Web Writing for the World: Five Tips On Writing For Global Readers

    April 1, 2003

They’re on the web in great numbers, they are your users, and American English is not their first language. They may be across the world or across the street. Who are they? They are global readers, and if you’re doing business on the web, you can’t afford to dismiss them. Global Reach at http://www.glreach.com/globstats/ estimates that 510 million non-native English speakers will be online by 2003. That’s more than half the online population! How can you welcome these global users and make your site easy for them to use? Here are our five writing tips for making your web site universal.

Global Reach Statistics

#1 – Replace Idioms With Literal Expressions

English contains thousands of idioms: accepted phrases whose meaning differs from their literal meaning. Think of the confusion these idioms could cause for non-native English speakers: “change hands,” “hot deal,” “before you know it,” or “bend over backwards.” To write for global readers, substitute literal expressions for idioms: write “change ownership” instead of “change hands,” “special offer” instead of “hot deal,” “very soon” instead of “before you know it,” and “do everything possible” instead of “bend over backwards.”

Some idioms are easy to spot and edit out of our web writing, but many have become so common we use them without realizing they are idioms. You’ll probably find it is virtually impossible to write more than a few sentences without using idioms such as “by the way,” “as well as,” or “just as soon.” Try substituting “incidentally” for “by the way,” “in addition to” for “as well as,” and “as quickly” for “just as soon.”.

#2 – Eliminate Cultural References: Who Is John Hancock?

Beware of references that are specific to American culture. We commonly refer to American sports, books, TV, movies, and history in our writing. Consider how confusing this sentence would be for someone who doesn’t know anything about our national sport, baseball. “We will touch base about this idea later.” (Try “contact you” instead.) You can’t ask a global reader to put his JOHN HANCOCK on a contract. You have to ask him to sign it, instead.

#3 – Avoid Humor

Have you ever watched a British comedy on PBS and you didn’t get the jokes? Would a global reader find this American joke funny? “The CEO of an HMO died and went to heaven. Of course, he had to check out after 48 hours.” Clearly, humor doesn’t work well across cultures or languages. Save your humor for your friends. Your online writing should be warm, friendly, upbeat, and contemporary, but avoid jokes.

#4 – Express Measurements, Dates, And Times Universally

When you provide information that involves numbers, remember that the systems and conventions we use in the U.S. are not universal.

  • Most of the world is metric. So, if you’re giving dimensions in feet and inches, be sure to include metric equivalents: “The length of the bookshelf is 7 feet, 7 inches (230 cm).”
  • If you’re selling clothes, provide measurements so global customers can select the right size: “Size medium dresses are 52 inches long (132 cm).”
  • Write out the complete date: “January 10, 2003.” In the U.S. the convention for expressing dates is month/day/year. But many countries express the date as day/month/year. And the international standard is year/month/date.
  • If your site refers to times, such as customer service hours or store hours, include your time zone: “You may call us between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.” Remember that the ubiquitous phrase “24/7” may be unclear to global readers. Instead, write: “You may telephone our customer service department 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
  • #5 – Write Short, Concise Sentences

    Use short sentences, written in the active voice, and be concise. Make your writing concise by using simple, clear phrases rather than bureaucratic language or jargon. Jargon and bureaucratic expressions are confusing and off-putting to native English speakers. Imagine how daunting they are for global readers! For example, avoid sentences like this one: “Failure to enter your password will result in an invalid entry message.” Rewrite that in plain English (to aid global and “local” readers alike): “If you don’t provide your password, our system can’t identify you.”

    Writing well means writing for everyone who reads and uses your site. But if American English is your native language, you may find writing for global readers a real challenge. You may want to test your site with a few global users who can point out unclear idioms or cultural references. Be patient, keep trying, and keep writing for everyone. And keep in mind the words of author Christopher Morley: “Life is a foreign language; most men mispronounce it.”

    Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE — http://www.ewriteonline.com, a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area that specializes in online writing. Rudick and O’Flahavan are authors of the book Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.

    Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan Answer Online Writing Questions: Click Here For Free Answers