Writing for an International Audience

by Scott Rhoades

Whether you write for the Web or print, chances are your words will be read by people around the globe. This post provides suggestions to help meet the needs of a worldwide audience and maintain your organization’s international image.



Two terms are important to know:

  • Localization: Convert a document written for one culture into one for another culture. This usually starts with translation, but it doesn’t stop there.

  • Internationalization: Write so people will understand more easily if American English is not their first language.



Language and Syntax

Using clear language is more critical than usual when your audience might not have native American English skills.


  • Use only one term when referring to one thing.
    Synonyms can confuse readers whose vocabularies are limited. They can also confuse translators.

  • Use short, simple sentences.
    Complex sentence can tax language abilities.

  • Avoid words with multiple meanings.
    For example, don’t use since, as,or while when you mean because. Those words have definitions related to time that could obscure the meaning of a sentence. May can also cause problems. It can mean there’s a possibility or that you’re giving permission.

  • Be aware that some words mean something else in other languages.
    You can’t know all of the words that might have embarrassing meanings in other languages, but avoid those you know.



Cultural Bias

Be careful about unintentional discriminatory language and cultural references. Use multicultural names for people in examples, without being stereotypical. Say international customers, not foreign customers.



Avoid idioms and metaphors. They aren’t easily understood in other countries. Suggesting that somebody step up to the plate might not be understood where baseball is not played.


References to holidays are culture-specific, and often include religious overtones that show bias. Only refer to holidays when necessary. Remember that some audience members might know as much about Christmas as you do about Diwali. Avoid holiday idioms: She was excited as a child on Christmas morning.


How dates are written can create confusion. You wouldn’t want somebody to show up at 7 in the morning on December 7 expecting an event that took place on a warm July evening. 7/12/2016 means July 12, 2016 in the U.S., but in much of the world it means 7 December, 2016. Mention the month by name rather than a number.

Many cultures refer to time using a 24-hour clock rather than our typical twelve-hour clock. Writing 19:00 might confuse your U.S. audience, but if you write 7:00 pm, you’ll probably be understood by everyone. Use the 24-hour clock if your audience is used to it, such as the military or scientific communities.


If you localize, create images without words wherever possible. Words often expand in length when translated, which can mess up your carefully composed diagram. Add text in callouts or layers where word expansion won’t matter. To save cost, give your localization team a file they can edit so they don’t have to create a new graphic.


Writers might bristle against word choice restrictions enforced by editors and style guides, but clarity sometimes means trading creativity for careful use of language.

3 Ways You Can Write Like Cicero (And JFK, and Ben Franklin, and Yoda)

We can learn a thing or two from the ancient Romans. How to build the perfect stone arch, for example, or how to throw an incredible dinner party. 

Writers looking to persuade an audience should take a page from the book of one Marcus Tullius Cicero, an ancient politician famous for his speeches and mastery of rhetoric. And with election season upon us, you will almost certainly hear the same strategies echoed today.

Here are 3 Ciceronian techniques that can help add oomph to clear, concise language:

1. Anadiplosis: Yes, it sounds a little like a disease. But this trick can help you more effectively link successive ideas to make a point. Anadiplosis is the repetition of the last word of the previous clause, and looks like this:

“Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to anger. Anger leads to suffering.”
-Yoda, the wise mentor in Star Wars

It also looks like this entire DirecTV commercial. this entire DirecTV commercial

2. Chiasmus: This term means “X” and describes an A-B-B-A pattern. It helps you emphasize a contrast, like this:

“It’s not the men in my life that count: It’s the life in my men.”
-Mae West

Or, in more presidential terms:

“Ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country.”
-President John F. Kennedy

(It’s also common in the Bible.)

3. Tricolon: Ancient speakers knew there was something almost magical about the number 3, and tricolon is simply a set of 3 parallel words or phrases. (How weird does this sound: “Location, Location.” You just need that third one!)

Tricolon is one of President Obama’s favorites—consider this snippet from his 2008 victory speech:

“If there is anyone out there [1] who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; [2] who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; [3] who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
-President Obama

When the third item serves as a climax or exclamation point, it’s called tricolon crescens (crescens means “increasing”):

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
-Benjamin Franklin

So on that note, honorary bonus point to the first one who spots one of these in a Donald Trump speech.

Great Writing Starts With Grammar

My name is Jenn and I love eating my family and cats.

Wait, no, that’s not right. My name is Jenn, and I love eating, my family, and cats. That first sentence shows how grammar can be the difference between being a foodie and being a cannibal. For the professional writer, it’s very important to be mindful of grammar. A missing comma can not only give the wrong impression, it can cost you a job. Kyle Wiens owns two technical writing companies, iFixit and Dozuki. He won’t hire anyone who uses poor grammar. Even if you get the job, poor grammar is bad for business. According to a 2013 survey, “59 percent of Britons would not use a company that had obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing material.”



So how can an aspiring professional writer get a grip on grammar? Luckily for us, there’s no lack of resources, both online and in print. Grammarly will analyze your text the way your spellchecker can’t. Remember, your spellchecker sees no difference between “They’re picking up their order over there” and “Their picking up there order over they’re.” If Grammar Girl isn’t on your Favorites list, stop reading this and add her now. If you want to get down to the real nitty-gritty, there are dozens of style guides to be found online.

If paper is more your thing, there are plenty of books for your grammar gratification. You can’t go wrong with Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” Fun fact: E.B. White also wrote “Charlotte’s Web.” He gave us good grammar and “some pig.” What’s not to love? But if you’re looking for something less porcine, you can always turn to Lynn Truss’ classic “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” Better yet, ask your local librarian for some grammar books, and you’ve found a friend for life.


Now that you’ve found your reference, be sure to refer to it. That’s what it’s for, after all. If you’re unsure, look it up. Even if you’re mostly sure, look it up. The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison has a helpful guide about common grammar mistakes.

Using proper grammar is an absolute must for the professional writer and no one can know it all. For example, off the top of your head, do you know when to use less and when to use fewer? “There were less than seven” sure sounds okay, but it should be “There were fewer than seven.” If it can be counted, use fewer. Checking your work for dangling modifiers and comma splices may make you feel like you’re back in Freshman English; however, grammar will give your writing clarity and polish.

That’s it from me. Check back next week for a new post about professional writing!