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Writing Technical Copy for the Masses

By Cedric Jackson, January 9, 2018
Writing Technical Copy for the Masses

Have you ever tried reading a manual or “how-to” guide and you could tell right away that it was written by someone who knew the product way better than you do? While it may be somewhat comforting, it can also be very frustrating.

People tend to explain things in a manner which they would best understand them. The problem there is that simply doesn't help the typical layperson who just wants to assemble a curio cabinet.

If you have ever been frustrated reading copy that was supposed to be written for you to understand, but found the wording way too technical, you aren't alone. Even worse is when you hire a copywriter to produce a technical manual, instruction guide, or product guide and you know it's going to cause problems for the consumer.

The good news is that, as a company that prides itself on producing some of the best copywriting services around, we at BeezContent have seen situations like this cross our collective desks in the past. The conversation often begins with something like, “We hired a technical writer to develop a guide for us...” and just gets worse from there. Most often, the client wants us to take the information contained in the preexisting document and make it “less technical.”

As strange as it may seem (given the nature of the copy), when we look at the raw document, it is almost instantly apparent why the client would want this. Too often, the pages are littered with technical jargon and terminology that the consumer is just never going to understand. The solution here is not to dumb down the message, but to simply make it more universal, make it easier to digest for the reader. Here are a few ways you can accomplish this.

1. Ditch the Jargon.

Manuals, guides, and product-related paperwork that are riddled with technical jargon will only ever accomplish two things. First, they will frustrate the reader. You never want someone experiencing frustration over interacting with your product. It's a great way to ensure that they never buy from you again.

Next, they clog your support channels with unnecessary questions and inquiries. Want to spend less time and money on customer support? Make it easy to use your product and provide instructions and information that is easy to understand. It really is that simple, yet it is something that many companies (even those in direct competition with yours) tend to neglect.

2. Shy Away from the Notorious TLA.

No, that isn't the name of a rapper, but it is something that most people tend not to like too much when trying to understand a new or complex concept. If your technical copy has unfamiliar TLAs, the reader will likely become frustrated and – you guessed it – ring up your support line only to feel even more aggravated when the obvious answer to the question, “What does this mean?” is revealed.

You're not sure what I'm talking about, are you? Great! Then you get my point. A TLA is actually early cyber-speak for the term “Three-Letter Acronym,” and it was coined as a means of showing just how nebulous one can be. The same TLA can mean something totally different in one context or industry than it does in another. In some cases, the same TLA can show up within the same document meaning different things depending on its usage. Please, make it stop...

It is perfectly fine to use acronyms if you simply explain what they are first. After that, they can save you time and effort. Introduce them in segment headings or in a table of contents so readers see them and can recognize them. Even better, include a glossary that lists all your TLAs along with other key terms for fast reference.

3. Focus More on the “How” Than the “Why.”

Long-winded explanations make the task of consuming information daunting. Think in terms of the difference between a quick-start guide and a full manual. Consumers want brief explanations of things. They don't want to have to carve out 3 hours to read the manual before assembling that curio.

Think of your technical guides as more of an outline than a dissertation and structure them accordingly with a table of contents, bullet points, and other common devices that allow information to be spotted and recognized quickly. If need be, you can always link to a lengthier document online or offer a downloadable PDF (portable document format – you're welcome) for those who want more in-depth information.

4. Have Non-Technical People Read and Test Your Work.

Craigslist and other sites are loaded with ads for people to test products and services for a nominal stipend. You can hire someone to read your manual and then answer a few questions to gauge how clear the information is. If a majority of people answer your questions correctly, your document is a success.

5. Develop a Comprehensive Style Guide.

Once you figure out how to do this right, be sure to develop a comprehensive style guide for your writer(s) to follow. Highlight terms you want them to use and, more importantly, ones you don't. Be clear about the use and frequency of TLAs, and use them sparingly. Be sure any that you do use are clearly identified and defined for the writer.

Remember that you are dealing with consumers who are not knowledgeable about your business. The last thing you want is for your brand to make people look or feel stupid (or just get generally frustrated with the way you communicate information or instructions). Empower your readers with copy that speaks to them on their level without being overly simple or condescending. Remember, people are looking to you to be an authority in your industry or niche. There is no better way to reinforce that idea than with great words they can readily understand.


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