Write for Computers First, Humans Second


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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration's (SBA) report "A World of Opportunity," 96% of the world's consumers do not live in the United States. This important fact is not lost upon American business executives, especially those looking for new ways to increase corporate revenues. That's why many U.S. firms have set their sights on emerging international markets. They're developing partnerships and setting up shop in nations around the globe.

But, in a global economy, getting the right content to the right people at the right time in the right format and language can be challenging. It takes hard work-and a global view-to do it right.

Doing it right means realizing that not everyone speaks English well enough to understand our American-flavored prose. Disappointing as it may be to wordsmiths, our writing rules were designed to help us reach less than 6% of the world's population-those folks who speak English as their primary language.

The rules of writing were developed long before technology made instant global communication possible. While some old school rules are still valuable, some are woefully out-of-date.

Humans, regardless of where they live, need content to be relevant, clear, concise, and accurate. They also need it to be findable, accessible, usable, and sharable in ways they understand. Preferably, in the language they know best: their own.

Linguists estimate there are nearly 7,000 distinct languages spoken on Earth. Manually translating content into all of these languages isn't practical. Translation is expensive even if you're only translating English content into the 10 most commonly spoken tongues.

Enter automation. Or, more specifically, automated translation.

Making content available on-demand to an increasingly global audience of humans means making that content available first to a digital labor force of computers: machines programmed to automatically process English-language content into a variety of target languages.

Unfortunately, the language of machines is not familiar to much of the current crop of content strategists. In part, the disconnect is due to a lack of education and experience. Content strategists come to the discipline from a variety of professions: While the skill sets possessed by these content pros are valuable, their contributions seldom provide significant long-term value to companies with global aspirations. That's because few content strategists have yet to realize that we write first for computers, not humans.

That's right! Computers first, humans second. I can hear the accusations of heresy now.

The World Wide Web, not the American English-speaking web, is the land of opportunity. In companies with the desire to go global, reaching consumers previously thought to be out of scope is the goal. Doing it without breaking the bank is what's required.

Creating content that computers can understand-and automatically translate for a fast-growing global audience-involves looking at content production from the viewpoint of a rules-processing engine. It means rethinking the content we publish to the web to ensure that it is easily and accurately understandable, processable, and translatable by machine.

Reaching global audiences means taking a critical look at the rules we use to govern how we write. Writing for machines first means thinking about the rules we've had drilled into our heads from childhood. If we're going to write powerful content that computers can help us deliver to those who need it, we must ask ourselves, "Do the writing rules we rely on help or hinder our goal of reaching global audiences?"

To write for machines, we must write much shorter sentences, limit our vocabulary to a subset of the English language, and strip it of jargon, Americanisms, metaphors, and similes, among other things. We must rid ourselves of limits placed on our writing by our fifth-grade English teachers and acknowledge that the set of rules we need today has changed.

It's not heresy. It's evolution. And, for those who seek long-term opportunity, thinking global is where it's at.