Making the complex simple: top tips for writers

by Colm Hebblethwaite

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The point of good content is to convey information to the reader in the simplest and most direct way possible. This is pretty easy to do if you are writing about relatively simple concepts, but becomes more difficult if you’re writing about scientific, legal, tech or financial topics (as we often are).
The people who work in these industries, creating innovative products and writing technical documents, are experts in their fields. This means that they have a deep knowledge of a particular area. It also means that they can often appear incomprehensible when explaining their field to a layperson.
A really good example of this is the recently established, and currently flourishing, blockchain market. One of the characteristics of blockchain companies is the use of dense, intentionally difficult technical language. Here is an example from a company called Decred, explaining their core offering:
“Our modular codebase offers unique adaptability and can scale to the latest blockchain technology. Decred’s technology enabled the world’s first successful direct on-chain user-activated consensus vote. This represents a revolutionary approach to stakeholder governance where our community directs the project and makes decisions together.”
What does this mean?
Don’t worry if you can’t decipher what Decred is claiming to do. As we said earlier, the language being used has been chosen deliberately.
So, how would you summarise what this company does so that a reader with little knowledge of what a blockchain is would be able to understand?
Here are our top tips for writing about complex topics.

Get some context

Nothing exists in isolation, everything is connected to something else. An important first step is putting the subject you are writing about in context.
This not only helps the audience get a better handle on the subject matter, but it is important for understanding why the audience needs to know about it in the first place.
The context here is blockchain, so let’s start with that.
Blockchain technology is an innovative way of storing and distributing information. Instead of a piece of data being stored on a central server and then retrieved by each individual device that needs it, on a blockchain network the data is distributed (not copied) across every device in the network. This means that it cannot be tampered with without everyone in the network consenting, validating and recording the change.
The technology is currently taking the financial world by storm as it could greatly speed up transactions. The shipping and logistics, pharmaceutical and real estate are also actively piloting the technology.
So Decred’s claim of “unique adaptability” means that blockchain technology can be applied to a wider range of scenarios.

Break it up

The best way to learn about something is to break it up into its smallest constituent pieces, before building it back up again.
In Decred’s example, the smaller chunks of quick research could look like this:
Modular codebase >> blockchain technology >> “on-chain” >> “user-activated consensus vote” >> stakeholder governance
By researching each of these phrases individually, you would end up with something like this:
Programming code that can be broken into smaller, distinct pieces for use in a variety of applications >> an innovative new way for transferring data >> cryptocurrency transactions that occur on a blockchain >> a method for allowing users to directly control matters relating to the network >> decision-making process defined by participation of multiple independent parties
Even just this brief outline begins to present a much clearer picture of what the company actually does.

Jargon out!

This is perhaps the most important step. Jargon is an internal language used by particular groups and professions and, as such, is normally not of much use to a layperson. Stripping out jargon and replacing it with words that are easier to understand can often be the step that increases accessibility.
This is not always an easy task.
Depending on the kind of industry you are dealing with, jargon can be specific industry terms or technical terminology. Coming up with a viable alternative is not always possible, and some bits of jargon pass into the public consciousness (such as ‘moving forward’, ‘9-to-5’ and ‘AWOL’).
Finding the balancing act between jargon that alienates the reader and that which is absolutely necessary is an important skill. But if you really can’t avoid using a piece of jargon, just explain it.

Focus on readability

There is nothing more intimidating then a long, dense paragraph. If there is one thing that is likely to send a potential reader running to another webpage, it is content that looks like hard work.
The best practice rules of content are even more important when dealing with a complex topic. Short sentences that don’t deal with too many separate points chunked together into concise paragraphs help guide the reader through the topic.
If you have successfully managed to get rid of as much jargon as possible, this kind of simple structure should make the bare facts shine through.

The big reveal

So how has our Decred paragraph ended up? If we apply what we’ve talked about, we end up with something like this:
“Decred offers businesses code that can be adapted to match different kinds of blockchain technology projects.
The company’s technology enabled the world’s first successful direct stakeholder vote over on a blockchain network. This means the Decred community actively directs the project and makes decisions together.”

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