Writing Digital Copy for Specialists vs. General Audiences

When I present our seminar on writing compelling digital copy, I often advocate the use of plain language. So using commonly used terms that your users are likely to be familiar with. When I make that recommendation, sometimes I get a little bit of pushback. People will say, well, you know, I work in this very specialized domain. I have this very specialized topic and I have a very specialized audience. So, for example, I write for scientists or researchers or doctors. So if that’s the case, should I still use plain language?

Sometimes the answer is, well, sometimes the rules change a little bit. When that’s the case, you can sometimes get away with not defining some very basic terminology. So, for example, if you’re writing for people who work in the field of medicine, generally when people work in medicine, they’ve had to go through rigorous training and they have a very formally defined, commonly shared vocabulary. When that’s the case, sometimes you can use those terms without having to define them. And in fact, sometimes that might go against you if you do, to find those terms. The reason for that is that domain experts, as they’re looking around on the Web, they’re constantly asking themselves, is this content written for me or is this written for a general audience? And if they arrive on your site and see that in your content, you’re taking the time to define some very commonly used basic concepts or terminology that might signal to them.

This is content that’s written for a general audience. It’s not written to me and they’ll leave. So you’re the one to watch out for that. But also be aware that your audience may not be quite as specialized as you think it is. So when you’re writing a piece of content, try to figure out is someone who’s new in this in this field, would they want to read this content, too? So, for example, maybe someone who’s training to become a doctor, but they haven’t finished their education yet. Would they be familiar with these terms as well? Another thing you should be aware of is that in our usability testing, we’ve found that domain experts really enjoy looking at updates in terms of new research that’s been published in other fields other than their own. So that might be a tangential or a related field. So, for example, an oceanographer might be interested in finding about finding out about research updates for the field of chemistry, for example. Now, she’s not a chemist.

She may not be perfectly familiar with all of the terminology and concepts in the field of chemistry, but she may still want to read that content. So try to really determine specifically who is going to want to read this content and let that lead the way in deciding when you need to define these terms or use alternative simpler terms. Just always ask yourself, is my audience going to understand this content? And the best way to find that out is to test.

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