Subject matter experts are a fantastic source of expertise and content ideas. But while expertise provides an essential foundation for valuable content, it can also create special challenges for getting the project done.
If you find yourself in the role of supporting an expert in creating technical content, read on for eight easy fixes to common problems you may encounter.
Problem #1: Writing for yourself
It seems so obvious. You're not writing in a vacuum. There's a reader out there!
And yet this problem is common enough to have earned its own cognitive bias. The Curse of Knowledge perfectly sums up a subject matter expert’s difficulty in appreciating the perspective of a reader who doesn't share their expertise.
This bias doesn’t make you elitist. It makes you human. Unfortunately, the curse of knowledge can also make you a bad writer.
Fix #1: Write for Your Audience
Investigate your audience. What education level does your typical reader have? What other qualities do you know about them?
Just knowing these qualities may be enough. But ideally, you should find someone who shares those qualities—and get their feedback on your writing.
At a minimum, review your copy with an eye toward the most complex jargon. If your reader wouldn’t already know each term, it must be:
Problem #2: Failing to Compel
You feel passionate about your field of work. It’s so easy to assume that your audience shares that enthusiasm. And they might!
But don’t count on it.
Let’s say you need to demonstrate the value of a software package, and you’ve got a long list of striking statistics. If you could just get a prospect to read those stats, you could convert her into a life-long customer. On the other hand, if her eyes glaze over at the sight of all those numbers, you’ve lost her forever.
Fix #2: Tell a Story
Take a page from the art of storytelling. After all, even in technical fields, your reader is a human being. And humans are suckers for good narrative. Instead of listing those stats, why not show the product in action? Then, insert the occasional stat at an appropriate place.
Structure your piece so it progresses like a story, whether sequentially or in some other similarly logical order. When writing a case study, for example, think of your client as a character undergoing a compelling transformation, aided by your software package. Outline the features that made the transformation possible—then take the reader through that journey, step by step.
Problem #3: Overpacking a Sentence
Language scholars used to judge the “readability” of a text by a rather narrow set of criteria. Ironically, this overly simple test came down to the complexity of the text. And that complexity was determined through superficial indicators like sentence length.
How times have changed! Readability is now a much more nuanced issue, far beyond the scope of this blog post. But for the technical fields, sentence length remains a major issue. That’s because subject matter experts tend to want to unload all their knowledge in one breath.
But those rambling run-ons will only make a reader abandon the content—and jump right out of your sales funnel.
Fix #3: A Simple Test
For years, Microsoft Office has come with the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. Both tools rely entirely on sentence length and syllable counts.
Use these tests well. And by that, I mean be aware they don’t tell you everything. Plus, if you’re writing for a highly technical audience, a high syllable count may be perfectly appropriate. But these tools are a good start to making your text more (quantifiably) readable.
Problem #4: Grammatical Terrors
Subject matter experts aren’t grammar experts. And that’s okay! Nobody’s an expert on everything.
What’s not okay is when major policy think tanks or ambitious biotech startups have grammar errors on their most high-traffic web pages. These errors undermine your credibility.
Fix #4: Win the War on Errors
Buy a grammar reference. Keep it handy. Use it often.
As far as apps go, Grammarly works pretty well. For a book, a college or even high school grammar text will do the trick. Pick one up at a used book sale, and give it a special spot on your desk.
Problem #5: Failure to Adapt to New Media
Let’s say you write clinical guidelines, but now you need to turn a guideline into a webinar. Or you usually create engineering manuals, but you’ve been tasked with a social media promotion. Don’t just copy and paste! Your new medium requires you to evolve as a writer. And for the above examples, you'll probably need to cut some content.
For a designed piece or a digital space, the copy often needs to be tight. And I mean tight! It can be shocking to see just how few words can fit.
Fix #5: Push Through the Pain
It may feel like every word of your clinical guideline is essential for this new project, but it's likely not. And that’s a hard lesson to learn. Ask your graphic designer or web developer how many words you should aim for. Then cut, wordsmith and rewrite until your copy fits.
Think of it like exercise. If it hurts, that means it’s working. And the more you do it, the less painful it will be. Your writing may even get clearer, more organized, and more engaging overall.
Problem #6: Measure Once, Cut Twice
In a recent project for an international tech company, throughout their online and print branding, terminology describing product specs could be found in wildly different formats.
Some of the biggest inconsistencies related to measurement units: whether to abbreviate, whether to use a space between the value and the unit, whether to use metric or standard or both (and in what order), etc.
But here’s the thing: much of the varied usage was correct. After all, style is often a choice. The thing is that this company wasn't making choices. Their engineers and marketing folks were making them. And they were all making different choices each day.
With such a piecemeal approach, odd little variations can clutter your user experience. At worst, such inconsistencies prevent prospects from finding information they need.
Fix #6: Measure Twice, Cut Once
Make a call on the style issues that come up over and over in your communications. Collect these rules in an institutional style guide. And make this guide available to everyone in your company, not just the people formally tasked with creating content.
Then, when it’s time to describe your products, you’ll have a handy tool. And your website and other branding will be a perfect fit for your prospect.
Problem #7: Hurt Feelings
Subject matter experts aren’t always accustomed to being edited. And it can be hard to take advice from an outsider, especially when cuts are necessary.
But editing is just part of the process of getting the best possible outcome. Professional writers know this. Help your expert to understand it as well.
Fix #7: Partner Up
Communicate to your subject matter expert that you share the same exact goal: to drive your audience to take an action that benefits you both. That action may be to buy a product, fund a program or call a legislator.
Good writing can motivate your audience, so an editor's role is to be a true partner in achieving those goals. If you provide a valuable editing service, that role will be clear. And so will your client's writing.
A boutique communications firm focused on science, healthcare, tech and policy. Guest contributors as noted.
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