Five tips to make your technical writing clearer

Writing about science and technology for non-technical readers can be hard work. In science-based companies, authors of web content are typically technical experts, often the best in their fields. They’re enthusiastic, and want to share everything they know. But everything that makes them brilliant can also hold them back from writing clear blog posts or web content that is accessible to a wider audience.

Here are five tips that anyone can use to make technical content easier to read.

Know your audience

sciencewritingWho are you writing for? Identifying your target audience will help you answer some important questions that should guide your writing. How much technical terminology will they understand? How much background should you include? Once you’ve identified your target audience, write for them in language they will easily understand.

Avoid jargon

Avoiding jargon doesn’t mean you need to avoid all technical terms. If you’re writing an article about the importance of the Higgs boson to quantum physics, you can’t help talking about particles. However, you should ask yourself, “Can I say this more simply?” If you can, then do.

Using simple language isn’t the same as “dumbing it down.” It just means using the simplest words you can to suit the purpose. Consider these examples:

  • Utilize / use
  • Constitute / make up
  • Erroneous / wrong
  • Initiate / start
  • Terminate / end

The longer words are still common, but if your goal is to make your work accessible, why use a longer word when a shorter one will do? In fact, this research from Princeton University suggests that writers who needlessly use complex language are seen as less intelligent than those who use simpler simpler words. Save the more complex words for when you have no other option.

Limit the passive voice

Passive voice is different than past tense. Passive voice creeps in when we let the subject in a sentence have something done to it, instead of having the subject do the doing. Consider the difference between:

“The test was run using a new methodology that was developed specifically for this product,” and, “We ran the test using a new methodology that we developed specifically for this this application.”

Active sentences with strong verbs are more engaging. This is generally good practice, but it’s especially important when readers are unfamiliar with your subject. It helps them see where the action is, which makes understanding your content easier.

Be wary of the verb “to be”

Speaking of jargon … closely linked to passive voice we have something called “expletive structure” — the fancy term for sentences that start with “There is/are/were” or “It is/was/would be.” Sentences that start this way are often wordier than they need to be, and they bury the real action under a weak verb. Consider the difference between:

“There is a possibility that the next version will be released early in the new year,” and, “The next version might be released early in the year new year.”

Read it out loud

I’m a big fan of reading out loud. Even though we don’t speak the way we write, reading out loud is a fantastic way to find sentences that need to be shorter and words that don’t work well together. If something doesn’t read well out loud, it probably won’t work well for your reader either.

What techniques do you use to make your technical writing more accessible? Share them in the comments below.