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KISS -- Keep It Simple, Sweetheart! How to Write About a Complex Subject in a Simple Way
by Devyani Borade

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Anyone who does not live under a rock will know that the IT field, along with biotech, space and genetics, has been one of the fastest growing, changing and revolutionising areas of work in the world. From the invention of the wheel to the first cloned sheep, to putting the "smart" into every single smart gadget available on the market today, we've come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Little wonder then, that this progress needs to be documented, not only accurately but also engagingly. And who better to do the job than a writer with knowledge of the inner workings of the system?

Whether you're writing about the latest scientific advancement, unveiling secrets of great historical pith and moment, or even jousting around different political perspectives, your audience has to be able to understand what they're reading. And this means keeping things simple -- writing about complicated stuff in an uncomplicated way for the benefit of the layman. So how do you ensure that you've got the know-how as well as the can-do this requires?

1. The need to know

To put it bluntly, you cannot write on a complex subject unless you know what you're talking about. While this is true for most specialist industries like manufacturing, legal, shipping and the like, it is especially true for any technical industry where the playing field is the whole world. Thanks to the Internet, every Tom, Dick and Hari from Ireland to India has access to a wealth of information on every topic. This means that every pair of eyes reading your work will be scrutinising for mistakes. Meanwhile, the brains behind them will be working constantly to analyse and either accept or reject your commentary. Unless you are well-versed with the topic of discussion, lack of experience will lay you open to ridicule. Complex industries rely heavily on jargon, and you need to ensure you are on intimate terms with it. Make no mistake -- if you slip up, you get slapped down.

2. Focus

Often a subject may be so vast and intricate there is no way to write everything about everything. With the advent of fast communication devices, news and views travel faster than it will take you to read through till the end of this sentence. While your fingers are labouring away on 800 words about what you think is the latest must-have gizmo, elsewhere in the world three more innovations have already been made to it. By the time your piece actually appears in print, it has already become outdated. You need to concentrate on a very small aspect of a particular subject and write strictly within the scope of such boundaries. Be realistic when setting those boundaries. For instance, you cannot cover the entire history of early American settlers in a thousand words. You can, however, introduce the topic of Mayflower within that constraint.

3. Selection criteria

When it comes to picking the actual topic, there is no limit. To begin with, you can write about whatever appeals to you personally. Chances are you will share your interests with a fair section of the readership and there will be enough takers for your article. Once you gain fluency, it is easy to search online and subscribe to newsletters that discuss the hot topics of the day, any of which you can pick up and write about.

4. What's your angle?

Just knowing what you're going to write about isn't good enough. You also need to know where you're going with it, what your goal is. Are you raising an objection to a well-known concept? Are you emphasising a little-known aspect of a popular phenomenon? Are you debating the advantages and disadvantages of several different products or services? Are you aiming to align your loyalties to a specific school of thought? Your article needs a clear slant.

Readers should know what to expect from it when they start reading, and this expectation should be wholly satisfied at the end, with minimum distractions, tangents and ambiguities. A title like "Five ways to use social media for marketing your book" should give the reader five concrete, distinct and useful ways by which social media can help them market their book. It shouldn't suddenly start discoursing about how Twitter has brought about the degradation of the English language. Charm them, don't cheat them.

5. Provoke

A good article makes the reader think; a great one forces him to react. In the world of writing, which is all about communication, the mark of an expert is how much "buzz" or discussion his article generates, how many people weigh in with their opinions, what feedback is given and taken, where else the work is being bandied about. Complex subjects can easily become dry and dull if not handled carefully. Unlike fiction, there are no characters to make the readers care about them, no twists in the plot to keep up the readers' interest and no emotionally charged dramatic scenes to vary the pace of the narrative. So you need to make sure that either the topic you are writing about is sufficiently interesting to make your audience feel strongly about it, or the way you present it is unique enough to urge readers into some sort of action, whether it is vociferous agreement or vehement disagreement -- anything but mild apathy.

6. Evoke

Evocative writing does not have to be limited to the world of fantasy. Complexities arise when ideas evolve to help people solve their real world problems. Writing about a complex topic can revolve around some practical issue faced by either you or a hypothetical user. Often, opening the article with a problem statement written in simple language serves to hook and draw the reader in.

7. Know who's reading

As with all other types of writing, complex articles also have to be written with the reader profile in mind. For example, technology brings together people from various walks of life -- the know-it-all geek, the keen amateur, the lost-without-my-phone college student, the what-does-this-button-do enquiring inquisitive child, the I-don't-understand-but-want-to grandfather, the employee steeped in drudgery yet charged with keeping himself up to date at the cost of losing his job, even the hair stylist next door who's "into it" as a hobby by night. While it is not possible to imagine every kind of person who might come across your article, it is wise to have a general idea about whether you want to target the novices, the experts or the in-betweens. The language in your article, specifically the use of jargon, should reflect the reading level of your audience. Everyone knows "SMS" refers to texting on their phone, but not everyone knows that it is "SCM" which lies at the backbone of their online shopping. (For the curious, it stands for Supply Chain Management.)

Shivani Rohatgi, Operations Integration Leader at GE, says, "I have to write up several reports for the higher management, not to mention detailed requirements for those at the ground-level, and various types of documentation for different teams and departments like IT, suppliers, marketing, sales and support across the organization. Not everyone knows or even NEEDS to know every little nitty-gritty and detail. And not everyone has the time, inclination or ability to be able to cope with long convoluted jargon-heavy issues. So I have to exercise discretion in how I write and present the facts. Simple language, unambiguity, relevancy of content, and a clarity of structure and logic in the document as to how the information flows -- these are the points I focus on to ensure that the subject matter is easily understood by the people who need to understand it and make the right decisions."

Understanding the reader also means understanding the market that is targeting that reader. Whether you market your article to a print magazine, a website or a blog, you must understand the publication's style, editorial requirements, production schedules and work ethos, and tailor your article to align with these.

8. Provide Supplementary Information

Complex articles are a great avenue to supply additional information. This can include:

  • the leading players selling a specific product, service or solution;

  • graphs and charts demonstrating pertinent points of performance and other qualitative and quantitative comparisons;

  • demographic profiles;

  • facts and figures if available about costs, investments, datelines etc.;

  • hyperlinks for further reading;

  • even a cartoon or two depicting a different take on the topic;

all of which can either be included as sidebars, which editors love, or woven into the main text of the article if you are adept at it.

Says Rohatgi, "Technical documentation is best supported by diagrams, graphs and tables; these are invaluable tools in getting the point across with minimum effort and time. Believe it or not, even boring figures on the latest trends in data management become interesting if written well!"

9. Authenticity and Authority

It goes without saying that you must verify your facts before you set out to get your manuscript seen by public eyes. Confirm and record the salient features of your article. A single untrue statement will not only stand out like a sore thumb to the knowledgeable reader, but also throw the rest of the article into doubt. The inevitable question will arise: if you got one fact wrong, how many more are did you miss? How reliable is your work then?

The "authority" part comes from external sources. Expert quotes lend gravitas and weight to the point you are trying to make. Articles that incorporate comment from experienced professionals in the field are always preferred to those that come from a single voice -- the writer's -- and simply sound opinionated.

10. Balancing act

Just because a complex article deals with a lot of information does not mean that it needs to be written in incomprehensible language. Some amount of jargon is accepted, even expected, but the bulk of the article text should be kept as simple and easy to digest as possible. Instead of impressing your readers, obtuse language only serves to confuse, distract and put them off.

At the same time, avoid a patronising tone and be careful not to talk down to your reader. Credit them with intelligence! Respect the fact that while not everyone may know everything, they are capable of doing a little additional research and finding out some things for themselves. Provide helpful tips, hints and pointers as to where such additional information may be available for those keen to know more. By using plenty of diagrams and real-life examples, your article can not only keep the interest of those reading, but also hook those who may not have otherwise been so inclined.

So select your topic with care, keep your readers in mind, know what you're writing, and get a reaction -- your work will not only get acknowledgement but also accolades aplenty!

Did You Know?

The "Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test" is a measure of the level of ease or difficulty in reading and comprehending English prose. The test uses word lengths, sentence lengths and syllable counts to determine how "sophisticated" the text is. A higher score of the "Reading Ease" index indicates easier readability. Values usually range between 0 and 100. This article scores 55, which is close to the scores achieved by articles in Reader's Digest and Time magazines.

Find Out More...

13 Tips on How to Tech-talk to Non-techies - Hasmita Chander

Succeeding as a Technical Writer - Michael Knowles

Technical Writers: It's OK to Lie to Your Readers -- A Little! - Geoff Hart
Copyright © 2015 Devyani Borade
This article was originally published in the Writer's Guide to 2014 from the Children's Writer.

This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Devyani Borade is a freelance writer and Software professional. She has written dozens of technical articles in layman's English and takes great pleasure when they help others achieve their aim. Visit her website Verbolatry at http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com to contact her and read her other work.


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