Technical writing for non-technical readers – keep it simple!

Posted on 22/10/2011

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When you write for your peers, you can use as many technical and esoteric terms as you like.

Why?

You know they will understand what you’re saying; you don’t need to explain what, to you, are everyday concepts.

But it’s a different story when you need to write for non-technical readers.

Your first task is to really think about your audience, and how you might present your expert knowledge in a way they will understand. Ask yourself:

  1. What are your assumptions about their exposure to your field of expertise, and to the technical terms you use every day?
  2. How many concepts are they likely to understand? How will you explain or illustrate them?
  3. In simple terms, what is your message? What do you want your readers to know or do?

With those answers in mind, use these tips to help you achieve clear, engaging and sharp writing. At the heart of your thinking is:

The more complex your content or the concepts you’re writing about,
the simpler your writing needs to be.

  • This is about expressing your thoughts with simplicity, not simplifying your work. Remember your readers: you want to show them the value of your work, not what a good writer you are.
  • Make sure you’ve thought about the logical progression of your report. Plan the structure of your document so that you lead your readers to the conclusion you’ve reached.
  • The simplicity inherent in the use of plain English (active voice, reasonable sentence length, wise use of specialised terms, no verbosity) will serve you well.

Let’s look at some particular areas this simplicity will help your readers.

Structure:

  • Determine the logical structure of your argument. Brainstorming and mind mapping can be valuable tools.
  • If possible, use headings: they are sign-posts for your readers. Headings give readers an overview and help orientate them, for which your readers will thank you if your content is complex.
  • Aim for a logical flow in the overall document, within its sections, paragraphs and sentences.

Words:

  • Use familiar words: use instead of utilise, on-going instead of chronic.
  • Explain unfamiliar concepts. Perhaps footnotes, diagram, glossary or appendix can be helpful – what will be easiest for your readers?
  • Explain abbreviations, and then use them consistently. You may have to remind readers of their meanings more frequently than you would for your peers.
  • Watch out for tautologies (new innovations, combine together) and clichés (the bottom line, explore every avenue, moot point).

Sentences:

  • Keep sentences shorter with a straight-forward, familiar construction.
  • It’s best to address only one concept in each sentence: that can be a main thought with supporting information.
  • Place your main idea at beginning of sentence: Writing Preventing disruption is our most important issue is preferable to Our bottom line is preventing disruption. The readers’ attention is immediately focused on what it is that is so important.
  • Check that you’re not providing unintended humour. A phrase in the wrong place in a sentence can be confusing or laughable.

Yesterday a lively discussion took place about the problem of wild dogs in the council meeting room.

I have discussed the problems of stocking the proposed poultry plant with my colleagues.

Lipolysis can occur in the milk of cows when chilled too quickly.

Paragraphs:

  • As with sentences, it’s best to have just one main idea (with supporting information) in each paragraph.
  • That doesn’t mean you must confine each concept to just one paragraph. Use as many paragraphs as you need, because a number of shorter paragraphs doesn’t intimidate readers as would one long paragraph.
  • Again, keep the logical progression of your paragraphs within each section.

Lists:

  • Bullet point lists can be a useful way to present complex information.
  • Use a numbered list if order or priority is important.
  • Maintain structural consistency of points, eg each point as a complete sentence, or each point as a sentence fragment; same part of speech to open each point.
  • Be consistent in the way you punctuate your lists.

Non-verbal elements:

  • Illustrations, figures, graphs, charts or other graphics will often be easier for your readers than text.
  • In the text, make clear cross-references to the graphics, so there can be no question about how the text and the illustration are related.
  • Use table and figure captions consistently; check that the caption accurately reflects the information.
  • Review how both text and graphics sit on the page.

When you’ve finished writing, ask a non-technical ‘outsider’ to read your work, then tell you what they’ve understood. That should give you some indication of how well you’ve done your job.

Your final task – always, every time – is to review what you’ve written.

You might like to read my other blogs Writing for your readers and What readers want for other tips about ways to write while focusing on your readers.

Looking for extra information about any of these techniques? Ask me about other resources, using the contact form on my website.

What difficulties have you met when you’ve had to read outside your area of expertise?

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