Reuters’ Robert MacMillan wrote a great post on Friday in which he argued that journalists don’t have to write like a businessperson just because they cover business.
MacMillan makes the (mostly obvious but regularly ignored) point that a reliance on jargon and industry speak doesn’t make you a better writer. Being a journalist means writing for “people” not just those in the know. “If you can’t write a business story for a mass audience,” MacMillan advises, “you should consider writing white papers at an industry research firm or a PR outfit instead.”
Great advice and worth repeating.
I spent a number of years editing business copy at a business daily and most of the rest of my time writing and editing technology copy. If I learned anything from those experiences it was that it takes great skill to write about business, technology and science in a style that is accessible to the average reader. The temptation is to gloss over issues and difficult explanations using jargon. But in doing so we fail readers and we make our writing less accessible, the exact opposite of what we as journalists should be doing.
As journalists we want people to read what we write. We don’t want to alienate readers or make our writing impenetrable (see 10 tips for better writing).
This doesn’t mean dumbing down our writing, a concern voiced by some when I Tweeted a link to the original blog post. It does mean writing knowledgeably about a subject in a way that readers will understand. Readers that don’t understand what you are saying are not stupid. They are probably just overwhelmed by too much or unclear information.
This is by no means exhaustive but here are a few things to do to make your technical writing more readable:
– Avoid jargon. Not everyone knows what a “SIP trunk” is and phrases such as “strategic synergies” don’t actually say anything. Explain what you mean in words that a non-expert will understand.
– Don’t use a word, concept or phrase that you don’t understand. Not only could you get it horribly wrong but if you don’t understand it why should the reader?
– Simplify. Business and technology issues can be complex but that doesn’t mean your story has to include absolutely everything. Isolate the core issues and explain those properly. The reader will enjoy it more and it’ll be easier to write.
– Know what your point is. It sounds obvious but unless you have once central idea for your article it’s easy to drift off course and turn it into a complex web.
– Always remember the words of Tim Radford, the Guardian’s former science editor: “Nobody has to read this crap”.