Technical Writing Need Not Be Abstruse—Use Plain Language for Maximum Impact

Oct 23, 2015
A large English dictionary.

Author writes: Additionally, the method utilized a myriad of factors for the purpose of incentivizing production to hit record-high levels of magnitude in the equivalent time period.

Author thinks: My work sounds serious, impressive and interesting.

Reader thinks: Huh?

Technical writers are great—some of my favorite colleagues are technical writers. But technical writers often need help communicating their important thoughts in plain language.

As an editor of technical, statistical reports, I see authors making a number of mistakes in approach, execution and English. Here are five of my agency’s most common arguments for not writing in plain language:

  1. I got an A on these kinds of papers in graduate school. Yes, you did. And you were writing for a professor as your only reader. Your professor was likely smarter than you were. The long introduction with fancy SAT words might work in college, but it’s not what busy readers of your content are looking for. The research format of background, literature review, assumptions, research discussion, analysis, and finally ending with the conclusions completely buries the main points. Lead with your main points. Use plain language. Write for interested readers, not your academic or technical peers.
  2. I was taught to vary my word choice and to make paragraphs at least three sentences long. Yes, you were. In 10th grade English. Don’t feel compelled to vary your word usage, especially for words with specific meanings. If you say consumption in one sentence, don’t say usage in the next sentence and then demand in the third. Readers will wonder if these terms all mean the same thing. Don’t make readers wonder. And, one-sentence paragraphs can be very instructive and powerful. Shorter paragraphs are easier to skim and easier to read.
  3. I was told to include an introduction, body and conclusion in my writing. That’s OK for the SAT writing sample, but that format leads to repetitive content. Just tell the reader the main point first, then include some supporting facts or analysis. Don’t write in conclusion or to summarize. If your writing is clear and direct, you won’t need a conclusion.
  4. I know my readers—and I know they will understand these terms. When writing Web content, unless you really know all one million or so of your potential readers, don’t assume they will be familiar with your technical terms. What may be common knowledge to you might be new to your readers. There are two simple solutions to fix this mistake, using either parentheses or pairs of em dashes to clarify technical terms: … technical term (definition or plain English meaning), or … simple term (technical term). Do not force your readers to crack open Merriam Webster’s Dictionary or their chemistry book or to search Google. Clarify your terms in context.
  5. I won’t look like a subject expert if I write in plain language. No one was ever offended by content that was too clear. Technical-minded readers will certainly understand and possibly even appreciate your clarity. And a lot of nontechnical readers will also be able to understand and use your information. Plain language isn’t dumbing down content. It’s making your information more accessible to more people.

Know Your Readers and Write to Them
Marketing segmentation

My agency does a website customer survey every year. We ask questions about who the customers are (government, academia, business, private citizen) and how satisfied they are with the information we provide. We also ask a couple of questions that provide a great look into who in the world is accessing our information. And it is a wide world!

In our 2015 survey, more than 25% of the 30,000 respondents told us they didn’t live in the United States. With 40,000 people using our website each day, that’s 10,000 people who live abroad. This percentage has been consistent for many years. Think about these readers when you use jargon or idioms or technical terms specific to a culture or location.

In addition to the global distribution of our users, a full 20% of our survey respondents say they are visiting our website for the first time. That means the old “we defined that in the report last month” won’t cut it. Each report should spell out acronyms, define units and explain technical terms. The key here is to know your readers and write to them.

What other aspects of writing should authors of technical content pay attention to?

  • Writing in the agency style, which writers often forget about in the midst of analysis. Our agency has a Writing Style Guide to help writers with punctuation, hyphenation, capitalization and agency style choices.
  • Scrubbing for consistency in usage, voice and writing style when a report has many authors.
  • Reading the document aloud before sending it to your boss. Use spell check for way more than just spelling. Have a nontechnical colleague read it and give honest feedback. If you are the reviewer, never be afraid to say “I don’t understand this.” If you don’t understand what the writer is saying, many readers won’t either.

And, the sentence at the beginning of this piece should say, “This method used many factors to achieve a record level of production.”

Colleen Blessing is a senior editor at the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the lead author of her agency’s award-winning style guide. She’s been editing government writing since the first Roosevelt administration since her agency was formed in 1977 and has worked in the Office of Communications since 2006.