Writing for Global Readiness: What Technical Writers Need to Know

Publisher’s Note:  Many thanks to Val Swisher, CEO of  Content Rules for contributing the following article on content creation best practices for translation and globalization.

More companies are translating more content into more languages. Sadly, translating content into multiple languages still costs too much and takes too long. It’s not that the translators or the translation companies are at fault. They are doing the best they can with the source English that they receive. The problem lies in the quality of the source content.

There are many things that technical writers, editors, artists, and production editors can do to make English source content easier to translate. And easier content means that the quality of the translation will be higher, the cost will be lower, and the speed will be faster. The perfect trifecta! And for an added bonus, the English version will be easier to understand, too.

This article describes some of the best practices for creating content that will be localized and translated.

Best Practices for Global-Ready Content

The list of best practices for creating global-ready content is very long. For ease of understanding, I have divided the best practices into three areas: Planning, Writing, and Formatting. Read on!

Planning for Global Readiness

There are many things that you can do before you start writing to help ensure that your content is global-ready. Here is a (non-comprehensive) list:

  • Set up and use naming conventions. Standards are very important to maintain consistency and your sanity.
  • Document conventions, processes, and terminology in a style guide. It’s even better if you can automate the style guide.
  • Install and use a content management system (CMS). Without a CMS, you are going to have a very difficult time tracking versions, quality, metadata, and more.
  • Consider whether to translate sample data used in screen shots. Deciding on this beforehand will help guide some of the decisions you make when you are writing.
  • Identify all topic content that must match the user interface.
  • Create a lexicon so your content is findable. If a tree falls in the forest…
  • If possible, use a translator who consistently works with your documents. You know about the consistency problems that happen when multiple writers work on subsequent drafts of a document? The same is true if multiple translators work on subsequent drafts of a document, too.
  • Advise the translator whether the GUI will be translated or not. If it will be, ensure that the translator has access to the GUI, screen captures, or a list of the terms used in it. If not, use the term in the source language of the translated text, and follow the term with its translation in parentheses.
  • Send content for translation only when the source language files are final. This will avoid confusion and prevent retranslation.
  • Manage your terminology across all languages for the source and the translations.
  • When scrubbing the source content before sending it to translation, have someone who is familiar with the content and the language (and culture, if possible) review it. You may be able to pre-identify problem areas. Don’t forget to let the reviewers know about the process and give them as much lead time as possible.
  • Take the time to understand your translation process, especially if you are working with a vendor (and most especially if the vendor is using a translation service). Make sure that the translation team understands what is acceptable and what is not.

Writing Global-Ready Content

There are many ways to say the same thing. Some of those ways are translatable and some are not. Here are some best practices for writing content for translation:

  • Keep sentences as short as possible. Long sentences are difficult to read and impossible to translate. The rule of thumb is no more than 24 words.
  • Remove needless words. You pay by the word, by the language. And how much easier is very easy, anyway?
  • Eliminate idiomatic phrases. There are no silver bullets.
  • Say the same thing, the same way, every time you say it. Your fourth grade English teacher didn’t know about global readiness when she taught you to use your enormous vocabulary.
  • Use correct grammatical structures.
  • Simplify conditioned text.
  • Avoid being America-centric in your writing.
  • Make sure that each bullet in a bulleted list is a complete thought. We often introduce a bulleted list with the first part of a sentence and let each bullet complete the sentence. That structure won’t always localize well.
  • Avoid using more than one meaning of a term. For example, if you use “service” as a noun, don’t use it as a verb in the same piece of content. It gets confusing.
  • Watch out for ambiguity even more than you usually do.  When in doubt, choose the word that has only one meaning in the source and in the target languages.
  • Avoid the use of gerunds. They don’t exist in many languages.
  • Avoid the use of ALL CAPS and especially SMALL CAPS. They don’t work in some alphabets.
  • Avoid artwork in page headers that is based on text length. You have no idea how much space the same text takes in German, for example.
  • Eliminate passive voice. It does not exist in many languages.
  • Don’t use sports metaphors. Sports are not universally understood or appreciated. Scrub and scrub again to get rid of jargon and metaphor.

Formatting Global-Ready Documents

When you create content that is going to be translated, pay attention to more than the words. There are many layout and formatting issues that you need to think about, as well:

  • Consider how the text will appear after translation. Many languages use multiple words to describe the same thing that uses one word in English.
  • Use CSS styles instead of local formatting. Keeping your formatting separate from the text makes translating the content and then formatting the translations easier.
  • Don’t embed text in images. Using callouts is a much easier way to provide descriptions.
  • Don’t embed images in text. Link the images and keep the graphics files separately. Use logical names that are part of your naming convention for your graphics files. This will facilitate easy swaps of translated or updated graphics.
  • Use a consistent set of semantic tags.
  • Remove extraneous project files (targets, topics, TOCs, and so on) so that no one gets confused.
  • In tables, ensure that extra width is available to widen columns for target languages.
  • Never use 90-degree rotated cell header text in tables. This type of header can be disastrous in many languages, especially those languages that use a different alphabet.
  • If your output is page-oriented and you must match page breaks in English and the target languages, leave 33% of each page bottom blank.
  • Avoid using paragraph- or character-level styles that force an artificial display of ALL CAPS. There are 4 “i’s” in Turkish. The results will be disappointing.
  • Italics and underlining do not work well in all scripts. For example, in Arabic, underlining may not be visually appealing due to the number of characters that use the space below the baseline. Font design also affects the usability of this sort of visual effect.


My final and possibly most important best practice for creating global-ready content is to eliminate the silos in your organization. Many of my customers have no idea who is responsible for localization in their company. Localization is not “just” a tactical function. Most of my clients get 40-60% of their revenue from operations outside of North America, where English is not the local language. Localizing content is strategic in the sense that it allows your company to capture this revenue. When you silo-off your localization group, or tell them that they aren’t important to the sales and marketing function, you do them – and your company as a whole – a major disservice. And don’t forget about customers. A snarled up translation hurts customers in too many ways to enumerate here.


For further information on Content Rules’ global-readiness and turn-key services, or to view case studies, visit the Content Rules website.


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