Arttia Creative – Specialist Insight
Our guest blog author Concision is a message and writing company.
Technical writing: insights, trends and tips
If you have a complex product or service, writing about it in an engaging way can be a real challenge. It's even more difficult when you take the medium into account. Web pages, magazine articles, research papers and press releases all serve different purposes when it comes to promoting what you do – and require different approaches.
In this article we will explore some questions that are relevant across the board:
- What are the current trends affecting technical writing or science communication?
- Where do companies go wrong with technical writing?
- How can you use your writing to improve audience engagement?
What are the current trends affecting technical writing or science communication?
1. Communicating clearly is more important than ever.
Because we live in an age of information overload, well-crafted content is increasingly important. You can lose your audience's attention if your technical writing isn't clear and compelling. They will leave your site or throw your brochure in the bin if you don't provide quick, engaging and succinct answers to their questions. In fact, they may not even visit your site or read your brochure at all if you don't grab their attention with a well-written headline.
2. Scientific information is becoming easier to access.
People are recognising the importance of making scientific knowledge freely available. For example, universities and academic journals are increasingly backing Open Access initiatives and publishing their research without restrictions on access or reuse. Of course, this means that scientific collaboration is becoming easier. But it also means that your clients could easily access articles written by your staff. What your clients read will affect how they view your company. Consider supporting your staff with writing help. Articles are a great way to demonstrate that your staff are involved in relevant, value-adding research.
3. Conversational interfaces are becoming more common. Companies are trying to improve customer experience by interacting with their customers through conversational interfaces. A conversational interface chats with a user, making it easier for them to retrieve data. They can be both text and voice based – think of the ubiquitous chat bots online, or Amazon’s Alexa.
Chat bots or voice-activated assistants can help users retrieve data or answer questions through an ordinary, idiomatic conversation.
People are often more comfortable accessing information this way (as opposed to point-and-click graphical interfaces). When they have positive experiences with conversational interfaces, people begin to expect content to be clear, short and easy to find. Who wants to hear Alexa read out a long answer to a question? Concise writing will become even more important. You should, therefore, avoid awkward, stilted or academic writing. Don't just give your audience paragraphs of information. Write conversationally, and address the questions your audience might have. (You might need to spend some time thinking through who your audience is!)
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What to avoid in technical writing
So where do companies go wrong with technical writing?
Trends aside, there are some common mistakes we see all the time at Concision. For example, this paragraph could have come from a tech company website:
The proprietory graphene doping and enhancement process uses carbon in the form of single atomic planes of graphite isolated on our proprietory substrate that can then be incorporated into other materials to improve properties such as thermal conductivity, tensile strength and reduce resistivity. Our customers’ final products have been significantly enhanced by our refined materials because of our proprietory process and, by the way, our company has been awarded a certificate of outstanding achievement by the BLW Institute of Boring and Long-winded Writing.
This is dry, dull and difficult to understand. It's full of jargon, the sentences are long – and written in the passive voice. And it's repetitive. This is all it really says:
We use specially developed chemicals to refine our materials. This significantly enhances our customers’ final products, and we have even won a certificate of outstanding achievement from the industrial regulators.
Of course, you might want to convey some of the more technical detail too. But make sure it's serving your purpose and your audience.
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Technical writing tips
How can you use your writing to improve audience engagement?
It's difficult to communicate a subject you know well if your audience knows very little about it. But it is possible. Here are our top tips to help you overcome this 'curse of knowledge':
Put yourself in the audience's shoes. If you are offering a complex product or service, think about how best to present and explain its benefits. What difference will it make to them? Are there any creative ways to explain it? (A conversational interface, perhaps?) The time you spend thinking through different options will yield rich rewards.
Say everything necessary, even if it’s obvious. It might be obvious to you, but not everyone knows they need to switch on the computer before trying to use it. Even if your clients are tech professionals, they will know a lot less than you do about your product.
Don’t say anything that isn’t necessary, even if it’s interesting. Concision is essential. If your readers don't need to know something, don’t write it. They probably aren't interested in irrelevant technical details. That’s true even if they’re science and tech professionals.
Be active. Make every sentence active, unless there is a good reason for the passive. Active sentences are more engaging, easier to read and communicate that your company is doing things that matter to customers and stakeholders.
Assume reasonable memory. If you’ve said something once, don’t repeat it. If you’ve said it before in a different chapter or site page, give a page number or link.
Use short words and short sentences. Start a new sentence whenever you can. Use abbreviations or acronyms, but don’t use too many in a sentence, and clearly explain them in an abbreviations table. So you'll want to tell non-technical readers what LED stands for, and – more importantly – that it’s a little glowing light.
Use terms consistently. Don’t call something a watch on one page of your site and a time-piece on the next.
Use diagrams. But make the terms in the labels and captions consistent with the main text.
Our guest blog author Concision is a message and writing company. Peter is also a writer at Concision. He has a PhD in Geology from Durham University and is published in a number of academic journals.