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Six rules for writing technical content

I originally wrote a series of rules for PR because I was about to have a work-experience placement with me, and had to be able to talk about something. When I eventually published this on an old blog it was one of the most successful posts. Here I take a look at my rules for content creation.

1) Write for someone who’s bored

Have you ever read an article 3 times without any of it going in? Me too.

Dull content simply doesn’t get read, and nobody is obliged to read what we write – with the possibly exception of our parents. Content should be relatable, readable, enjoyable and informative. Don’t dumb down, but do remove unnecessary jargon and remember the person you’re writing for (and trying to impress) is not your boss, or the person you just interviewed. It’s a person who’s probably several thousand miles away, who is short on time and likely has 12 things distracting him – including repeated email alerts. Make it something that grabs them.

2) Glib is good

I was once told that no one will ever complain if you make a complex topic easy to understand. Glib should be a good word. People turn to expert blogs and trade journals precisely because certain topics are hard. You can’t explain the complete origins of life in 1000 words but you can explain an element of it – pick one thread and focus on this, assume the reader is very intelligent but has no underlying knowledge of this subject.

3) Data is better

Charles Arthur says the one piece of advice he’d give to people entering journalism is to learn to code. This doesn’t mean developing bioinformatics programmes in C++, but being able to translate data and bring out interesting elements of the story. This, for me, is an absolute priority – you don’t want to know how long I’ve spent manipulating data in spreadsheets.

And once you’ve learned most of the basic ways to analyse it, get the data. As much data as possible. Many people release their data – eg the WHO. But Google Trends / Adwords are your friends and don’t be afraid to play with your own sales data. One of the best examples comes from a Bath-based online retailer of adult toys, who created a data visualisation showing the kinks of each town. Every organisation has data that is (ok maybe not that interesting) but of relevance to their intended audience. Use it.

Data visualisations add to articles and can be quick ways to highlight points far better than you can in the text.

4) Don’t pretend to be an expert if you’re not

I was once told many moons ago (I think by Stephen Pritchard) that the secret to writing information pieces isn’t to be an expert. It’s to know what questions to ask.

I have never been an expert in anything, but have a curious mind, a love of writing and a desire to work things out. That means I ask stupid questions with abandon and build my knowledge to the point where I can hold my own, even in rooms full of electronic engineers.

5) Length isn’t everything

There are countless articles that report on the ideal length of a blog (or even a headline). Ignore them and listen to your gut. Each story has a natural length, where you explain everything without skipping sections or carping on.

HubSpot has an excellent scatter plot that demonstrates this well, of it’s 10 most shared (8k shares +) posts analysed, 2 are 1500-2k words, 3 are 500 to 750. And half are around 1k. This is a big range.

6) But the first sentence is everything

On the whole, your latest post might be on a par with Shakespeare. Full of wit, culture and the most fantastic sonnets. But mess up the first sentence – certainly the first paragraph – and the reader will turn the page (or click the next story). Obviously, that than leaves the second sentence as the most important.

But, as a good Giles Corren rant shows, in some cases the last sentence is also crucial with the entire piece building up to it. Just not in this post.

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