We live in an increasingly globalized world, and the field of medical communication is no exception. In fact, most medical writers and editors are creating materials for a global scientific audience.
A number of helpful resources, online and in print, exist to help people write clear, translatable prose for global audiences.
Introducing “Global English”
English is a complex language, full of contradictions, rules, exceptions to rules, and subtleties that make it difficult to translate. Global English is a style that aims to be transparent, clear, logical, predictable, and literal. It is different from the standard English that most native speakers use.
The United Language Group, a global localization, interpretation, and translation services company that promotes the use of Global English, describes a writing style that includes short sentences with a predictable word order. Global English avoids passive voice and metaphors.
In this post, the organization lists 5 Rules for Global English Writing.
Avoid idioms. Idioms are expressions that require specific cultural context. For example, most native English speakers understand a phrase like “under the weather” or “blue in the face.” But imagine trying to translate the phrase or explain it to a non-native speaker.
Be literal. Avoid phrases such as “stay on target” or “keep you posted.” Always choose words carefully to make sure you are avoiding metaphors or figurative language.
Keep sentences short and clear. Ideally, sentences should not exceed 25 words. Avoid fragments and sentences with multiple clauses.
Standardize Global English terminology. When an English word has more than one definition, avoid it and choose another.
Revise until the writing can be understood by a global audience.
Ideas from AMWA Members
An AMWA member posed a question about resources that would be helpful when writing for a global audience on AMWA Engage — an online discussion platform where members explore topics relevant to medical communication. In response to the question, other members posted some of their favorite resources.
Two Essential Style Guides
The Elements of International English Style by Edmond H. Weiss is a well-regarded style guide that covers correspondence, reports, technical documents, and writing for the web. “Nearly one-fourth of the people on Earth speak English well enough to perform everyday tasks and share the ideas that occur in normal conversation,” Weiss writes. “But most of that group, more than a billion people, speak English as their second language, not their first.”
Weiss’ goal in writing the style guide was to help writers reduce the burden on non-native English speakers without condescension or “writing down.” He also wanted to make translation of documents go more smoothly.
The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market by John R. Kohl is recommended by AMWA members who work as translators and writers in Japan. It includes examples of sentences that are difficult for non-native English speakers to comprehend along with guidelines and examples of revisions.
Basic English Grammar and Usage
Medical communicators use words as tools and grammar to structure words into coherent sentences, logical paragraphs, and cohesive documents. No matter where the audience resides or works, a mastery of basic grammar and usage is essential. For medical communicators, that means understanding the parts of speech, sentences and sentence elements, basic grammar rules, and usage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a number of excellent resources available for complying with the Plain Language Act of 2010, which mandates that federal agencies use plain language to communicate with the public.
More than ever before, medical communicators are creating materials that are used around the globe, making it imperative that we continue to investigate ways to improve access and reduce barriers. A recent edition of the AMWA Journal, available to members, explores this very topic, with articles on medical translation, communication of pharma-sponsored research, and results from an evaluation of several translation tools. “In this special edition of the AMWA Journal, we explore some of these issues and consider ways that medical communicators are improving access to scientific data and bridging the gaps between stakeholders around the world,” writes guest editor Elizabeth Kukielka, PharmD, MWC, CMPP.
As the fields of medicine and biotechnology become ever more global and interconnected, medical writers who build their skill sets to include writing for a global audience will have a chance to advance in their careers and in their scope of work.