Clear Writing for Difficult Technology

One of my recurring jobs is to proofread the School of Science newsletter for a major university, which is sent to the university’s many alumni, friends, and donors. I am constantly awed by the clear, straightforward way in which the university’s postdocs and professors describe their research and its potential impact for individuals who may have worked in an entirely different area of science, never majored in science or never conducted research at that level.

If they can do it, you can do it. If you are ready to market a new or difficult technology, clear writing is essential and has these six major characteristics:

  1. Accuracy. It’s no good hedging your bets with “we think” or “approximately in the range of” or “is capable of.” Either the technology does what you say it does, or you need to rethink your marketing.
  2. Analogies. An analogy describes a difficult concept by using a simpler concept. Writer and editor Peter De Vries once described the universe this way: “The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.” By using analogies, you describe new or difficult technology in terms already familiar to your audience.
  3. Graphics. When you can’t say it clearly, show it. Manufacturers of consumer products have long ago discovered that pictures and photos are clearer than written instructions, allowing customers to build and use products with more confidence and fewer calls to the help desk. Embrace graphics when writing about difficult technology.
  4. Simplified language. You may need to use multi-syllable words like environmentalism or computational microscopy, but you can help your reader by (a) surrounding those multi-syllable words with shorter words (for example, “use” instead of “utilize”); (b) breaking up long sentences (over 25 words) into shorter sentences; and (c) breaking up solid text into shorter paragraphs or sections.
  5. Defined terms. Always define acronyms the first time they are used, especially if the acronym has more than one meaning (and most of them do) or is unique to your field. The acronym ZIP has wildly different meanings depending on whether you are talking about chemistry, medicine, computers, finances–or mailing a letter. If you are using a term for the first time, explain what it means. In one sentence, you will bring your audience up to speed.
  6. Consistency. Even if many authors have helped to write about a difficult technology, the content should be reviewed by one person who makes sure that it is consistent and meets all the previous characteristics of clear writing.

TWP Marketing & Technical Writing has over a decade of experience in using clear writing to market difficult technologies. Contact us today.