Want more people to read and react to your writing? Apply the wisdom of great advertisers
This is how you get people to read your article about randomized, multi-center phase 3 drug trials without their eyes glazing over.
Some subjects are complex. There’s no avoiding this reality. Writing about science, medicine, law, or accounting requires grappling with difficult concepts and big words.
But many of us succumb to the habit of piling unnecessary complexity on top of what the material already requires. We hew to the norms of our professions’ writing, forgetting that these norms are quite dreadful from the reader’s perspective. Our sentences become multi-clause affairs and our paragraphs become a solid and menacing wall of text.
Before you know it, we’ve written the stuff that makes a readers’ heads hurt. We’ve written something that requires two or three passes to comprehend. Booo to us.
Once I started writing copy – sales pages, marketing emails, websites – I realized how easy it is to make technical writing more reader-friendly. Adopting some of the basic concepts of copywriting can go a long way toward fixing what makes technical writing so needlessly impenetrable.
As all great copywriters will tell you, their job is simply to keep a reader reading. Because a reader who’ll read your copy to the end is much more likely to become a buyer.
A copywriter’s job is to create an interesting, flowing, and easy reading experience. To paraphrase the legendary copywriter, Joe Sugarman, the job of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence. The job of the second sentence is to get the reader to read the third sentence. And so on.
Think of your writing as a greased chute. Or a greased pole. Or a greased waterslide. Whatever image works for you, as long as you remember something down which a reader glides effortlessly.
You don’t want dead spots in your reader’s gliding experience. You don’t want your reader to stop reading because a sentence is hard to understand and requires extra effort to work out.
For a copywriter, a dead spot in the reader’s gliding experience means a lost sale. For a writer of complex materials, a dead spot means loss of comprehension because the reader’s attention is now pulled away from the substance and onto the mechanics of writing.
How do the great copywriters create a glide experience for their readers?
They start with the promise of something interesting. Would you read an article that opened with the following sentence (by John Carlton)?
I would, and I’m not a golfer.
You don’t have to be this sensational to get people to read your writing, but you need to promise them a payoff for their reading time.
Jennifer Gregg’s opening sentence in a recent article is a good example of that promise: “Multiplexed genotyping detected oncogenic drivers in lung adenocarcinomas and aided the selection of physician-guided, targeted therapies in a recent proof-of-concept study.” Readers will rightly conclude that by reading the article they’ll know how this new technique works and how it can help select more effective therapies for cancer patients.
They keep the reader firmly in mind. For copywriters this means that readers don’t really care about the product or the copywriter, but they care about solving their own problem or making their own lives better.
For a technical writer, this means thinking about what information the reader wants to know. Is it really important to list all the participating countries in a multi-center drug trial or is that the kind of detail that you can skip? Does it matter that Justice Alito recused himself from the Supreme Court decision you’re summarizing, or are you avoiding making an editorial choice and piling on unnecessary details?
They use logic. Great copywriters think about the logical flow of information in their writing. They don’t ask the reader to take a leap from one idea to the next without a transition that ensures smooth continuity.
You can create continuity by:
Making sure that each successive sentence picks up where the previous sentence left off
Repeating key words from sentence to sentence
Using transitional phrases such as “on the other hand,” “in addition,” or even a simple “and”
They arrange information in expected ways. Readers have certain templates that they bring to reading. When these templates are incorporated into one’s writing, that writing becomes easier to read.
These templates include:
Subject and verb placed in close proximity
Old information placed at beginnings of sentences and new information placed at ends of sentences
Paragraphs organized according to one of the following principles:
General to specific
Problem to solution
They use simple words. Simple words cut through the clutter and hit the reader with greater impact. As Winston Churchill, who knew something about stringing together words with impact, said, “Short words are best, and old words when short, are best of all.”
They use short sentences and paragraphs. As a reader, have you ever experienced that sinking feeling when faced with dense-looking text?
No matter how interesting the material is, if it doesn’t look inviting and easy to read, it’s not going to be read by many in the intended audience. And that’s a shame, when you think about how much effort went into writing this material.
So, default to short sentences and short paragraphs and apply white space liberally.
To summarize this whole article in one sentence:
Promise the reader an easy and interesting read, then deliver.