When you write for your peers, you can use as many technical and esoteric terms as you like.
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:
- What are your assumptions about their exposure to your field of expertise, and to the technical terms you use every day?
- How many concepts are they likely to understand? How will you explain or illustrate them?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
12 thoughts on “Technical writing for non-technical readers – keep it simple!”
Wow, this article is nice, my sister is analyzing these kinds of things, so I am going to convey her.
Glad you found me, and that my article could be helpful for your sister.
All brilliant. Of course. It’s Desolie! 🙂
Thanks for dropping by, Paul.
I love sharing word stuff with those who appreciate how brilliant good writing can be.
So important for any subject but especially the techie stuff! Love your key points for formatting the post so it’s easier to digest with the eyes as well as the brain!
I’m using the ‘show, not tell’ method to demonstrate what a difference formatting can make to readability. Big blocks of text invite me to put it in the too-hard basket, especially if I’m busy or tired.
Hope the message seeps out there!
Happy blogging 🙂
This is really valuable information, Desolie. As the ‘commercial guy in the room’, is there a way of selling this information rather than just giving it away? What are your thoughts on this?
Thank you for your consistent support. I really value it.
Thanks for the visit and the vote of confidence, Robin.
I’m ‘re-inventing’ Perfect Pages with a new brand and website, as well as a session with our lovely Cat. Your suggestion will be added to the list – thank you.
And thanks for following my blog.
Great reminders –
Have earmarked this page so can re-scan before embarking on new blog posts.
You make it all sound so logical, but actually doing it is harder than reading what appears to be so obvious!
I hear what you’re saying, Linda – and thanks for leaving your comment.
Writing is actually a process that you can learn and practise. I’ll get busy writing some posts about the process, and I’m sure you’ll find some tips that will help you.
I guess it’s like most skills – for those who don’t have them, it’s almost a mystery.
Do you have any other writing stumbling blocks that I might be able to help you with and write about?
Another post full of gold!
(I enjoyed the 3 example sentences)
I still think that even after following this sage advice, there’s value in another reading, proofing and editing the work. I know I can get ‘too close’ to my writing and after a while I can’t see any errors when there’s a huge chance, okay I’ll admit 100% chance, there’ll be errors or at least better ways to have delivered an idea or some information.
You’re absolutely right, Sally, about getting someone else to review your work before sending it on its way.
But for those who, for whatever reason, don’t follow that suggestion, these tips will get them focusing more on their readers.
Even the best writers benefit from an ‘outsider’ perspective, to suggest a tighter construction or to highlight one of those pesky tautologies or danglers.
Thanks for your continued support, and glad that you’re finding some nuggets in these posts.