If you are regular reader of Proofreading Pulse, you may recall that in my other life I teach fifth grade. Recently, my students had an informational writing project. Each student chose a topic in an area of their personal expertise and wrote a multi-chapter book on the topic. I very much enjoyed learning what my students have to teach, but one topic a couple of students chose was troublesome, the video game Fortnite.
Now, I have very little experience with or knowledge of video games and almost none about Fortnite, and when I was reading the drafts about this topic, I was extremely confused. It may not surprise you that adolescents tend to write as if every potential reader is like them, knows what they know, and likes what they like. Thus, my two Fortnite players used all kinds of Fortnite-specific and general video game-related words and expressions in their writing, leaving me completely lost.
Writing on a specialized topic for nonspecialists can be a challenge for writers of all ages, and writers often face the task of writing to an audience outside their field. In today’s post I’ll offer some tips to help you write clearly and usefully for a broader audience even if your topic is very narrow.
Use Jargon with Caution and with Moderation
“Jargon” is the vocabulary of a particular field and is made up of words and expressions used in that field that may be difficult for those outside the field to understand. Though each field definitely has its own vocabulary, jargon refers to usage of field-specific vocabulary in a pretentious or overly complicated way to impress others or set oneself apart rather than to simply inform.
You can often avoid jargon by rewording to use more common terms. For example, a doctor might say “scarring of the lung tissue with unknown causes” instead of “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.” If you have determined that a certain term is necessary to use, perhaps if you know you will be using the term repeatedly, you should teach your audience the term: “The doctor faced the task of performing a rhinectomy, or surgical removal of the nose.”
Don’t Assume Prior Knowledge
If you know you are writing for people outside of your field or for a mixed audience, you don’t want to talk down to them, but you should assume they really have no prior knowledge of the subject you study or the field you work in. It can be tricky to find a balance between making sure everyone understands and oversimplifying. In the example with my fifth graders and Fortnite, it would have been reasonable for them to assume readers know the terms “video games,” “controllers,” and “characters” but unreasonable for them to assume readers know what “aimbot,” “box fight,” and “bunny hop” mean in the Fortnite context.
If you are not sure about what is common knowledge and what would be unreasonable to expect someone outside your field to know, here’s a suggestion: Have someone outside your field read what you’ve written and give you some feedback on what is clear and what is not.
Be Clear and Concise
Being clear and concise is important no matter what you are writing or for whom. Try to state your point briefly and without extra words, phrases, or clauses. Look for unnecessarily complicated words, phrases that can be shortened, and ideas that can be simplified.
For example: “John Starr is of the opinion that in the process of engaging in relevant discourse, the main point was thoroughly obfuscated by the researchers unknowingly, which may have led to the negative results” could be trimmed back to, “John Starr believes that while discussing the topic the researchers confused the main point, which may have led to the negative results.”
Being concise is especially important in any situation where it might be more difficult for the audience to understand the writing, such as special topics presented to nonspecialists. A good idea to be more concise is to finish a written piece, set it aside a day, and then read it again with the idea of cutting anything that is not strictly needed. Or, of course, you can ask an editor.
We’ve all had the experience of talking to someone using “big words” and being left feeling confused, maybe even embarrassed to admit to your confusion. With writing, embarrassed or not, your readers don’t even have the option to ask if they’re confused. So when writing for a general audience, it’s critical to consider making your writing accessible to all by avoiding jargon, considering what is common knowledge and what is not, and being concise.
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