Erica Mather | November 16, 2017
Before you start writing, one of the most important things to consider is who your audience will be. But that’s not always easy, as anyone can access online information. Fortunately, everyone appreciates concise, well-structured information when reading on the web. So even if you’re writing specialised content intended for an expert audience, plain language principles will help you get your point across, convincingly.
In a recent study, Hoa Loranger and Kate Meyer asked medical professionals, scientists, and engineers to research topics related to their work and provide feedback. The experts, just like general readers, prefer content that’s digestible, concise, and easy to scan. However, experts want a higher level of detail and — most importantly — they need to know that the information is credible.
Follow these tips to write trustworthy content that’s easy to absorb by a wide-ranging web audience.
Writing about a specialised topic involves a lot a detail, which can be overwhelming unless it’s presented well. Layer your content so all readers can quickly understand the gist of the topic and experts can dig into the nitty-gritty.
Your audience should be able to decide whether your article is relevant to them by reading the first paragraph. Why should they spend time reading your article? What’s important for your audience to remember? Experts are impatient to understand the key messages and won’t wait around for you to reveal your conclusions.
Headings are essential because they clearly signpost main messages and summarise important findings. Readers can easily scan headings for information that’s of interest and decide whether to read the more detailed information. Keep the style of headings consistent throughout to present information in a logical hierarchy.
Experts use websites to compare information, discover new findings, and verify data. The study finds that experts are most attuned to new information and to evidence that contradicts their existing knowledge. They scrutinise how the author came to these conclusions and are wary of vague assumptions that require interpretation.
Although experts may have large vocabularies, they don’t have a lot of time. Avoid lengthy introductions because they indicate the content is meant for a general audience. Lead with the facts and follow with sufficient evidence to support them. You’ll keep your audience engaged if you steer clear of hype — experts aren’t impressed by overstated explanations. In fact, your audience will doubt your credibility if you exaggerate your conclusions.
Strengthen your credibility by providing evidence for your conclusions.
Experts are more likely to take you seriously if your writing is persuasive and backed up by citations. According to the study by Loranger and Meyer, experts often scan citations and bylines for names they recognise.
‘If the content is written by a well-respected person or entity, readers are more likely to trust the information… Citations are an indicator of the author’s professionalism and knowledge of the field in which they write.’
Make it easy for your reader by linking to your trail of evidence — to the original article, books, or journals where you’ve collected ideas or information. Your audience will respect and trust you for doing so.
Change occurs rapidly in science and technology. Time-sensitive research must be current to have value to experts who work in these fields. Make sure your sources of information were published recently, because professionals will use publishing dates to judge relevance.
Loranger and Meyer suggest that you show dates for all your sources, even fundamental information that’s relevant long past its publication date. Experts can decipher the difference between time-sensitive information and long-lasting concepts.
Because web audiences can be diverse, you may have to accommodate readers with different levels of expertise.
Loranger and Meyer highlight the importance of defining your audience early. Then you can decide whether to explain terms and concepts. If you know you’re writing for a well-defined, specialised audience, you can break the word-usage rules that apply to general audiences.
Experts share field-specific vocabularies, so you don’t have to explain basic terminology or concepts. Explaining familiar terms that any member of the field should know may signal that the content isn’t written for their level of understanding.
Hyperlinks are helpful if you think that some of your readers will want explanations for specialised terms and others won’t. Loranger and Meyer suggest adding links or tooltips with quick definitions ‘so they’re hidden yet available for those who need them.’
It’s always important to check your content for grammar and spelling errors, but especially when writing for expert audiences who can be more critical. Your credibility can be damaged if experts spot a mistake in your content. Take a a second look!
Learn how to write for specific audiences: