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Why You Don’t Have to Be a Native Speaker to Be a Kickass Copywriter

Why do we automatically assume that being a native speaker makes one a better writer? I’m here to prove otherwise. 

Culture, Diversity and Language

Perhaps it used to be true before there was a Chinatown in every flipping major city in the world, and before the internet placed all four corners of the world right on our virtual doorstep. You just need to look around you to see that the world has evolved into a mishmash of culture and diversity.

I’m Malaysian Chinese – my grandparents were from China; my parents were born in Malaysia. I grew up speaking 3 languages: Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), English and Malay. During my teenage years I picked up Cantonese from friends. Of these 4 languages, I gravitated to English as my language of choice. But it isn’t technically my “native language”, since it isn’t my parents’ first language, or the official language in Malaysia.

Yet here I am today, a freelance copywriter with a portfolio of local and international projects under my belt. The traditional assumption that native speakers make better writers no longer holds true.

The “Native Speaker” Assumption

Clients who advertise copywriting jobs with the “native speaker” requirement annoy the heck out of me. My problem with it is simply this: it’s not how well you speak the language; it’s how well you write it. You could say that Hokkien is my native language, since it’s the first language I recall speaking as a wee toddler. But I can’t speak it well, and I haven’t the foggiest how to read or write it. I’ve met my fair share of British people during my time abroad, and while they speak it as well as you’d expect locals to, I was genuinely surprised by the number of them who couldn’t spell or write decent English. Just because you can speak a language well doesn’t mean you can write it well.

You Don’t Have to Be the Best to Kick Ass

For the longest time, the idea that I wasn’t a native speaker put me off pursuing a career in copywriting. I felt inferior because I wasn’t technically a “native speaker”. But I’m glad I finally stepped up to the challenge. What I’ve learned over the last couple of years (since quitting the 9 to 5) is this: you don’t have to be the best; you just need to find people who appreciate your talents.

Finding clients who appreciate your brand of creativity and share similar values is far more important than being the best. What does being the best mean, anyway? Writing is an art form; it is a medium with which to express oneself. And let’s not forget that creativity is subjective – you’ll never get everyone to agree on the “best” way to write. It all boils down to who you’re communicating with and why.

The “Why” Behind the Writing

I see English as a collection of alphabets to express myself with. It’s like clay waiting to be shaped and sculpted into a particular form, or a blank canvas waiting to be transformed by colours and strokes of a paintbrush to tell a story. Why one writes is just as important as the ability to write. And no, making money is not a “why” – well, not a good one, anyway.

The energy (passion, complacency, enthusiasm) behind a piece of writing determines its effect on the reader. Likewise, if you were to play an instrument without feeling the music, it would sound flat, and your audience would know it.

There’s a lot more to being a kick ass copywriter than just technical ability – even though you obviously need to have the writing chops for it. But not being a native speaker doesn’t make you any less of a writer. So don’t let it hold you back (if it is). You just need to find your audience. And believe me, your readers are out there.

GO. WRITE. KICK ASS.

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Image: April Killingsworth

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