How to Focus on the Reader in Technical Writing
I get it: sometimes you need to write messages that contain a lot of technical detail. Here are some tips to make them more readable.
Are you a technical person who receives constant requests for clarification on your messages? Are you not getting the responses you expect from your clients and teammates? Perhaps you spend a lot of time re-explaining things you thought you had already put clearly in writing?
It could be that you are forgetting an essential element: analyzing your readers—not just your content—before you write.
Before you write, let’s do a quick quiz:
As a business writer (in a technical field), it is my job to
- impress people with my knowledge.
- thoroughly report all the technical information I’ve gathered.
- write a long document that answers every question any reader might have.
Yes, that was a trick question, and the answer is (absolutely) none of the above! Your job as a business writer is to write simply and clearly so your points are accessible to your readers. After all, if your clients or colleagues are not quite sure what you are saying, how can they take action when you send them proposals or solutions, service advice or business plans?
So what is a technical person to do?
Take it from us—we have been teaching technical business writing for over 30 years. Here are a few tips to get you on your way to clear and impactful documents:
1. Focus on the recipient of your message (be reader-centered)
When you are writing about detailed and complex products, it is especially important to put yourself in your readers’ position. What are their backgrounds and needs? What information will they need to make a decision or solve a problem?
It can be tempting to simply write up everything you know—but refrain from doing this. While you understand the information you’re conveying, your reader will most likely be overwhelmed. That’s what often leads to a long back-and-forth email chain. Instead, before you start writing, ask yourself “What is the most basic, simple information that my reader needs?” And then deliver that, and only that.
Think about it this way: What do you want to learn about a dry-cleaner before you decide to use their service? You’re not interested in their use of azeotropic distillation, their closed-loop solvent delivery system, or their compliance with the CAA. You want to know how much it will cost you, when you will get your suit, and possibly whether or not they have good references. Am I right?
2. Get to the point!
When you write, get to the point quickly so that your readers know exactly why they should read your document. In business writing, we refer to this as putting the “bottom line on top,” or BLOT. This is especially important when you are writing a long and complex document. You need to provide your reader with a compelling reason to get through it! Not sure what your point is? Our best advice is to stop writing and start planning.
3. Avoid abbreviations, technical terms, or jargon
Keep in mind that your readers may not be half as tech-savvy as you are (if that!). They may not be familiar with your industry’s specific terms. So avoid jargon and explain any acronyms or abbreviations that you need to include.
If you bother your readers with language they don’t understand, you will confuse them, or worse, leave them feeling alienated. That is not a good basis for a relationship!
4. Additional tips for writing that enhances your image
I get it: sometimes you need to write messages that contain a lot of technical detail. Here are four things you can do to make them more readable:
- Use a lot of white space, and separate your document into clear sections.
- Use headlines to guide your reader. When you’re about to ask your readers to do something, alert them in the headline. Here are three favorites: “action requested,” “next steps,” and “suggested deadline.”
- Keep your sentences short and your language as simple as possible.
- Keep paragraphs no longer than six lines.
If you use these techniques you will create clear documents that are likely to get you what you want. Being reader-centered increases your chances of getting cooperation and buy-in from your readers. It’s that simple. And guess what? You will end up saving yourself time, too!
Interested in learning more about how improving your organization’s technical writing can impact your overall performance? Contact us.
This blog was originally published here.