Using headings in nonfiction writing

 

Readers faced with pages of text broken only by paragraph spaces will probably feel overwhelmed and stop reading. As a nonfiction writer, you have information that you need to share with your readers. So it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for them to continue reading and to understand what you are saying.

Headings serve multiple purposes in helping your readers by

  • breaking the text into reader-friendly chunks
  • providing signposts for your readers to keep them mindful of the structure of your work
  • helping you promote your argument.

As a technical writer, your aim is to lead your readers to reach the same conclusion that you have. Headings provide a context for your readers – both writer and readers begin at the same place and continue along the same path, guided by the headings.

Readers need headings

  • to give an overall picture
  • to point out where they are in the discussion
  • to assist in making the connections between the points of the argument.

Your readers understand the details better if they have been given an overview first. Remember, it’s the headings that provide the overview.

Readers will retain those details longer when they know in advance the nature of the information they are going to receive.

The heading level indicates the degree of detail being discussed.

Advantages for readers

  • breaking up the text
  • providing overviews along the way
  • announcing each key point before its detailed discussion
  • using the location and size of each topic to indicate its importance
  • allowing readers to decide where they will start
  • allowing readers to select what parts of the document they will read
  • giving readers places to pause, to regroup their thoughts or to rest.

Advantages for the writer

  • Structuring your document is so much easier!
  • You can readily check the logical flow of the argument.
  • You can move sections to a different place in the document when you can easily see the extent of that section.
  • You can create sub-headings to help you check the structure, and remove the sub-headings later if your document template or format does not allow for that number of levels.
  • You don’t have to provide transitions between topics.

 

A word of warning!

If your headings feed into an automatically generated table of contents, make sure your final task before publishing is to update the table of contents.

PS    If, for whatever reason, you can’t include headings, you can use them to help you structure your writing – then delete them during the reviewing process.

  Headings help both the writing and reading processes.

Perfect Pages - editing nonfiction writing

Sharp nonfiction writing

Notes on DL brochures

How words sit on the page is so important in these haven’t-got-time-to-deal-with-hard-to-read-stuff days.
The Feisty Empire copywriter and editor, Paul Hassing, shares his thoughts.
Enjoy!

Practical Copywriting Tips

An easy way so see DL. An easy way so see DL.

A client asked me to edit a brochure and suggest a format.

Once I saw what the brochure was for (promoting a course to time-poor execs) I suggested ‘DL’ format.

So what the hell is DL? Swim Communications puts it very well.

In short, DL is a third the size of A4 (the size you stick in your printer).

My client, who had imagined an A4 format, asked why I preferred DL.

So I said:

‘DL is easier and cheaper to post to many prospects.

Also, I feel it looks more businesslike.

If you go flat A4, you’ll either have to post it folded anyway, or add cardboard to stop it getting mangled en route.

But if you hit a non-A4 letterbox, it’ll get mangled anyway.

Not a good look for your brand.

Folded DLs are also easier to hand out at events,

View original post 150 more words

Tips for clear, engaging, sharp writing.

In an earlier article, I gave you some insights into ‘clear, engaging, sharp’ writing.

Now for more, this time grouped and with suggested sharper versions.

Superfluous words

We would like to invite you to …         You’re invited to …            We invite you to …

I would like to congratulate you …            Congratulations …

… better than what we expected.            … better than we expected.

In view of the fact that …             Because …

In the event that …              If …

In my personal opinion …           In my opinion …

There are many people wanting an answer to that question.
Many people want an answer to that question.
Many people want that question answered.

A summary of these findings is given in Table 6.
Table 6 summarises these findings.

The implementation of these maintenance procedures should occur immediately upon putting the motor into service.
These maintenance procedures should be implemented as soon as the motor is put into service.

Management has become cognizant of the necessity of the elimination of undesirable vegetation surrounding the periphery of our facility.
Please remove the weeds around the building.

 Cliches

Our bottom line is preventing disruption.
Preventing disruption is our main focus.

We need to take advantage of this window of opportunity.
We need to take advantage of this opportunity.

I don’t want you to move the goalposts part way through the project.
I don’t want you to change the brief part way through the project. 

We need to think outside the box to solve this problem.
We need to think creatively to solve this problem. 

Why not share your examples of superfluous words and clichés in the comments?

I’ll have another blog about ways you can please your readers with your clear, engaging, sharp writing.

Perfect Pages editing

sharp writing

Oops! In the wrong place

Rather than trying to explain, I’m simply going to give you some examples.

Have a chuckle while you decipher the underlying principle.

There was a discussion yesterday on the worrying of sheep by dogs in the Minister’s room.

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

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

Born two weeks ago, zookeepers feared Shuffles would not live past her first few days.

Previously thought responsible for the damage, scientists found that the coral crab was in reality helping to repair the coral.

Standing just 5’7” tall, the other players nicknamed him ‘Muscles’.

Being a family company, these eggs are produced …

As the person that makes the purchase, Old Spice have recognised that they need to appeal to the female audience.

At only 23 weeks gestation, nursing staff said they had not expected the newborn would survive.

McEwan, an avid hiker, took part in a British expedition interested in climate change to Spitsbergen …

Crown Princess Mary has been given a reported dressing-down from her mother-in-law …

Now, how would you rewrite those examples for clarity?

 

Not sure about any of the examples?
Leave a comment and I’ll help you out.

I’d love you to share the ‘danglers’ you’ve met – just leave a comment🙂

 

Perfect Pages sharpening your writing

Perfect Pages
sharpening your writing

You didn’t proofread? What were you thinking?

Before the summer holidays, I bought a couple of easy-to-read books, knowing that I needed to switch off my editor’s brain for a while.

I was not disappointed with the Reginald Hill ‘Dalziel and Pascoe’ mystery: tight writing, intriguing plot, evocative descriptions, smattering of words that I hadn’t met before, references to classical literature (and music, in this story). All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable experience, and my editor’s hackles weren’t given a reason to rise.

However, I can’t say the same for the other book. I’d chosen it on a bit of a whim, the blurb that included ‘The Top Ten Sunday Times Bestselling Author’, and the 1920s setting in Liverpool and Dublin. (I have a liking for fiction set in Dublin and Cornwall.)

I couldn’t keep my editor’s antenna quiet when the author’s acknowledgment of the help of her expert included ‘…but because of a rush to get this book ready for the printers, he has not been able to check the MS…’ OK, so I can live with a few inaccuracies that don’t detract from the plot.

But, it made me wonder.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to spot some typos – and I’m not talking complex grammar or punctuation. Most readers would notice missing quote marks at the end of dialogue, inconsistent spelling of character and place names, lack of subject–verb agreement.

A final proofread would surely have rectified those simple mistakes.

Although the story was enjoyable enough (despite the lack of surprises in the plot or character development), I won’t be buying any other books by that author. And I now question the professionalism and credibility of the publishing house.

So what does this mean for you and your writing?

Please have someone edit or proofread anything that will possibly influence your reputation. A potential client experiencing disappointment in your writing can decide not to use your product or service, simply because they wonder if your business is as sloppy as your writing.

As difficult as I know it is, try to plan your writing tasks to include time for reviewing. I see so much writing that could easily move from the ordinary to the excellent because of a review by editor or proofreader. An earlier post gives insight into how editing adds value to your writing.

What has been your experience with writing that could have benefitted from an editor’s eye for detail?

 

 

Beautiful writing (digitalart ID10043412)

Beautiful writing
(digitalart ID10043412)

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

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?

Perfect Pages sharpening your writing

Perfect Pages
sharpening your writing

Writing sharpeners – keeping readers engaged

A+ testimonial

‘Just write the way you speak.’ How often do you hear that advice?

That can be fine in an informal situation, but is generally not useful in business and technical writing.

When we speak, we frequently use ‘fillers’ to give ourselves time to think what to say next. Fillers may be as simple as um, you know, I think… or they may be clichés, tautologies, using long-winded or vague phrases (often called waffle), or a ‘posh’ word instead of a simpler one.

When we write, we have more time to consider our words and to review them before sending them off.
In fact, we must if we want our readers to clearly and easily understand our message.

Clichés

These are words and phrases that have been used so much that they’ve lost their real meaning
and their effectiveness.
Generally, clichés have been around for a long time, or they could be the latest techno-speak or management buzz word.
In themselves, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’ve become boring or taken on an indefinite meaning.

Phrases like:           a window of opportunity                  the bottom line
the greatest thing since sliced bread                move the goalposts

Our aim is to find fresh ways to express our thoughts so that our readers remain engaged with our message.

‘Our bottom line is to minimise disruptions.’ tells a story,
but              Minimising disruptions is our main objective.
is a stronger message that focuses the readers’ attention on the more important part of the sentence.

Tautologies

‘Using more words than necessary to express a thought’, or ‘saying the same thing twice’ are the classic definition of tautology (or pleonasm if you want to show off).
When you really listen, you’ll be able to hear so many tautologies in everyday speaking. Unfortunately, you’ll also read far too many of them.

PIN number (Personal Identification Number number)         free gift           extra bonus
ATM machine (Automatic Teller Machine machine)                   past history                 future plans     proceed forward           5 am in the morning          unite together            true fact
‘when I first began the project…’              new innovations

Waffle

 as a consequence of… (because)         in the event of… (if)           in view of the fact that… (because)
upon the occurrence of… (when)              in the course of… (during)
I was forced to have to…   (I was forced to…   or   I had to…)

  These chemicals are subject to rapid deterioration.   (These chemicals deteriorate rapidly.)
A summary of these findings is given in Table 16.   (Table 16 summarises these findings.)
Tissue sample dissection was performed.   (The tissue sample was dissected.)

Reducing waffle and long-windedness sharpens your writing and takes your readers to the crux of your message in the most direct way – without being brusque or rude, of course.

Posh words

My general ‘rule’ is to choose a simpler word if there is one.

 utilise (use)         endeavour (try)             initialise (begin)          transmit (send)
fabricate (make)          ascertain (find out)

Of course, it’s fine if you’re using a word in its technical sense where it has a specific meaning.

Keep your writing clear, engaging and sharp.
Make sure you review before you send.
Focus on your readers.

I’d love you to add to my collection Writing Sharpeners – either more of the ones I’ve mentioned or other tips that will help business and technical writers.