KISS (Keep It Simple. Seriously.)
5 Tricks I've Learned as a Global Health Technical Writer
Some people think the job of a technical writer is to write eloquently about complex issues using high-level language. That might be true in some cases, but there’s more to it. In reality, when writers rely heavily on jargon, they risk losing a significant proportion of their audience.
The goal of a technical writer should never be to make readers feel like idiots — in fact, we should strive to make our readers feel enlightened.
Technical writers are translators whose job is to distill complicated scientific findings and technical information into simple, digestible formats. Certain media, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, are aimed at a scientific audience and use complex technical language. Other publications, like briefs, web content, infographics, blog posts, and case studies, are aimed at diverse audiences and should be accessible and meaningful to a range of readers.
Here are five tricks I’ve learned during my years as a technical writer in global health and development.
1. Write as if you’re explaining the topic to your relatives. Even if your target audience includes experts, readers who don’t know anything about your topic should be able to grasp what you’ve written. Your goal is not to use big words but to translate jargon into plain language so that your audience can understand and absorb your message. Use clear, simple wording; short, single-subject paragraphs; and concise, straightforward sentences. This is especially important for writers with an international audience since many of your readers are non-native English speakers.
2. Less is more. The rules of writing for the web (simplify, condense, highlight) are beginning to bleed onto the page. Whether your piece will be published online or on paper, the more succinct it is, the more likely it is to be read. Understand the information needs of your audience, answer those needs directly, and omit nonessential content.
3. AAA (Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.) It’s tempting to shorten words and phrases that we use over and over again in our writing. But acronyms and jargon are a serious turnoff. One problem is that acronyms mean different things to different people. Take the example cited in a recent New York Times opinion piece. As a public health professional, when I see “MSM,” I think of “men who have sex with men.” But journalists think of “mainstream media,” some scientists think of “methylsulfonylmethane,” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks of “mechanically separated meat.”
Is it ever acceptable to use acronyms? Sure, if they’re universally recognized (USA, UN, HIV). But overuse of any acronym or abbreviation can alienate your readers, especially if it’s not widely known and you don’t explain it from the beginning. On the first day of my graduate school internship, I sat through an entire meeting about LAM having no idea what LAM was. It was assumed that everyone in the room knew that LAM was the lactational amenorrhea method of pregnancy prevention, in which women who meet three criteria — being within six months of giving birth, exclusively breastfeeding, and not yet having returned to their menstrual cycle — are considered naturally protected from unplanned pregnancy. Needless to say, I didn’t get much out of the meeting, and I felt like an idiot.
I’ll say it again: If a reader feels like an idiot after reading your piece, you have failed as a technical writer.
4. Technical subjects don’t have to be — shouldn't be — boring or emotionless. If they were, why would anyone study them in the first place? Tell the story behind the data. Remember the real people who will be following your instruction or considering your recommendations, and tell them why it matters.
There are some relatively easy but very effective ways to do this. One is to use high-quality photos, data visualizations, or other graphics to illustrate concepts. Another is to provide examples, which are often more meaningful to readers than explanatory text. Draw from your own experience, or lend your page to the voices and stories of others who have a stake in the issue you’re writing about. Authentic voices, faces, and experiences are what will make your piece stand out from all the others.
5. Write well. Nothing hurts your credibility like bad grammar. I had a supervisor during one of my college summer jobs that I respected — until she sent out a memo full of typos. They weren't the kind of careless errors that result from typing too fast. They were the kind of issues that demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of proper sentence structure and punctuation usage. If your writing is full of mistakes, people won’t trust you. As a technical writer, you need a good grasp of grammar and a strong sense of stylistic consistency. Someone other than you should meticulously copy edit and proofread every piece you publish. If you publish even one grammatically weak piece, you’ll lose the respect and attention of at least some of your readers.
Part of my job as a technical writer is to combat information overload by paring down to the essential knowledge my readers need in order to act effectively. Clear. Simple. Engaging. Relatable. If your writing embodies these qualities, your message is more likely to be received. In global health, these messages influence everything from funding decisions to policy change to clinical practice to health outcomes. Knowledge saves lives, and technical writers play an essential role as messengers.
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