Companies sometimes approach technical writing as if they want to lull readers to sleep. They torture them with long, turgid documents that are poorly written, painful to read, difficult to understand and of interest to no one.
Admittedly, instruction manuals and spec sheets aren’t exactly sexy. No one expects a software user guide to be a gripping page turner. But other technical writing, including white papers, reports and articles, can be educational and engaging. The secret is to follow the best practices that apply to all good writing.
Follow these top tips for technical content:
- Make it readable.
Use plain English, short words and simple sentence structure. Look for sentences you can cut in two. Engineers might be able to understand your highly technical content, but that doesn’t mean all readers will have the same level of knowledge. Show the document to someone who doesn’t have a scientific background. If the reviewer understands what you wrote, you’re good to go.
- Banish bloat.
Get to the point as quickly as possible. No one wants to wade through a sea of copy, particularly when your goal is to start a conversation with your audience. Provide enough information to be enticing – not overwhelming. Never use two words when one will do.
- Use active voice.
Passive voice is wordy and makes your subject matter ambiguous. Your audience may become confused and stop reading. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. For example, “The construction crew finished the building in record time,” is active voice. Passive voice: “The building was finished in record time by the construction crew.”
- Avoid jargon.
Industry jargon can alienate readers who aren’t familiar with those terms. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it. Worried about insulting people? Incorporate necessary terms, but define them on initial references.
- Write out abbreviations and acronyms on first reference.
Even the brainiacs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommend doing this for clarity. Copy that reads like alphabet soup isn’t reader-friendly.
- Use visual cues.
Huge blocks of copy are intimidating. Bulleted lists draw attention to the most important points and enable skim reading. Tables, pull quotes, screenshots and images enhance readers’ understanding and make it more likely they’ll read your content.
Is your technical content easy to understand or do people need a Ph.D. to get through it? Let us know in the comments below.