Wednesday, June 27, 2012

STC Summit Chicago - Writing for Global Audiences

As promised, here is the text of my presentation, "Writing for Global Audiences", at the recent Society for Technical Communication (STC) Summit in Chicago. In Part I, Part II and Part III of this series I reviewed conference sessions related to translation and freelancing.

Writing for Global Audiences

by Barbara Jungwirth, reliable translations llc
at the 59th STC Annual Conference, May 20-23, 2009 in Chicago, Ill.

Hi. I'm Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations. I translate and edit software documentation and other technical documents between German and English. Before becoming a translator, I used to write software documentation.

Increasingly, English-language technical documents intended for global audiences are no longer translated into multiple languages. Instead, technicians and others are expected to be fluent enough in English to understand these texts in their original language. While these professionals generally know the English terminology for their specific field, their overall command of the language may not be quite so fluent. Add to this the fact that the English spoken in, say, New Delhi or Capetown differs considerably from that spoken in New York or Chicago and you can see how a document written for an American audience may be difficult to understand elsewhere.

But if you are mindful of some issues that may pose problems to non-native English speakers you can greatly increase the likelihood that global audiences will understand your document. In this presentation I will outline two areas of potential problems:

  • Writing issues - that is word choice, grammar and syntax
  • and
  • Formatting issues - that is text formatting and images

Finally, I will briefly talk about evaluating how your text may fare with a global audience.

Writing Issues

One of the most important writing issues is consistency in word choice: use the same term for the same concept. If a widget is a widget in the help system overview, that same widget should not have morphed into a thingamajigg in the section on installing widgets and a gizmo in the appendix about different widget types.

A corollary to this rule is to use standard terms with standard spelling. If the widget is spelled "w-e-e-g-i-t", a reader unfamiliar with the term cannot look it up in a dictionary and is forever left to wonder what this item might be. Also, minimize the use of words with the same spelling, but different meanings. These are sometimes confused even by native speakers and are often difficult to distinguish for non-native speakers.

Similarly, use the literal meaning of words, and avoid wordplay and metaphors. That said, many modern computer terms are, in fact, non-literal versions of older words -- e.g., mouse -- and universally understood in their new meaning. So, don't try and find a more "literal" word to describe a computer mouse -- when reading a manual, no one will think of the furry animal when encountering this term.

Don't use words in non-standard ways, such as using nouns as verbs and vice versa. When it comes to grammar, most languages are not as flexible as English. When reading foreign-language texts, many people subconsciously translate into their native language. The closer you stick to "schoolbook English", the easier it will be for non-native readers to translate the text for themselves.

Long convoluted sentences with many dependent clauses are difficult to understand even for native speakers. Complex concepts with many variables can still be explained in a series of sentences. Each of these sentences should refer to the concept explained in the previous sentence by name. Non-specific pronouns, such as "this," are harder to interpret than if the specific term to which "this" refers is repeated.

Most non-native speakers reading technical documents in English will be quite familiar with the terminology specific to their particular field. They may, however, not know colloquial expressions common in documents written for U.S. readers. This applies especially to expressions referring to sports, movies, or cultural icons. References to politics and religion, as well as anything even slightly off-color, should obviously be avoided when writing for people from different cultures.

Keep in mind that time zones, units of measure and national holidays differ among countries. Some of these references may be unavoidable, but don't add unnecessary references to location-specific items. In particular, don't provide unnecessary measurements. Since most of the world operates on the metric system, the reader will need to convert all such measurements.

Avoid acronyms and abbreviations as much as possible. If they are unavoidable, provide a list of abbreviations. That, however, does not necessarily apply to very common acronyms, particularly when the acronym may be better known than the phrase from which it derived (e.g., UNESCO).
Write in a formal tone. Many languages distinguish between two (or more) forms of address, depending on the degree of familiarity between speaker and addressee (or writer and reader). Being too formal is rarely considered offensive, while being too familiar can offend. That said, don't start using archaic phrases or stilted language. Imagine you are addressing, say, your local mayor -- assuming you are not from a small town where the mayor is your personal friend. You wouldn't call him or her "His Excellency", but you wouldn't slap his or her back, either.

Formatting Issues

While it is relatively easy to understand how vocabulary and syntax issues may affect understanding, formatting questions are often overlooked. Bulleted or numbered lists may be a better way to illustrate a set of options than a long paragraph describing the choices available. Tables, too, can present the relationship between distinct pieces of information in a fairly intuitive way.

Not all images are worth a thousand words, but procedures can sometimes be summarized in flow charts that require little linguistic knowledge. That said, writers and designers need to be mindful that a left-to-right progression is not necessarily obvious for readers who come from right-to-left (or top-to-bottom) languages. The significance of specific symbols may also not be apparent to everyone. Most U.S. readers will recognize an eight-sided red sign with white lettering to mean "Stop", but the corresponding road sign in Japan is triangular and in Tonga the sign is a white circle with a red triangle inside.


When creating documents that will be read online also take into account slower download speeds and differing standard fonts on non-English computer systems. A page that downloads quickly over your broadband connection and displays nicely in Verdana may look quite different on a machine running the Russian version of Windows and using a dial-up connection. Whenever possible, try to test online documentation in the countries where it will be mostly viewed.

Evaluating Your Work

Besides trying to test under local technical conditions, it's a good idea to have colleagues from the countries where the document will be mostly used read your text. What seems perfectly clear and understandable to you may not be so for someone coming from a different language. If people who actually live in the target countries are not available, native speakers of the languages in question who live in the U.S. are a good second choice. Failing that, people familiar with the native languages of the people likely to read the text may be able to point out significant problems.

Two other presentations at this Summit cover related topics: Bruce Poropat will speak about "Plain Language for Technical Writers" immediately following this progression and John R. Kohl, the author of The Global English Style Guide will be speaking tomorrow at 11:30. I have also prepared a short list of additional resources, which you are welcome to take.


  • Ugur Akinci, Ph.D. "How to Write for an International Audience". Technical Communication Center (Jan. 29, 2009).
  • Gerald J. Alred et. al. Handbook of Technical Writing, 9th ed. (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press), 2009.
  • John R. Kohl. The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. (Cary, NC: SAS Institute, Inc.), 2008.
  • Michael Kriz. "10 Tips for Writing International Technical Content". The Content Wrangler (July 8, 2011).
  • Philip Rubens. Science & Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge), 2001.
  • Edmond H. Weiss. The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, Internet Pages for a Global Audience. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe), 2005.
  • Dovie Wylie. "Tips for Writing Globally". Multilingual Computing, 10.1 (Oct. 1998).
  • Sun Technical Publications. Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, 3rd ed. (Sun Technical Publications).

PS: This was a short "Progression" session. I will be holding a full 45-minute session on the same topic at the tekom conference in Wiesbaden Germany, October 23-25.


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Thanks for your comment. I will review comments weekly, so please be patient if you are expecting a reply. - Barbara