Tips on writing (or editing) for an international market
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
When I say, the ‘international market’, this is really a misnomer. What I’m going to discuss is ways to make your writing easier to understand for readers who don’t have English as their first language.
However, I stand by my title, because this is frequently useful when working on texts for markets outside the UK. Often texts aimed at an international market are written with English as an additional language (EAL) readers in mind.
Here I’m going to show you a few pitfalls and how you can avoid them.
1. Don’t, for goodness’ sake, put clauses in the middle of a sentence
We all do it. We write this way, because we speak this way. If English is your first language then putting clauses in the middle of a sentence is quite enjoyable, because they add variety to your writing.
However, this makes the sentence much harder for EAL readers to decode. It is better to move clauses to the beginning or end of a sentence. For example, my heading should read: ‘For goodness’ sake, don’t put clauses in the middle of a sentence.’
2. Step away from the idiom
In other words, avoid everyday metaphors (imagery that compares one thing to another thing). These are common phrases that we might not even recognise as a metaphor, because we use them so often in speech. Examples include:
‘He took the moral high ground.’
‘You’re putting the cart before the horse.’
‘She got cold feet.’
These idioms are very difficult for EAL readers to understand. I remember discovering this when I was learning French at A Level and I learnt a common French metaphor. It was, ‘tomber dans les pommes’. This literally translates as ‘to fall among the apples’. It is actually a colloquial way of saying ‘to faint’. As a non-native speaker there was no way for me to understand this without being told.
We use more of these in our writing than we realise, especially in business contexts. One I came across recently was ‘to progress up the career ladder’. Keep a sharp eye out for any that you might be falling back on… ahem.
3. Be a good sport and don’t be too British
It’s not our fault really. We were all educated on Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen. We’re bound to slip into a bit of, ‘Hail fellow, well met,’ at midnight after three hours of post-work writing or editing. But this isn’t very helpful for an international audience. The same goes for your own local market – American, Australian or any other.
It’s best to avoid local phrases or contexts. I read a case study recently in which pantomime had been used as an example. It was an excellent example. But unfortunately not very accessible to a non-British market.
If you can, tailor your writing to the market that will read it. Use local examples as far as possible. If the materials are meant to be read widely on an international scale, then make sure the examples you use would be understood in most regions.
4. Don’t skip the small stuff
Another pitfall that native speakers can fall into is dropping little words from sentences. The most common one is the relative pronoun: ‘that’, ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘whose’ and ‘whom’.
For example, you might write, ‘I went to the shop selling books.’ The meaning here could be confused. The writer might mean that they went to the shop where books are sold, or they might mean that they were selling the books themselves. This would be better written as, ‘I went to the shop that sells books.’
A slightly more sophisticated example might be, ‘This example shows one pitfall writers should avoid.’ This one might feel more familiar and doesn’t read as incorrect. However, it would help an EAL reader to make this sentence more explicit by changing it to, ‘This example shows one pitfall that writers should avoid.’
5. Tear down those phrasal verbs
Verbs fall into two categories – simple verbs and phrasal verbs. A simple verb might be ‘run’ or ‘walk’. It is made up of just one word. A phrasal verb must have at least two words to make sense. For example, ‘work out’ is a phrasal verb, which has a very different meaning from the simple verb, ‘work’.
To help EAL readers understand your writing, you should avoid the use of phrasal verbs. Some might be unavoidable, like, ‘The plane took off.’ Others are easily replaced.
Let’s go back to the example used above, ‘work out’. This is often used in a maths context in school materials. ‘If Mo has fifty pencils and he gives away thirteen, work out how many pencils he has left.’ For EAL readers it would be better to replace ‘work out’ with a single verb, such as ‘calculate’.
Alternatively, you might find ‘work out’ used in a health context. ‘Lisa works out three times per week.’ In this case, it would be better for Lisa to ‘exercise’ three times per week. This example also shows that using a more specific verb can also clarify the meaning for EAL readers.
Editing for a wider audience
Although these tips are aimed at writing and editing with EAL readers in mind, they are useful to remember in any type of work. All writing and editing should strive for clarity. These tips will help to achieve it. You can start putting them into practice on whatever your current project is and get into the habit of using them in all your work.