Writers are usually advised to “write what they know” and provide intimate descriptions of a place, the protagonist’s emotions, and characters’ actions to make the readers experience the story like it’s happening to them.
They pay attention to every detail. They spend hours picking the right metaphors, correcting typos and grammatical errors, and creating the perfect opening sentence. But there’s one thing they’re missing.
American writers create books, essays, and articles with an American audience in mind. As publishing becomes more and more of an international marketplace, however, their words will be read in English by a global audience. For example, as a non-American, I need to constantly interrupt my reading flow to Google words like “freshman” or “first-grader,” or inform myself when writers use brand names or places.
Of course, technology, especially eBook readers, with their easy-to-access dictionaries, makes it much easier for me to do so. And a lot of the time, I can figure out these terms from context. Still, the fact that I need to do this additional work tells me: This book wasn’t written for you.
Authors from outside of the United States need to make sure that their writing is accessible to an American audience. We do this either by providing notes – like Kevin Kwan did in his best-selling Crazy Rich Asians trilogy – or by explaining unknown words and phrases in context.
If you want to make your books more accessible on a worldwide scale, you must step out of your comfort zone and write with a more global, multilingual audience in mind.
Do you have to use this word?
Let’s take one of the examples above, “first-grader.” In an American context, I’d assume you mean that your child is 6 or 7 years old. A first-grader in the Netherlands, however, may be as young as 4, simply because the ages at which children start school around the world differ considerably. So why not just tell me how old your child is instead? Think of other words, such as “freshman,” which refers to someone’s first year at an American educational institution such as a college. Other cultures usually don’t have special words for that period in life. Ask yourself: Is this term really necessary to include, or is there a more accessible way of describing someone or something?
You don’t have to explain all Americanisms, but always provide context so that people from all over the world understand you. This would include distances, measurements, and temperatures, among other things. For example, if you tell me that someone has a 100-degree Fahrenheit fever, it will tell me, a Celsius-loving European, absolutely nothing. Instead, show me just how feverish the sick man is. Describe the icicles forming on the windowsills on a frosty day or describe how the hot sun is bearing down on you on a sweltering one.
Rethink your use of brand names.
Using a brand name can be an easy way to describe status – a Chanel handbag paints a very different picture than one bought at Walmart. But it also allows writers to be slightly lazy – and that’s usually not good for writing. So why not tell us about someone’s social standing in other ways? For example, how do others see and greet them, and how do they dress and speak? I love the way Wednesday Martin did it in her book Primates of Park Avenue. By showing how Upper East Side residents interacted with high-end companies instead of just referencing “Birkin bags” and “SoulCycle,” she managed to tell me exactly how rich and privileged these people were. I’ve never been to New York, but because of Martin’s vivid descriptions, I completely understood that this part of the city is a place for very wealthy people.
Aim for accuracy.
If you must have dialogue in a foreign language, make sure that it’s correct. Too often I see words in other languages carelessly misspelled. The same applies when describing international cities or cultures. Sadly, this doesn’t only happen in lesser-known books. Best-sellers are equally afflicted (I’m looking at Diana Gabaldon, who made a mistake with German dialogue in her Outlander series).
You might say it’s just a line or two in the whole book, but that’s the entire point. Good writers spend months researching their novels, especially if they’re based in another country or historic era. So why not spend a few minutes more and ask someone who really speaks the language to translate a sentence or two for you?
If possible, actually go visit the places you’re writing about and spend time with the people there.
Don’t dumb it down.
Remember: This is not about dumbing down your language.
International readers aren’t stupid – and the fact that we’re reading your book in a language that is not our own only testifies to that.
Simply keep in mind that many people who will read your books are not Americans. This doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of every single American word or phrase. Again, we are not dumb and don’t expect you to do that.
Instead, just keep us in mind when writing your book. Instead of easy fixes, try out new metaphors, similes, or descriptions.
I promise, it will only make your writing better.
—Olga Mecking is a writer, journalist, and translator living in the Netherlands. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CNN, and the New York Times. Her translation of her grandfather’s memoir, One Chance in a Thousand, is available on Amazon.