I am a and an American ex-pat.

I write (mostly) product copy and (some) marketing copy for a big company with an international presence, that is not actually located in an English-speaking country. There are not many native English speakers roaming the halls. Nothing wrong with that. Conversations like this, however, are a problem:

“Hey, have you seen Yael? I need some copy.”

“Nah. But ask Kim*! She’s American.”

NO. NO. NO. Don’t get me wrong — Kim is a brilliant, wonderful person, with native English and all. But she is not a copywriter. The best way I’ve found to communicate the problem with this approach is to first reign in my disbelief and fury, and then to calmly remind people that in the U.S. and the U.K., there are also copywriters. “Copywriter” is not synonymous with “English speaker”; it’s an actual skill set. That usually works.

Even the sub-set of native English speakers who are also good writers, are not appropriate substitutes for professional copywriters: Marketing writers are artists in the medium of persuasion; good product writers have a deep understanding of user experience and the best practices, trends, and et cetera therein. They are a sub-set within the sub-set with relevant expertise.

A cautionary tale

Recently, a project owner came to me with a brief for a page he was creating. I listened to his description of the task and then started to ask questions — the more I clarified up front, the fewer iterations we’d have later, for sure. I was undecided about whether to include one particular piece of content in the copy, but instead of answering my questions to help me decide, he told me unequivocally to exclude** it, and that he’d “already done all the thinking” and didn’t need to answer any more questions.

First of all, this is a good way to make sure you are always last on the list of Copy priorities. Like, after every other task and more coffee. Furthermore, it does your product a disservice because you are missing the opportunity for another talented, experienced stakeholder to weigh in. The project owner here seems to have gotten confused regarding the role of a copywriter: We are not monkeys who vomit words. We are experts in communication, user experience, interface design, and a slew of other areas that the project owner may also, or may not, know anything about. Why not leverage every possible resource to make your product great? No one person should ever do all the thinking.

Lessons learned abroad

Lest you walk away with the impression that being a copywriter in a non-English-speaking company is all bad, I want to share some major benefits that hopefully you can apply, even if you work near home.

Check idioms at the door

Because successful products are usually translated into multiple languages, it is best practice to avoid slang, idioms and any other cultural references that will lose the user in other languages. That’s why I was really surprised to see “Blerg” in the Slack UI. Maybe they have native copywriters in different languages, as opposed to translating English strings? Maybe they don’t support other languages? I have no idea but I’m curious.

Running your copy by non-native English speakers is a convenient failsafe to catch any slang that might have slipped in. Granted, when this kind of a review kills a pun you are particularly proud of, it can hurt. But better to kill it before it’s in production and Support is inundated with complaints because users are confused, or worse, offended because you didn’t realize the play on words would mean something lewd in other languages.

Control the reading level

Keeping microcopy at a about a 4th grade reading level is generally considered best practice and there are websites to help you with that. Another generally accepted way to proof your copy for appropriate reading level is to run it through someone who speaks English as a second language. If they can’t understand it, it’s not clear enough. And as tempting as it is, don’t argue! If they ask even one question, your users will end up thinking too hard and none of us wants that.

Try on an alternative intonation to check clarity

Commas are often, but not always, an effective way to control the way your users read your copy, where they put the emphasis, etc. Occasionally, the way a native English speaker would read a sentence, and the way other users may read the same sentence, will result in two different interpretations. For example, the word “also” is not always adjacent to the subject, e.g., “I want to eat also” — do you mean that you, in addition to another person, want to eat? Or that you want to eat in addition to drink? Sometimes commas can help with this type of ambiguity, and sometimes the natural intonation of a reader is overpowering. Run it by a non-English speaking colleague, or just remember to take another look with this in mind.

Writing copy is a niche skill and good copy brings a lot of value to any product. Even if you’re an all-star copywriter, like in all fields, the best and the brightest can also do better. It’s not only about learning from thought leaders and other gurus, but by drawing lessons from the little things all around us.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent

  • *In the next iteration, he asked me to include it.

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