Copywriting, content marketing and promotional materials in English have long been something of a curate's egg when it comes to quality. Some work is excellent, other offerings put up for public consumption would make virtually any native English speaker cringe.
In an interview originally with the the Estonian Marketing Association (Turundajate liit) website (link in Estonian), Tallinn-based freelance writer, U.S. citizen and long-term Estonian resident Scott Diel brings his experience and frank assessment to bear on what Estonian companies in particular are doing wrong (with a few examples in the accompanying pictures) in their English content, as well as what companies should look out for when hiring copywriters.
It sometimes seems every Estonian company creates English-language content for social media. What's the quality like?
I see this content and usually wonder if they really needed to create it. Did it bring any benefit? When I look at LinkedIn, the content put there by companies in this region (and I include Finland, too) is mostly crap. Most of it is just corporate 'hurrah' material, which reminds me very much of high school cheerleaders in the U.S. It probably made the head of marketing and CEO feel good, but nobody else cared.
This is a shame, because LinkedIn can be a powerful tool. I suppose companies use it because it's inexpensive. But when your content is poor, I don't see how it's worth it. A reader is an organism that builds up a resistance. The more garbage you feed him or her, the more he or she learns to ignore it. The more content he or she sees which is similar to yours, the less he or she is going to be able to see yours, too. Consumers see your logo or company name and automatically turn away. If you're going to create and distribute content, it pays to do it right.
But what is 'right'?
I think less is more. Decide what messages are important to you, choose the channels best to reach your audience, and then execute. If LinkedIn or Facebook is part of that mix, then great. But I don't think they should be added just because they're cheap or because everyone else is doing it.
Can you get good quality English-language content in Estonia?
I think there are some professionals in Estonia who are capable of doing world-class communications, though I frequently see professionally-made videos with incredibly stupid scripts in English.
Maybe they felt only the image was important. Or maybe they didn't take the time to really dissect the script to see if it made any sense. They just got caught up in the whole process of "now we're making a commercial!" But if that's the case it simply means that it's still very cheap to produce video here.
How do you vet people like you who claim to be writers? How do you know who's full of garbage and who isn't?
Ask them for a list of publications. Then ask to see the material that's most relevant to your project or business. Ask for a couple of references, so other clients can tell you what it was like to work with the writer. No legitimate writer is going to take offense at this. If he or she does then don't work with them.
Then, once you've selected someone, start small. Give them a paid assignment for something that isn't super-critical. See how it goes. What was the result like? Did you like working with them?
What's the biggest weakness of English-language writing in Estonia?
Grammar, syntax, and all that aside, the biggest problem I see is that texts can be incredibly naive. The authors are often just parroting something they saw elsewhere, with the result being nothing but a meaningless pile of buzzwords.
Second, the text is often overly complicated and elaborate. I think if Estonians wrote more in English the way they talk in English (i.e. throwing out all the bullsh*t) then their writing would be much stronger.
What are the simplest ways someone can improve their written English (without hiring you)?
Three things: First, read what you've written out loud, before you publish or send it off. Does it make sense? Are there verbs in every sentence? Can you shorten any long, Faulknerian sentences to make them clearer? Can you make it simpler?
Second, have you presented the information in the order a reader will expect to receive it? Think back to the teacher who yelled at you to put the main idea first followed by support. What would she (or he) think of what you've written? Too often people just scatter-gun things on to the page and hit send. To understand their meaning requires a consultation with the "oracle", or at least one more email exchange.
Third, for important documents, hire a copy editor. Copy editors are professionals who do nothing but catch mistakes and polish text. (Copyeditors aren't trauma surgeons, so the text should be good before you send it, however). If your ideas are clearly expressed then the service doesn't cost much.
You seem to focus on clear information and communication. Where does style and personality come into the equation?
Style is a secondary concern. Mostly, companies should just focus on the clear communication of their propositions. Quite frankly, most companies are so concerned with being "safe" that they don't have any detectable personality, even though they think they do. An organization's culture is often highly visible in person, but rarely detectable in its communications. First things first. Make it clear. Then you can worry whether your text has flair.
Who do you write for?
My work falls into two categories: "artsy-fartsy" and corporate. On the first side I write libretti for contemporary opera for an American composer named Eugene Birman.
We've done about a half-dozen together, and I've got two projects with him now, one slated for Hong Kong and the other for performances in London and Moscow. It's a pretty cool job, actually, and I love hanging out with musicians. They're loads of fun.
My corporate work is mainly based in Finland in the tech manufacturing sector. My job is to make engineering sexy. I'm the guy who adds the car chase to something you thought could only put people to sleep.
For Estonian companies, the work I do is usually the groundwork of creating text (or videos or whatever) for them that assures them their product or service will get taken seriously by western consumers or investors. I make sure nobody ever thinks, "Oh, they're Eastern Europeans" – so that their products and services are evaluated fairly on their own merit. I have a handful of Estonian clients, but I'm often not the cheapest so I don't win all the jobs here.
I've heard you're expensive, in other words that you don't offer 'Estonian prices'
There is no such thing as "Estonian prices." There is only the price I need to charge in order to keep my business open and buy winter boots for my kid. I'm not more expensive than your Estonian ad- or PR agency, that's for sure. My overheads aren't as high as theirs.
But you can always get something done cheaper. There are some writers who may charge less than what I charge for English-language writing. I'd say please show me the work of the guy charging much less than what I charge. If it's just as good as mine, then hire him. And give me their name, too, because I'll hire them.
Regarding the artsy work you do: Is that a plus or minus for corporate clients?
Regardless of what kind of writer you are I think it's important to have creative outlets where you yourself make absolutely all the decisions. Maybe you write books or screenplays or whatever, but having that outlet allows you to write the content that your clients need.
You are then not tempted to hijack your client's case study and turn an article about lean manufacturing into part of your personal oeuvre. It can then be simply a case study on manufacturing, which is what the client wanted. It doesn't mean you won't try to produce the coolest case study ever, but it does mean you won't pollute the process with your own personal ambitions.
I saw this a lot in New York advertising. Every copywriter had a novel in their drawer, but few had published anything. These were the ones who always talked about how "advertising is art." They were frustrated writers working as copywriters, which isn't a good combination. They became angry and bitter and they snapped at clients over nothing. It's like a waiter in L.A. who really wants to be an actor but for whatever reason hasn't gotten the big break yet. He's not really thinking about the food or your dining experience.
What's your process for corporate jobs?
Just like my clients, I run a business. And just like them, I try to find the right customers.
For me to do my job, and make money doing it, I need the most professional clients. By this I mean people who have a clear vision, know what they want, and who can articulate it. I use a briefing form to collect this information, so that when I write text we can compare it to that brief and judge it objectively.
Without a brief, you can get into a situation where it's like your client is trying on shoes in a department store. "Don't like the blue? Okay, let's try the brown? Maybe black now?" I can't make money if I let you try on 20 pair of shoes. I have to be able to bring out exactly the right shoe for you the first time. Then I can stay in business.
Do Estonian brands often have ineffective English-language messages?
Many Estonian brands come under fire for their silly use of English. But I suppose the returns from English-language marketing probably don't justify the costs of doing it right for most Estonian brands. The biggest brands, and here I'm thinking of mobile phone providers, alcohol, etc., are just looking to sell to their own countrymen. So why spend money on English marketing?
Many Estonian brands which face entirely westwards (like Transferwise or Pipedrive) have the resources to get it done right, and it seems many of those have service providers in the west. I'd be surprised if Estonian ad agencies can provide good English-language copywriting, though there are surely some who offer it.
You just can't wave a magic wand and turn a University of Tartu philologist or a graduate of Secondary School No. 21 into a writer. You have to have been raised in the culture. Otherwise, the result will be as comic as me writing in Estonian. Yes, sure, it's understandable, but the reader won't be moved emotionally. Well, not moved in the right direction, anyway. There are a couple of exceptions, of course. Villu Arak's writing, for instance, is good enough to fool you into thinking he's a native speaker.
What about the rule that you can only translate into your mother tongue, and not the other way around?
I think the only-translate-into-your-mother-tongue is a UN and/or EU rule. They've got massive resources and can afford that luxury. The universe of Estonian-to-English translators isn't large. I know a handfule of native speakers of English who've learned Estonian to a high level and who are good writers. And those people are constantly booked. I think you have to work with the best translator you can find. Then, if the text is important, run it by a professional editor.
Scott Diel was interviewed by Silja Oja of the Turundajate liit.
Scott Diel worked in advertising in the U.S. and first came to Estonia in 1992. He has been a freelance writer for around 20 years, and has his own copywriting business.
With special thanks to Turundajate liit for permission in reproducing this piece and images.
Editor: Andrew Whyte