January 2015
By Karina Lehrner-Mayer

Image: © Veeranat Suwangulrut/ 123rf.com

Karina Lehrner-Mayer holds a degree in translation and has over 15 years of experience in technical communication in Ireland and Austria. She lives near Vienna and works as a technical writer at ISIS Papyrus Europe AG, a company offering solutions for inbound and outbound business communications. An STC member, Karina served as a regional and international competition judge and is responsible for the Documentation Style Guide at ISIS Papyrus.


karina.lehrner-mayer[at]isis-papyrus.com
http://isis-papyrus.com


 


 

Writing non-native English in technical communication

Are you a technical communicator who writes and designs technical information in English, despite the fact that English is not your mother tongue? If you are, you are not alone. In a global working environment with tight budgets and deadlines, this is the reality for me and a growing number of technical authors. Here is a strategy that helps you deliver English texts of high quality.

Why write non-native English?

In an ideal world, professional texts should be written exclusively by native speakers who are linguistic, technical, and communication specialists. However, this is not the reality for many technical writers who work for international or national companies in Europe operating on a global basis.

I have been working as a technical writer in Austria for over 15 years, and during this time, I rarely wrote documentation in my native language, German. Much more often I produced technical information for a worldwide audience in English.

And, to paint a picture that is even further away from the perfect professional world of technical communicators: Rarely were the texts I produced proofread by native speakers; sometimes the texts were peer-edited by other non-native speakers. The plain truth is that most of the time the descriptions, instructions, and other technical information I created in English were edited by no one else but me.

The strategy: React – Rule – Read – Research – Review

Without a native speaker at your side who will edit your documents, you need to work out a plan that helps you design user assistance of the highest quality.

Here is the strategy I have developed for making sure the non-native English I write is as near-native English as possible:

  • React: Face the challenge
  • Rule: Take command of the English language
  • Read: Read as much as you can
  • Research: Consult the experts (style guides, grammar references, and dictionaries)
  • Review: Double-check, and then check again

React: Face the challenge

A German native speaker, I am a technical writer at an Austrian-based company where I design technical information in English. Even with a university degree in English, having lived in an English-speaking country, and with more than 15 years of experience writing in English, I am constantly aware that – well, I am not a native English speaker.

It is this awareness that makes the difference, because it keeps me on guard. Take this advantage by paying more attention, by double-checking your words, by consulting all the language references you can find, by going the extra mile - and by developing a strategy such as the one described in this article.

Tip: Being alert starts before you even write the first word. For example, when you analyze your audience, consider special regional requirements of the English you will have to use.  

Rule: Take command of the English language

I started out as a translator, became a technical translator and then grew into a technical writer. Using my English language and communication skills, my job is to research software and investigate the best way to present the right information for users. Presenting the right information in the best way depends largely on using English in a correct and appropriate manner.

Whether you turned to technical writing because of your linguistic skills or because of an aptitude for technology, as a non-native speaker who writes in English, you must devote time and energy to the rules and regulations of the English language. You will have a basic knowledge of grammar and usage rules, but you must also be willing to delve deeper into certain areas if the need arises. Concentrate on aspects that are especially important in technical texts such as misplaced modifiers, subject/verb agreement, active voice, etc..

Tip:  Use your knowledge of grammar to build up the linguistic skills of the documentation team. When confronted by non-native English writers from other departments, you will stand on a firmer ground if you have good arguments for your choice of words. And if you find yourself occasionally lost in the maze of rules and guidelines, take a break and watch Word Crimes by “Weird Al” Yankovic (1).

Read: Read as much as you can

When other non-native speakers ask me what is the one thing they can do to improve their writing skills, my answer is always: read! While I read books and magazine articles relevant to our profession, I also read fiction and listen to songs in English. Every good native-English text helps you tune into the English language.

If the only English texts you get in touch with are your own or those of your fellow non-native technical writers, chances are you get used to the mistakes you and your co-workers make. Read texts that are written by native speakers and that are relevant for your field of work. Do not let yourself get accustomed to the typical errors that are most commonly made by speakers of your native language.

Tip: A welcome side-effect of reading industry journals and books is mentioned by John Hedtke, who says: “If you read one book and one or two magazines a month for a year, you’ll (a) be doing more than 95% of your peers, and (b) you might be ready for a promotion or new job.” (2)

Research: Consult the experts (style guides, grammar references, dictionaries)

As a person who likes her texts and the texts of the whole documentation team to be consistent and complying with best practices, I am naturally fond of style guides. Industry style guides such as The Yahoo! Style Guide (3) appeal to me in two ways: I find helpful information about standards and conventions, and I learn from the way they are written in English.

After I consult a dictionary or a grammar reference, it is most often the style guide that tells me what the appropriate choice is. A grammar reference presents all possibilities without indicating which would be the best for you, and a dictionary might give various translations without showing enough examples and context to identify the correct term.

See if you can find style guides that also cover typical mistakes of non-native speakers. In your in-house style guides, address issues that come up frequently in texts of the team’s non-native writers. If your documentation team does not have a style guide, grab the opportunity and build one, as I did for the documentation team I joined four years ago. (4)

Tip: For German-speaking authors, I find the following two resources especially useful: the tekom guidelines English for German-speaking authors (5) and the bilingual edition of Writing plain instructions by Marc Achtelig (6).

Review: Double-check, and then check again

I am extremely critical when editing my own English texts. I don’t trust them to be one hundred percent linguistically correct after the first draft; I always re-write and, when in doubt, consult style guides, grammar references and dictionaries. I like to be sure that my texts are as close to native-English as they can be.

Use a word, a term, a phrase, a grammatical construction only when you are certain it is accurate. If the word, term, or phrase doesn’t “feel right”, then don’t use it. Or only use it after you’ve done your research and found out that it is correct. This is the only way to assure that you will reach the highest possible quality of the non-native English texts you produce.

Tip: Technical communication is much about language, its system and components and how they work together. When I review my texts, I am guided by the questions that Marcia Riefer Johnston uses in her book to sum up what powerful writing means: “Ask each word: Why are you here? Why are you here? Why are you here?” (7)

Conclusion

Writing non-native English in technical documentation is a reality, whether we think it is desirable or not. The strategy described in this article helps you to write non-native English of high quality:

  • React to your situation by staying alert and following a strategy.
  • Rule and study the English language system.
  • Read and absorb good native-English.
  • Research terms and phrases and know which references to trust.
  • Review your own words until they feel right.

 

References

(1) Yankovic, “Weird Al” (2014): Word Crimes

(2) Hedtke, John (2013): What I Wish I Had Known, in Intercom magazine, November 2013, Society for Technical Communication.

(3) Barr, Chris, and the Senior Editors of Yahoo! (2010): The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World, St. Martin’s Griffin.

(4) Lehrner-Mayer, Karina (2013): Style Guides: Personal and Practical Tips on How to Get Started and Keep Going, in Intercom magazine, September 2013, Society for Technical Communication.

(5) tekom (2014): Leitlinie Regelbasiertes Schreiben. Englisch für deutschsprachige Autoren. Gesellschaft für Technische Kommunikation – tekom e.V.

(6) Achtelig, Marc (2012): Reihe “Lösungen zur Technischen Dokumentation”: Writing plain instructions. Wie Sie Handbücher, Online-Hilfen und andere Formen Technischer Kommunikation schreiben, die jeder Benutzer versteht. Zweisprachig: English + Deutsch. indoition publishing e.K.

(7) Johnston, Marcia Riefer (2012): Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them), Northwest Brainstorms Publishing.