Imagine you are talking with a friend. Then write that way.
That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received in college. It has served me well through almost four decades now, because it helps me remember that writing is a relationship with the reader. We write to be clearly understood. We and our local audience share not just a heart language, but also a heart dialect and common experiences.
Perhaps the nicest compliment I ever received as a writer came from a friend who read one of my feature stories in the newspaper. He said, “I knew it was you even before I saw the byline.”
The “write it for a friend” rule still works if I am writing strictly for an American audience — or for any English-speaking audience familiar with American speech patterns and vocabulary. The rule works for anyone writing to a similar audience in their own cultural context.
But what about writing for an international, multicultural audience? Must we follow the plentiful advice out there that says keep it absolutely simple, clear and … blandly generic?
I believe we can find an acceptable compromise. Here are a few guidelines to make cross-cultural writing understandable but still keep your voice:
Use simple words
This is a good rule regardless of the audience. Writers who read a lot of one author, or genre, begin to write like that. This can be a problem for a writer who reads a lot of technical material. For instance, academic writing is common in the Bible translation world. Academic writing uses little-known terms and long sentences, because it aims at a highly educated audience that will quickly understand these. A general audience — especially a cross-cultural audience — may not.
In the preceding paragraph, I originally wrote: “Academic writing uses esoteric terms.” Esoteric is a great word, but is not commonly used. So I changed it to little-known.
English contains more than a million words, with about 170,000 in current use. The average English speaker uses 20,000 to 30,000 words. But, a person is considered conversational if they use 1,000 to 3,000 words, and fluent if they use 10,000. We should aim multicultural English writing at someone who is conversational.
Voice of America produced a list of 1,510 simple English words. This is a useful reference in deciding whether a word is simple enough to use.
Use active voice
Subect, verb, object. This keeps sentences simpler and on point. Verbs need to appear early in sentences because they convey action and keep the reader interested.
Yes: Jacob threw the ball.
No: The ball was thrown by Jacob.
This S-V-O advice applies to any writing, even to a local audience. For a multicultural audience, translation of passive sentences can be difficult. Some languages do not even have a passive form.
Also, do not begin a sentence with the ambiguous subject “It.” Be specific.
No: It’s going to rain today.
Yes: Rain is expected today. / We expect rain today.
One caution: Some Asian cultures prefer passive voice if the sentence says something negative. The reasoning is, it feels more polite and less accusatory. So instead of She broke the vase, you might say, The vase was broken by her.
Use short sentences
Journalism students learn that the first sentence of a story (the “lede”) should never be more than 25 words. Why? Because reader comprehension declines dramatically when sentences are longer than that. For a typical American audience, if a sentence is more than 40 words, reader comprehension drops to less than 10 percent. Now imagine how difficult the same sentence would be for an international audience.
Sentence lengths should vary, to avoid monotony. But a good average is between 15 and 25 words.
This has been the biggest adjustment for me. I speak with contractions, as do most people. I write with contractions, because they sound natural and contribute to a comfortable relationship with readers. I disagree strongly with those who say contractions have no place in formal writing.
Yet, I wrote this entire blog post without contractions. (To be honest, I used many contractions and then had to go back and replace them.) The problem for multicultural writing is this: Contractions introduce a potential obstacle to understanding and translation. Not every language uses contractions. Not even all English speakers use them.
An idiom is a group of words that has a figurative meaning, often limited to a particular language or culture. Examples:
This dinner will cost me an arm and a leg.
That was the last straw.
We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
To begin paragraph six of this post, I originally I wrote: “I believe we can find middle ground.” Not every culture knows what that idiom means. So I changed it to: “I believe we can find an acceptable compromise.” Those are still simple words that I would use in conversation, but now we have removed a potential obstacle.
In conversation, I almost never use the world children. I say kids to mean anyone from babies to my own sons and daughter, who are close to 30 years old. Literally, a kid is a baby goat. A local audience will understand that is not what I mean. For a cross-cultural audience, I need to be specific but still use simple words: an infant, a child, a teen, a young adult.
The corporate world has its own slang, and some of it has invaded the ministry world. Here is a fun list. Most is worthy of ridicule. But it is also good to recognize it so that we can avoid it in all writing, especially cross-cultural writing.
Does that nail it for you? Oops. I mean, does this help you understand?
One useful tool to check your writing for simplicity is an app called Hemingway. Simply copy and paste your writing onto this website and it gives instant analysis, including the grade level. Anything more than eighth grade is too complex. This does not mean we assume our readers have an eighth grade intelligence level. It just means we are writing to be quickly understood, not to make readers work hard.
In this post, I tried to follow all of the mentioned rules and yet retain my own voice as a writer. Hemingway scored it at a sixth grade level, which is the level I want. But I also had areas to improve. Some of my word choices could have been simpler. Five sentences were “very hard to read.” I went back and fixed a few things.
As mentioned, not all of the suggestions in this post apply to all writing. But the great thing is: As I think hard about every word, my writing for any audience improves.
I even get better at talking with friends.