David B. Schlosser is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer and an award-winning editor. He taught higher-education writing and crime fiction, and served the boards of Editorial Freelancers Association and Mystery Writers of America regional chapters. His fiction appears in literary journals and online magazines. His non-fiction appears in global news outlets and industry publications. As a communications strategist, political consultant, and candidate, he has delighted and offended people around the world.
Due to technical difficulties, a video of the July 8 presentation will not be available, but you can read an excellent recap below, or peruse the speaker’s “Editing for a Global Audience” presentation in PDF format here.
(Written notes from the 07/08/19 meeting by Molly Hollenbach)
In his introduction, presenter David B. Schlosser (dbschlosser.com) noted that he had given this talk at the Red Pencil Conference in 2013. He reviewed his background, from running political campaigns to P.R., to scripts for micro devices, to editing, and then more editing. He now edits or writes Web content for Express Scripts, an online service for pharmacies. He has also written and published crime fiction.
Cardinal rule: “Don’t edit the language in a way that would make it sound unnatural to native speakers of English.”
From his experience editing technical documents, Schlosser became fascinated by the particular challenges of making English clear to non-native speakers of English. He pointed out that “In our digitally connected, 24/7 world,” we are writing and editing for a global audience, of whom fewer than 15 percent grow up speaking English. Iceland is the most wired non-English speaking country in the world. Access to the Internet is growing, especially in Africa. Everything written will soon be available to everyone!
Thus, unlike editing in other contexts, it may be more important to understand and convey the sense than to be absolutely accurate. It may even be better to make it clear than to preserve the authorial voice. He noted that engineers don’t care – but other kinds of writers may. (Be careful with poets!)
Use the simplest and fewest verbs possible, and the simplest possible structure and tense.
For example: Instead of I had planned to go – write I plan to go.
Gerunds and other -ing verbs are confusing to non-native speakers because there are also -ing nouns such as thing and setting. Avoid them if you can.
Phrasal verbs and split infinitives can be problematic, e.g. turn off – keep the phrase together. Turn off the machine, not turn the machine off. To go boldly, not to boldly go.
Words that indicate logical relationships, such as however, therefore, and thus are better at the beginning than stuck in the middle of the sentence.
Limit the passive voice – it’s hard to translate.
Don’t verb nouns. Don’t verb TLAs (three-letter acronyms), e.g. He got RIF’d
Avoid rhetorical flourishes: as well as = and. Within = in.
Make short sentences – 20-25 words max.
Be stupidly literal. Instead of The report compares department salaries (No department has a salary…), The report compares salaries of employees in this department.
Dates and times – it’s better to use the more international standard forms: 8 July 2019 and 13:00 vs 1 p.m. Formats for dates and time vary, and these are more universally understood.
Avoid has/have and past participles.
Avoid homographs (reject v. and reject n.) and homophones (knead and need).
Since/because/as – these can be confusing.
Pronouns – Use the referent again if there’s any ambiguity of pronoun reference. Don’t use this, that, these, those.
Directional words can be unclear or hard to translate, e.g. See below. Instead of over 100,000, use more than
Cliches and idioms can’t be translated literally, e.g. ballpark estimate, bang for your buck, whole nine yards.
Not only, just one more thing – Be sure they’re close to what they’re modifying. He had only the animals for company, not He only had . . .
Reducing the volume of content helps those who need to translate your English document into other languages. Translation is expensive. There can be exceptions, however, such as in health care, when it may be more important to make sure it’s all included.
Balance increased content against decreased ambiguity. The goal is always clarity. Help the client consider that you, the editor, may be cheaper than the translator.
Also, in reducing bulk through simplifying the structure, you don’t want to reduce the content.
Use structural and visual clues to help readers understand the content.
Schlosser highly recommends checking out Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, called “the visual Strunk & White.” Thinking about how information can be presented visually can be very useful for words people.
Humor and sarcasm don’t translate well.
It’s fine to violate the style guide for the purpose of clarity; for example it may help to use more commas than you would for an English speaking audience. And always use the series comma.
Restructure if there are dashes or parentheses.
Passive voice – if you use it, be sure it is clear who is acting.
Noun phrases – restructure for clarity and context.
e.g. Concrete floor paint – restructure: Paint to be applied to concrete floors
Prepositional phrases – keep them close to the verb.
Articles – the is more ambiguous than a or an.
Native speaker: You can buy it from a store or kiosk.
Clearer: You can buy it from a store or from a kiosk.
Bullets and numbered lists are better than long sentences.
If you are breaking rules for clarity for global audiences, be sure you are breaking rules in the same way throughout the document, to minimize confusion.
Use clear and simple verb tenses.
Hyphenation – do hyphenate -ly adverbs and well-
Make two-word words two, e.g. healthcare = health care
Compound words – make them two. Lookup, breakdown etc.
TLAs, aka, e.g., etc. – avoid whenever possible.
Contractions – be overly explicit.
John R. Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. SAS Publishing. 2008
Edmund H Weiss, The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, and Internet Pages for a Global Audience. M.E. Sharpe. 2005
Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. 2nd edition, Graphics Press. 2001