Turning Technical Writing into Nontechnical Writing

Many companies and organizations produce bulletins, reports, and other documents that are initially designed for technical audiences—insiders who know the lingo, the conventions of the genre, and so on. Yet they often want to convert those documents into ones that are accessible to a general audience. Let’s take a look at how that process might unfold. We’ll use the opening sentence to a macroeconomic research bulletin as an example.

Here is how the bulletin begins:

The euro area sovereign debt crisis, during which many euro area countries had to undergo large fiscal retrenchment to retain access to financial markets, reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies on economic growth.

This sentence is likely to give general readers problems. Why? For one, it begins with a term that most general readers won’t know: sovereign debt crisis. Plain old debt crisis, maybe; but sovereign debt crisis? It sure sounds bad; but what does it mean or look like? Beginning with an unfamiliar term is a good way to lose a general reader. What’s more, there's no historical context that would allow a general reader to situate himself or herself temporally. When did the crisis take place? The sentence gives us no clue.

But beginning with an unfamiliar term is only the first problem. Before the sentence arrives at the main verb, there is an interruption in the form of a clause (during which . . .). That’s another problem, as readers (general or not) usually like to get to the main verb as quickly as possible. To make matters worse, the clause itself contains a term that, again, most general readers won’t know: fiscal retrenchment. Finally, near the end of the sentence, the term fiscal policies may or may not cause a problem. Sure, people have heard of fiscal policies; but do they really know or remember what they refer to? 

Let’s make this sentence more reader-friendly. First, let’s delay the appearance of the unfamiliar term sovereign debt crisis, let’s put a date on it, and let’s begin by reminding the reader of what he or she already knows—always an effective way to begin a disquisition. Let’s begin the sentence like this:

As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis.

Now, we’ve delayed the appearance of the unfamiliar term sovereign debt crisis, making it easier for a reader to deal with it once he or she comes to it: readers like to move from the easy to the difficult, building up momentum before coming to a challenging word or passage. But we haven’t solved the problem that general readers are unlikely to know what a sovereign debt crisis is. So let’s tell them:

As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis, as financial institutions began to collapse and national debts increased in relation to revenues.

Readers should now have a picture of what a sovereign debt crisis looks like.

Note that I have constructed a single sentence without getting to all of the information contained in the original. That was deliberate. Writing for a general audience usually means letting things unfold much more slowly, giving readers time to absorb information. 

Let’s now deal with the clause that mentions retrenchment. Rather than working that clause into the opening sentence (as is done in the original), we now have the space to deal with it in a sentence of its own:

In order to deal with the crisis and retain access to financial markets, many euro-area countries either raised taxes or cut public services or both in a process known as retrenchment.

Three things to note here. First, note how the sentence begins by referring to something mentioned in the previous sentence: the crisis. Beginning sentences with that kind of “old” information is an effective way to build flow and cohesion in your writing. Second, note that the difficult word, retrenchment, appears at the end of the sentence. Again, difficult terms are best left to the ends of sentences, as readers like to move from the easy to the difficult. And third, note that we have now defined retrenchment (retrenchment means raising taxes, cutting spending, or both).

There’s still one more thing to deal with: the part at the end about reigniting the debate over fiscal policies. Let’s do that in a third sentence:

The crisis reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies—the use of taxes and government spending to influence the overall economy—on economic growth.

Note that we begin again with old information (the crisis), which helps the entire passage hang together. Note too that we have defined fiscal policies, thus taking care of any readers who may be a bit unsure about what they are.

Let’s put the three sentences together and compare them with the original.

Original: The euro area sovereign debt crisis, during which many euro area countries had to undergo large fiscal retrenchment to retain access to financial markets, reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies on economic growth.

Revision: As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis, as financial institutions began to collapse and national debts increased in relation to revenues. In order to deal with the crisis and retain access to financial markets, many euro-area countries either raised taxes or cut public services or both in a process known as retrenchment. The crisis reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies—the use of taxes and government spending to influence the overall economy—on economic growth.

You may be thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but doesn’t it insult the reader? Aren’t you treating him or her like a baby, spoon-feeding what you have to say?” The point, though, is not to flatter the reader but to communicate with him or her. And, really, the revised passage, even though I would argue is much more accessible to a general reader, still contains sufficient complexity. The difficult terms are still there, after all. And the grammar has its complexities. Note, for instance, that only one of the three sentences begins with the grammatical subject. (The simplest writing begins with the grammatical subject.) Note too the parenthesis in the last sentence in which we define fiscal policies. 

Do you agree that the revised version is easier for most readers? Let me know.