How To Write For An International Audience

international audience depicted in cartoon

When you know that your work will be translated and shared with readers in different countries, these real-world tips can help.

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

For a decade or more, much of my professional writing work has been aimed at audiences who live in other countries and who often speak other languages. It’s been great to see my articles translated and published in magazines, newspapers, and websites around the world — and while it’s true that nearly any type of writing can be translated for global distribution, I’ve found that writing specifically with a multi-lingual international audience in mind benefits from a more specialized approach.

Here are some tips that have helped me write for audiences that are lingually, geographically, and culturally diverse. I hope these ideas are helpful for you, too.

Identify and learn about your audience

With any sort of writing, knowing your audience and writing specifically for them will set you up for success. When writing for an international and multi-lingual readership, thinking about your audience ahead of time can help you avoid unforced errors and craft copy that will be compelling and effective.

If you’re writing an article about financial systems in south Asia for an audience of investment professionals in Indonesia and Singapore, chances are you can include a good amount of industry-specific lingo and not waste precious space describing basic concepts. On the other hand, if you’re introducing exciting new malaria treatments to an audience of teenagers across India, you may want to craft your text to be as universally accessible and engaging as possible.

Identifying your audience doesn’t mean having to spend days deep in research. Instead, just take some time to think about who your most likely readers will be, what they might already know, what they’ll want to know, and how you might best pique their interest.

Write with translation in mind

As you write for your international and multi-lingual audience, keep your language direct and straightforward. Whenever possible, stay away from slang or local idioms that might not hold up in translation. Avoid phrases that are unnecessarily florid and keep your sentence structure as direct and practical as possible. In nearly every case, the more straightforward your copy, the more likely it will be to hold up after translation and represent exactly what you want it to.

Similarly, the simpler and more streamlined your writing, the better the chances that English-language readers who are less than fluent will absorb your meaning without confusion.

Be mindful of your own assumptions

A few years ago, I was asked to write an article about an educational summer camp program run by the police force of a foreign city. At first glance, this seemed like a cool program and straightforward assignment — but as I started to dive in, I realized there were complex questions I had to keep in mind as I worked.

Since I don’t live in the country I was writing about and am not a regional expert, I didn’t feel I had context to fully understand the relationships between the police force, community, and government. Did all parties trust and support each other, or was there friction, tension, or even violence? Were the bonds between all parties growing stronger or fracturing? And would local community members view this summer program as a safe and positive environment for kids or would they approach it with fear and suspicion?

While these specific questions were well outside the scope of my article, I found them vital to keep in mind. The more I was aware of what I didn’t concretely know (and didn’t have the luxury to thoroughly research before my deadline), the better I could be about avoiding inaccurate assumptions in my writing and focus on telling a clear, truthful, and engaging story instead.

Build on facts

To deal with the challenges I described above — and to avoid including inaccurate assumptions or other content that was unintentionally misleading — I made sure that every sentence I wrote was built on concrete and trustworthy facts.

I included details of the program and its history, all of which had been published in multiple verifiable documents and publications. I included firsthand quotes from organizers and participants, some of which I gathered myself through interviews and some of which came to me through other published and trustworthy sources. Any time I introduced a new thought or idea, I made sure it was tightly linked to solid, verifiable information.

My overall goal? To build an article that any member of the community, police force, or government could read and accept as an accurate description of the program — regardless of any other political, social, or cultural forces at play.

Don’t talk down to your audience

It’s not unusual to see people speak loudly or talk like they’re communicating with a child when they interact with someone who isn’t fluent in the speaker’s language. Often, people do this without realizing it. If you’re not careful, something similar can happen when you’re writing for an international, multi-lingual audience.

Making your writing clear, straightforward, and translation-friendly does not mean dumbing things down. Keep your ideas just as sharp as you would if you were writing for an audience of native English speakers. Readers of any sort have an uncanny knack for sensing when they are being condescended to, even if it’s subtle and unintentional.

Spell names and locations (and everything) correctly

This may seem like a small and obvious detail, but if you’re writing for an audience that’s in another country — and writing about a subject that’s local to your audience — it’s imperative that you get your spelling in order.

For names of locally significant people, places, holidays, foods, and traditions, look up the spelling in multiple trustworthy sources and make sure your copy is accurate and consistent. In particular, look for language-specific accents and include them as appropriate. Sometimes, if you’re writing an English transliteration of a word that’s originally spelled with a different alphabet (Japanese, Hebrew, and many others), you may find different accepted English-language spellings. Choose the one that seems the most commonly used in reputable sources and go with that — and stay consistent throughout.

Why is spelling such a big deal? Because the last thing you want is to alienate your audience due to sloppiness. Nothing will turn readers off faster than seeing obvious and disrespectful mistakes, like misspelling the name of their city, political leader, or beloved national holiday. And while you may be lucky enough to have an editor who will correct such things if you get them wrong, it’s best to assume that won’t be the case.

Ask for help if you need it

Writing for an international audience can be challenging, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support. Embassies, consulates, tourism bureaus, and region- or language-specific experts at educational institutions can all provide helpful information and will often respond positively if you approach them in a respectful way.

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