How to Deliver Technical Content to Non-Experts
Whenever I tell people that I’m a technical writer, I’m used to hearing a familiar reaction: “Oh, reading and writing complicated documents sounds so mind-numbing.” Actually, technical writing is a challenging and satisfying craft. That’s because I help companies communicate their most complex information with clarity.
What is Technical Writing?
While technical writers do write documents—from educational articles and research reports to procedures and user guides—they do not write complicated documents. In fact, technical writers have unfavorable terms for convoluted writing. When academic writing becomes too pedantic, we call it academese. When legal writing uses unnecessary jargon, we label it legalese.
There’s a common misconception about technical writing, which is that technical writers create complicated content. In fact, technical writing is the opposite: technical writers research complicated information but convey it in a way that’s readable for the non-expert. Technical writers filter through complex facts and figures, and then they communicate the data in a user-friendly way that’s relevant to a wide audience.
The creative process of technical writing is similar to other types of professional writing. Technical writers research a topic based on what their readers want to know. They organize the information in a logical manner. They pick an appropriate style and select memorable words and examples.
However, a topic often neglected in the writing process is delivery: going beyond mere words. It’s not enough for technical writers to communicate mere information. They also must deliver content in a way that makes it relevant to readers.
For example, after you write the content, is it structured in a user-friendly format? When readers finish perusing the content, do they understand what to do next? Let’s explore these two questions.
Whether technical writing delivers information in the form of a research article or an instruction manual, readers usually look up technical content because they have to learn something. For various reasons—from continuing education to job training—they want to know a new subject or an additional process. While it’s possible to assume that readers are compelled by their careers to read technical content, technical writing fares better when it evokes a sense of what usability analysts call satisfaction.
Satisfying technical content is approachable, not intimidating in appearance. Is the document a reasonable length, or is it unnecessarily wordy? When a document is too long or full of jargon, many readers won’t look through it, let alone understand it.
Accordingly, use plain English wherever possible. When technical terms are necessary, use concise language to clearly define them.
Satisfying technical content also looks attractive. Making technical content look attractive may sound like a contradiction, but all documents should give a positive viewing experience. Did readers have an easy time finding the information they wanted, or did they feel frustrated? In other words, aesthetics matters, which is why technical writers need to be aware of how to structure content.
For example, use layout and headings to chunk information into neat, coherent sections. When words are not enough, incorporate eye-catching visuals, not just to illustrate the content but also to help readers when they review it, because visuals remind readers where certain information is located. Readers want to easily navigate a document and find information where they expect to find it.
While satisfaction helps introduce readers to technical content, it’s not enough to sustain their attention. That’s where takeaways come in, because each reader will likely ask a pragmatic question: why should I care about this content? When readers take time out of their busy schedules to learn technical content, they’re entitled to know what practical difference it makes to their situation.
Ultimately, this pragmatic concern is about connecting information to choices, or what behavioral scientists call “understanding mappings”—a fancy phrase for how your mind comprehends a situation and figures out what to do next. Readers will want to connect the technical content they just read to decisions they are about to make. They will want takeaways.
Technical content delivers takeaways when it clearly shows readers what to do or think next. Readers understand technical content better when they can see what implications it has for decisions they need or want to make.
When it comes to technical writing, takeaways involve more than simply using the imperative voice in instruction manuals. For instance, if technical writers are composing procedures in risk management, then they need to state or illustrate exactly how a process fulfills an industry regulation. When writing business policies or disclosures for products or services, writers should document relevant, easy-to-read price comparisons for customers trying to decide on an option.
Technical Content Delivers Clarity, Satisfaction, and Takeaways
In sum, technical writers deliver technical content to non-experts by delivering clarity, satisfaction, and understandable takeaways. So here are your three takeaways to deliver technical content that’s relevant to readers.
- Use clear, concise language.
- Structure the content with headings and visuals to chunk and illustrate information.
- Provide takeaways so that readers will know what to do or think next. [Tweet This]
5-Star writer Christopher C is a technical communication professional whose skill set includes technical writing, editing, documentation, usability analysis, and business process improvement.
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