Scary words: writing outside of the comfort zone

Some of my work involves writing collateral and websites in English for French clients. I’m brought in on these projects because I’m an English-language copywriter. But recently I ran into an interesting problem: vocabulary timidity. In both cases, the French clients didn’t want to use perfectly good English words, either out of fear or incomprehension, even though they weren’t the target.

The first was the word “versatility,” which is commonly used in English and is a highly sought after trait in new recruits (it was a HR brochure). Well, the client  wouldn’t approve it because of what the same word means in French: fickleness. Despite my reassurances, they asked me to change it.

The second was “spree.” I used it to describe a shopping trip that was the prize of a contest. The agency asked me to replace it with something that would be “easier to understand” (for them, I guess). Thankfully, a couple links to some magazine articles featuring the word in the headlines seems to have convinced them that a synonym won’t be necessary after all.

These hiccups reminded me of the fact that no matter how fluent you are in a second language, it will always be slightly foreign (as someone who learned French late in life, I know exactly where my clients are coming from). But I highly recommend not letting your fear of the unknown water down your copy. To get strong writing you have to be willing to let the writer use language to its fullest. And sometimes this requires you to work with words that are outside of your comfort zone.


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