You can communicate technical information to non-technical readers by adjusting the vocabulary, examples, explanations, and level of detail. Writing simply so non-technical readers can understand your content does not mean dumbing down the technical writing. In this blog, I explain how you can write so non-technical writers understand the content, without dumbing down the technical writing.
The content of business writing is in two levels: a surface level and a deep level. The surface level comprises the words and sentences you use. The deep level contains the underlying meaning. The following two statements are different in the surface level, but identical in the deep level.
Version 1: Having been in receipt of the query in response to the April 4 correspondence, herewithin find the requisite exposition of aforementioned appraisement of said holdings.
Version 2: We received your letter asking about our April 4 letter with the appraisal of your property. In this letter, I explain how we arrived at the appraisal value.
Writing simply and clearly doesn’t dumb down the writing. You can change the surface structure of your technical writing so you convey the same deep message using shorter sentences and simple vocabulary with no loss of meaning. This article explains how you can write clear, understandable technical writing so all your readers understand the entire content you want to convey.
Understand what the non-technical reader needs
The first step in writing for non-technical readers is to decide what these readers want or need. These are some options:
- A concise summary of the conclusions, recommendations, or topics
- An understanding of the principles or content at a non-technical level
- An understanding of the principles or content with some growth in learning the technical aspects
You may identify other wants or needs for your readers. Add detail at the level the reader wants or needs. These are examples of the levels the reader may want or need.
No detail, only the conclusions, recommendations, or brief statements of the topics.
For this reader, state the nature of the content of your summary: conclusions, recommendations, topics, summary of the rationales, summary of the explanations, and so on. Then bullet out or number them using no jargon or only jargon the reader will understand. Minimize the number of words with three or more syllables. Your list of the conclusions, recommendations, or topics you prepared in the previous step may be identical to the list you create here.
A minimal amount of detail.
Some readers need a small amount of explanation or rationale to understand the conclusions, recommendations, or topics. Decide the type of detail that is of interest to this reader. Write the detail for each conclusion, recommendation, or topic after the statement of the conclusion, recommendation, or topic you created in the previous step. Avoid words with three or more syllables; use short sentences; use plain English rather than jargon. Look for the opportunity to stop writing detail. In other words, try to write as little detail as you can that will still satisfy the reader’s wants or needs. Avoid presenting a lecture on the subject or including information you feel is very interesting but isn’t necessary for the reader to know.
A moderate level of detail.
Use a moderate amount of detail for a reader who must be able to make decisions based on the information or speak knowledgeably about the subject to others. For this reader, follow the same guidelines presented for the reader who wants only some detail, but add more to fit this reader’s wants or needs. You will have to evaluate the depth at which you are able to stop. Here also, look for the opportunity to stop writing detail.
A great amount of detail.
For the reader who must understand the report thoroughly, but does not have the technical background, include non-technical explanations written as technically as the reader’s background will permit. Write the conclusion, recommendation, or topic and follow with enough detail for the reader to understand the conclusion, recommendation, or topic at a non-technical but thorough level.
Four Technical Writing Tips to Write Clearly
Four practices will help you write clearly for the non-technical reader:
- Avoid words with three or more syllables; use short sentences; use plain English rather than jargon.
- Actively look for detail to leave out because it either will not help the reader understand the subject or will not be understandable because the reader does not have the technical background.
- Substitute clear, plain explanations that approach the technical understanding as much as you can, then stop.
- Avoid presenting a lecture on the subject or including information you feel is very interesting but isn’t necessary for the reader to know.
An example of using these practices for technical writing intended for non-technical readers follows.
Write in clear, complete sentences
Present the conclusions, recommendations, or topics in clear, complete sentences.
- Don’t leave out articles or other words to make the statements shorter. That doesn’t make them non-technical. It makes them difficult to understand.
- Keep sentences at a moderate to short length. Avoid stacking concepts in sentences.
- Use active verbs rather than passive verbs.
- Keep your average sentence to between 10 and 20 words.
- Edit wordy phrases to make them concise.
|Overly complex and wordy||Concise and easy to read|
To understand and interpret an applet, the browser must have a Java virtual machine at its disposal. This is the case, in particular with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, as well as Sun’s HotJava. However, we have already mentioned several times that many Web surfers are attached to older browsers with which they feel comfortable. This being the case, if you use Java you will limit the number of visitors who will be able to wonder at what your applets do. In addition, browsers have a configuration option that allows (for security reasons, for example) the Java virtual machine to be turned off. Cautious people make frequent use of this option.
Only up-to-date browsers can use these applets. Since some Web surfers use older browsers that do not understand Java or have switched off the Java option for security, you may have fewer visitors to your site if you use these applets.
Don’t dumb down the information
Some businesspeople with technical expertise object to “dumbing down” the information for non-technical readers. However, they misunderstand what it means to present technical information simply.
It is possible to dumb down content, but not the explanation. An explanation using clear, plain English words does not require leaving out content; it just means using words and concepts a non-technical reader can understand.
For example, the writer would be dumbing down the content of the message if he or she wrote, “The Sun is just like a big campfire in the sky.” That’s dumbing down the content because the Sun’s energy comes from nuclear fusion, not the chemical breakdown of wood that occurs in a campfire. However, the writer could write, “The Sun is a ball of extremely hot gases heated by a continuous nuclear explosion that has gone on for 4.5 billion years.” An astrophysicist might refine that to be even more accurate while keeping it simple.
Everyone knew what the telegraph was in 1938 when Albert Einstein used it to explain the new wireless communication: “The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat.”
Writing about complex, technical subjects in ways that help non-technical readers understand the concepts requires a knowledgeable writer—the more knowledgeable and intelligent the writer is, the more likely he or she will be able to explain the subject clearly for the non-technical reader because this person really understands the subject well and can create ways of presenting it without the jargon.
The less knowledgeable the writer is, the more likely he or she will fall into using jargon and complex phrases because the less knowledgeable writer doesn’t fully understand what the concepts mean to be able to explain them clearly.
When you explain your technical information for a non-technical reader, keep the content you know the reader needs—don’t dumb down the content. However, use plain English, shorter sentences, examples, and analogies.
Use clear, simple vocabulary
Obtuse language is different from jargon. Do not use obtuse language in any of your writing, for either technical or non-technical readers.
In the left column are complex words that have simple alternatives. When your writing is filled with these types of complex words, it becomes obtuse. Substitute the alternative in red to the right of each word.
|Obtuse words||Plain English words|
|along the lines of||like|
|are of the opinion||believe|
|ascertain||find out, learn|
|assistance||help, converse, talk|
|consummate||close, bring about|
|despite the fact that||although, though|
|during the course of||during|
|financial deficit||losing money|
|for the purpose of||for, to|
|for the reason that||because|
|give consideration to||consider|
|have need for||need|
|in order to||to|
|in view of the fact that||because, since|
|make use of||use|
|on the occasion of||when|
|preceding year||last year|
|succeed in making||make|
|we would like to ask that||please|
|with reference to||about|
|Writing with obtuse language and jargon||Redrafted in plain language|
|The 15ATS series toggle switches, in excess of 200 in aggregate, were subjected to unanticipated extremes of temperatures caused by residing in close proximity to the switching unit. This in turn caused heat-induced diminishment of operating capability as the expansion of metal caused a fault whereby the metal connection was induced to fuse. The requisite heat of the aforementioned switch box would have had to have been in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit before such effect is exhibited.||Over 200 automatic toggle switches fused when the keypad melted as the switch box temperature rose to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit.|
Avoid the use of jargon for the non-technical reader. Use it only when you want the reader to understand or learn the jargon or when the reader already knows it.
Include definer words to make the concept clear
|Words without definers||Words with definers|
|the agreement||the agreement we signed on August 13|
|the software||the software you described in your e?mail|
|the paralegal||the paralegal who worked on the case with Tracy|
- Write embedded definitions at the point where the reader needs them. Don’t use glossaries. Don’t define words at the beginning and expect the reader to remember them throughout.
- The myth of the “scientific” or “businesslike” language is the same myth as the myth of legal language, accounting language, and medical language. The language must be the same for all: plain English.
|Writing with obtuse language and jargon||Redrafted in plain language|
|From any HTML file on a Web site, you can link to files through URLs that point to other HTML files in the same site or to files residing in other domains on other servers.. Specifically, these links are URLs, a unique combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that are not displayed. Instead, link text is designated in the HTML as clickable, so identified through the programmed use of underlining and blue pixilation, which may be avoided through the use of cascading style sheet protocols.||You can link any page to other pages on the same site or different sites using page addresses. For example, the page address that links to our personnel directory is http://joysonco.com/personnel.html. The text normally doesn’t show the page address itself. Instead, it shows a description of the content, such as “Personnel directory.” The description text is normally blue and underlined so you know that when you click on the text, the page will appear.|
|Writing with obtuse language and jargon||Redrafted in plain language|
|Most refractory coatings to date exhibit a lack of reliability when subject to an unrelenting firing of embedded particulate matter in a stream expelled with exhaust gas under extended durations.||Particles in the exhaust gas eventually wear away the ceramic’s coating.|
Minimize abbreviations and acronyms
Keep acronyms and abbreviations under control.
- Use the abbreviation without explanation if everyone knows it (IBM, USA, Washington DC, BMW, Ph.D.).
- Avoid using an abbreviation if it is commonly understood to have one meaning and you are using it for another. For example, do not use PC for “politically correct” or “Planning Council” because most people think of PC as personal computer.
- Use the acronyms or abbreviations your technical group or organization normally uses internally without explanation. However, use the full form or a shortened form when writing to other audiences.
- Use the shortened word form to avoid the abbreviations the reader may not already understand. Cellular Message Switching and Relay Device becomes Switching Device—not CMSRD. However, if the shortened version won’t communicate clearly, use the full name throughout.
- Avoid abbreviations you must explain in brackets the first time you use them. If any reader has a less than perfect memory, you will be creating confusion. Use the plain descriptive terms instead.
Present the information to help the reader
When you know the subject well and are writing for a non-technical reader, it is easy to use a patronizing tone or write to the reader as though he or she were a child. Instead, write clear, simple explanations as you would to an intelligent adult.
Follow these principles to help the reader:
- Format the presentation to make it easy to read.
- Use visuals, graphs, and tables if they present the information clearly. If they require that the reader understand the content before being able to understand the visual, it will be of little worth.
- Use headings to divide the parts of your explanation. Skip blank lines between the parts. White space helps readers navigate the explanations. Present the conclusion, recommendation, or topic succinctly at the beginning of the explanation. Then provide the explanation. You may bold the conclusion, recommendation, or topic and skip a blank line after it so it becomes a heading.
Divide the reports into technical and non-technical parts
If your report will be read by both technical and non-technical readers, write two parts:
- Write a non-technical part at the beginning. It may be a cover letter, synopsis, or executive summary.
- Cover letter. A cover letter should be brief and formal. It should contain only an introduction explaining the context of the report or study, the list of conclusions, recommendations, or topics, and a cordial conclusion explaining that the technical report follows and providing contact information.
- Summary. A summary should be no longer than one page. It will contain the same information as the cover letter without the letter’s introduction and conclusion. Instead, it will contain brief statements summarizing the introduction and conclusion of the report.
- Executive summary. An executive summary is a short version of the report written for a non-technical reader. A 40-page technical report may have an eight- or ten-page executive summary. The sections of the executive summary should be the same as the sections in the report. An executive summary should not be an introduction to the report or a brief, one-page summary of the report.
- Write the technical report after the non-technical part. The technical report should have its own title with words indicating that it is a technical presentation, such as “Technical Description of the . . .” or “Engineering Specifications for the . . .” or other such title. Longer reports with an executive summary should have separate title pages for the executive summary and technical report and numbering should begin again (from page 1) for the technical report.
Embed non-technical explanations with the technical explanations
Consider embedding non-technical with technical explanations when the non-technical readers have some technical background or interest.
If the non-technical readers have some technical background or may be interested in seeing the technical explanation, an alternative organization is to embed the non-technical summaries with the technical explanations. Use non-technical headings for the sections of the report. Begin each section with a non-technical summary at the level the non-technical readers will understand. Follow with the technical information. Mark the two sections clearly using headings such as “Overview” or “Summary” for the non-technical portion and “Technical Description” or “Technical Specifications” for the technical portion.