to write for foreigners – and write better for non-foreigners too
[By 'foreigners', I mean people whose first language isn't English. But that made a rather clumsy title.]
I’m currently partway through writing the copy for d’Overbroeck’s College’s international student prospectus. That sounds hard, doesn’t it? Harder, you’d think, than what I do most of the time – writing for people whose first language is English?
Yeah, it’s hard. But all copywriting is hard.
You could be writing for any audience under the sun, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard.
If you are writing a piece of copy and it’s not hard, you’re probably not writing very good copy.
Sorry to break that to you.
Writing for an international audience is no harder than any other
In fact, writing for people who aren’t fluent English speakers only seems hard because it forces you to do the things you should really be doing every time you write copy. For anyone.
It forces you to simplify.
You see, it’s very easy to be a lazy writer. To throw lots of crap at the wall and hope some of it sticks. To phrase your sentences exactly as they come out of your brain – and rely on your readers to get your point.
But when you’re writing for an international audience, you have to do 3 things:
- Keep the amount of text to a minimum.
When you have to translate each sentence laboriously, you want to get to the point quickly. You aren’t going to want to wade through superfluous verbiage.
- Use very simple, direct language.
Chances are you realise this instinctively. ‘At our College you will get excellent results’ is clearly more understandable than, ‘A quality for which the College is justly renowned is the excellent results achieved by its students.’ Every message you want to put across must be delivered directly and simply. Even the simpler of my examples above could be improved: I might put ‘excellent results’ in bold, for instance, so that a reader who’s really struggling can zoom to just the barest essential.
- Organise your messages clearly.
It’s easier to understand a sentence if you already understood the title under which it is printed. So a page that is organised into chunks, clearly signposted with simple ‘headlines’ is much easier than one that is undifferentiated.
By now you’ve probably worked out what I’m going to say next.
But humour me while I say it, anyway:
Each of those points above doesn’t just apply to writing for a non-fluent audience. Each point also applies to writing for the most fluent native-speaker you could imagine.
That’s because the above points are three universal principles of good copywriting.
Every time you are writing for an audience that isn’t your friends/family, you need to remember: these people aren’t going to work hard to get my drift. They have no reason to care and every reason to be indifferent.
They don’t want to do my work for me, and they won’t.
They don’t have all the time in the world, so they have limited patience.
They don’t want to be bothered ‘translating’ my rough draft into a sensible summary.
They want to get the message quickly and with a minimum of effort.
So that’s why you should start off writing every piece of copy as if it’s for an international audience.