I’m often asked whether good readers and those with specialized professional training need or benefit from clear writing or plain language. This would include people in the fields of law, science, finance and engineering. Maybe even an Einstein!
My answer is that even highly proficient readers don’t want to deal with unclear writing or unnecessary complexity. There are some specific things that we as writers can do to meet their information needs and help them process information more efficiently.
Here are the top 5 things on my list when writing for skilled readers with a high level of subject matter knowledge:
1. Make it easy to find the most relevant information. Use techniques that make your text scannable. This includes the frequent use of headings and bullets. For longer documents, such as a report, provide an executive summary that sets out the main ideas or conclusions.
2. Layer your content. The Einsteins of the world want to see the data or research on which your conclusions rest. To establish authority and trust, provide references to any ideas or information taken from a source. But be careful not to bury your readers in facts and findings. By layering information, people can get the gist quickly and then delve into details as needed.
For example, create a summary at the top. Follow with more detailed information in clearly identified sections or pages. On the web, use hypertext links to take readers to more detail on following pages. Readers can check out and move elsewhere in the text once they’ve read enough.
3. Write concisely. Remove weak or unnecessary words. Watch out for frozen verbs, phrases where you use three words where one would do the job. For example, change “make a decision” to “decide.” Change “provide an explanation” to “explain.”
4. Prefer shorter sentences. This is one of the easiest ways to help even masterful readers speed through text. You can often replace commas with periods and remove parenthetical statements without significantly altering the expression of your ideas.
5. Think clear language rather than plain language. Experts in many fields share a specific and well-defined common vocabulary. If everyone in your audience shares this language, you can use these complex terms freely. You do not need to explain widely used terms and concepts. In fact, doing so may work against you. Why?
If a term is so common that any member of the field should know it, readers who see it explained at the beginning of a piece of text may conclude that the content is not meant for them. This is likely NOT the reader experience you are aiming for!
Remember, even sophisticated readers will likely appreciate a clear, concise writing style. As Einstein himself said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you haven’t understood it well enough!” Just be careful not to simplify in a way that fails to meet your readers’ needs for precision and nuance.
[PS – In my next blog I’ll talk about the challenge of writing for good readers who are NOT subject matter experts. Again, a different strategy applies!]