This guest post about the true value of professional writers was written by Chloe Zeegen from Just Add Story.
DACH regions speak excellent English. This is a hindrance to their English-language campaigns, not a benefit.
A project lands in your inbox: A new product due to launch. Over budget, behind schedule…and a last-minute panic about the quality of the English content and (lack of?) communication strategy.
You give the introductory email a read-through and feel stress emanating from it. Click through to the soon-to-launch site. Whoa. Word salad. An interesting product, but it’s lost in a bewildering jigsaw of words. #VirtualDiarrhoea
The team may be innovative, surprisingly experienced even, but you can’t precisely understand what they’re creating. Or relate to it. Or see what its undeniable value is. You know, the standard stuff.
You write back. The site needs work. The campaign material could be better thought through. The English isn’t correct, let alone optimal. And so on. You figure out a nicer way to say it all than that!
You receive a reply and the next red flag. They’re surprised. They worked for hours on those texts. Showed them to native speakers. Surely what the texts require is only a correction round?
Were the texts written by a native speaker? No. Were they written by a professional writer? Often “no” again.
English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. Around 1.5 billion people speak it, with less than one third using it as a first language. According to the 2017 EF English Proficiency Index, Europe has the strongest English-language skills globally, with Germany and Switzerland ranking ninth and 14th respectively (out of 80 countries).
A bit – even a huge bit! – of knowledge is a dangerous thing. We’ve all heard the line, “German people speak such good English.” And it’s true, even for Swiss people. But even though it goes way beyond business English, it’s still a second language.
It’s not the right English to succinctly and accurately communicate who the client is and why people need them. If English is long-winded and inaccurate, it cannot convey competence.
Optimal English is often in the – seemingly unimportant – details.
“Bagless vacuum cleaners are more efficient, more cost-effective…”
The client is promoting their competition, along with themselves.
“Our bagless vacuum cleaners are more efficient, more cost-effective…”
A small tweak and a complete shift in focus. The client is now promoting themselves and not their competition, too.
A tiny example. But think of the greatest campaigns, most memorable slogans, the best opening lines, the greatest moments in literate. A highly unusual skill in a first language, even more so in a second. Though not impossible.
Skill and ability, you can teach. Talent, you can only encourage and nurture.
All three, to a high degree, in a language? Hire the professionals. For important communications and campaigns, second-language English is inadequate, no matter how good it is.
And what about us writers? Could we do with a lesson in humility – ahem – too? Of course. Like that moment your non-native-speaker client says they think your English is “wrong”. It’s frustrating. You’re a professional, you know grammar inside out and so on. Right?
Well, not quite. What does it mean when a non-native-speaker client tells you your English sounds “wrong”? It means that, while it may not be wrong, it’s also not right.
Language is organic and International English is as real and as legitimate as any other living language. Living language always transforms. If you aren’t writing in a way that your – increasingly international – audiences understand, then you are not writing correctly.
Let’s meet in the middle. Clients can help by trusting us professional writers and understanding that there are limits to their, albeit impressive, knowledge and skill. We can do the same.
Maybe the English we learnt at university follows the rules to a tee. That doesn’t make it right.
About the writer
Chloe Zeegen grew up in the UK and Germany. She studied the European Baccalaureate, followed by Modern Languages & Philosophy at Oxford University.
She has almost ten years’ experience working as a professional writer, including writing scripts for award-winning advertising campaigns and critically acclaimed cult fiction.
Her English-language copywriting and translation agency, Just Add Story, is in its second year of business.