Friday 5 April 2002

Writing for a Global Audience

This article for Online Journalism Review originally appeared on 5 April 2002.


Of course you're international, you're on the Web, right? Uh, well, maybe.

The 'world-wide' part of the WWW has always been central to the 'wow' factor of the new medium. It's a truism of our time that the Web has opened up international communication and increased access to news and information from around the globe.

Online writers and editors frequently talk about writing for a global audience, but in practice, most seem to make little effort to address the particular problems such a challenge presents. This victory of pragmatism over theory is understandable: after all, the vast majority of publications, whether on the Web or not, are not truly international in focus, and no new medium is going to change this fact.

Still, there are some guidelines and a few easy tricks that are quick to implement to make a site more globally friendly.

Global Babel

The most important aspect of any publication is, of course, language, and language is also the greatest barrier to creating an internationally read Web site. Long gone are the days when American English dominated the ether as the lingua franca of the Web.

True, the United States still has the largest number of users, and English is still the leading language, but other countries and languages now make up more than 50% of the Web, according to The Face of the Web, the annual study of Internet trends by international research firm Ipsos-Reid (15 May 2001),

Not only are less than half of all Web sites in English (48%), there are countries where Internet penetration and use are greater than in the USA (Canada and Sweden, for example).

Most importantly, the same study also concludes: 'In every global region where English is not the main language spoken, nine in ten Internet users prefer to get local information in their own language.'

With most everyone preferring their native language, the Web is less an international bridge than an electronic Babel, mocking the very idea of a truly world-wide publication. Thus, on the Web or no, news and information are overwhelmingly local, not global.

English: don't sweat the big stuff, sweat the small stuff

Without the means to hire an army of translators, most sites are going to see English as a good bet when seeking to be as international as possible. But that leads to the question: which English?

There has been an enormous amount of material written about American vs. British English and about the form of English that should be used on a Web site. This battle rages even though the question has been passé in linguistic circles for decades. (For more on this see -- Examples of Cultural Differences in English Usage.)

Different forms of English have co-existed for centuries. American English -- which is only debatably a unified whole anyway -- stands next to British English, Australian English, Canadian English and several other forms, as well.

Most editors believe that being form-consistent is the important thing for any publication, online or off. Pick one form, they say, and stick with it.

At Central Europe Review we've taken a slightly different approach to this in that we aim to be form-consistent not across the entire Web site, but within one individual article. We did this initially for both conceptual and internal political reasons.

Conceptually, we wanted to make a point that the world is big enough for all the forms of English. It's not a competition, and they all have their place.

Admittedly, internal political reasons were also a factor. We started with an internationally diverse group of writers and editors, all fans of different forms of English, so the compromise hammered out at the beginning of our venture was for each writer to be able to choose the form of English he or she writes in. The editor of the piece then has to accommodate to the writer's form.

Initially, we were wary to take this unique and somewhat radical approach to editing, but, now, two years into the project, it is clear we made the right choice.

As more and more writers have become involved in the project, they all appreciate being able to write in their preferred form. No one has felt forced to write in an unfamiliar form, and no writer has had to suffer the annoyance of reading an article in a form different to the one it was written in.

We've had no complaints from readers about it. Some non-native-English speakers have even written to us saying how glad they are to see variety. It gives them good practice at understanding English overall, and it cuts through the linguistic hegemony of some sites and publications that some find threatening.

Clearly, this is not the solution for everyone; some publications are naturally more international than others. Most will not want to mix forms on their site, but, still, there are things that can be done to make English more global.

From the radical to the practical

When writing about international issues, one nice touch is to spell names and proper nouns correctly, complete with the right characters. Unicode transformation format (UTF), which is supported by all the major Web browsers and versions, allows a single Web page to have dozens of different languages on it at the same time: Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Serbian, and all with their proper symbols and diacritics.

Of course, few would want to go as far as using Kanji and Cyrillic names in English-language articles with Japanese names and Russian names, but it is easy to write the names properly in parentheses. And it is even easier to use the proper diacritics on Latin letters when appropriate. After all, the Czech Premier's name is not 'Milos Zeman,' but 'Miloš Zeman' with a caron or hacek above the 's.'

The technical side of UTF is simple, and it only takes a few seconds to spell a name properly. So, if you really want to be international, you need to break out of your comfortable 26-letter prison. Nothing says you're serious about being global better than spelling international names correctly.

Culture: being aware of your readers' knowledge

Far more important than differences in the English language itself are cultural differences. This is not about being sensitive to social, political and religious restrictions in every country where a publication might appear. That would be impossible.

It's much more about being aware of what you're taking for granted in your readers' knowledge. People outside of your city, region or country can be highly educated and still not be aware of the things that you see and experience every day.

For example, let's say you're writing an article on crime in your US city and the difficulty the police are having in apprehending a suspect. You will find that even highly educated Europeans are not aware that the United States has no national identification document. They generally won't understand the relationship between individual states or between the federal government and the states.

The best way to make your Web site international and internationally understood is to make sure at least part of your staff is international, preferably living abroad. A non-US editor or experienced writer can read through a piece and tell you very quickly where you are making assumptions and where you are taking peoples' knowledge for granted.

Individual freelance journalists have options available to them, as well. For those wishing to address a more international audience, one good idea is to strike up a deal with a freelancer in another country and ask him or her to read your pieces from time to time. Offer your native-English proof-reading skills in return.

It's a good barter deal, and if it's all conducted via e-mail and instant messaging, it doesn't cost a penny. And, of course, international relationships such as these have the added advantage of conferring an understanding of another culture and a deeper understanding of one's own.

Obviously, not every article on a site can have endless background and detail to address the knowledge gaps of every possible reader in the world, but there are still things that can be done to improve the understanding of international audiences.

One thing to consider, for example, is the addition of a 'Did you know?' box on the article page, listing some important facts that would be helpful for a non-local to understand the names and places being written about. Better still would be to add links to background pages, where those who want to know more of the basics behind the story can find those details.

The old adage applies: know your audience

Of course, just how much to explain these things and how much detail and supporting information to go into depends on who the expected readership is.

The real question every online writer and editor needs to ask is: 'Are you really writing for a global audience.'

After all, as most advertising is nationally targeted or locally targeted, how many Web sites are truly aiming for an international audience anyway?

Even though the Web has made international communication easier and cheaper than ever before, much of what's actually on the Web is aimed at national, regional or local audiences -- and rightly so. First, you must decide how international you want to be, and then establish in-house guidelines that will fit that policy.

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