How to write clearly without dumbing down

Humans Invent is all about craftsmanship and design. They’re gripping subjects, and complex ones too. Breaking down every innovation into layman’s terms isn’t easy but it’s essential. Just follow these steps, says Deputy Editor Leo Kent.

When we cover difficult topics, it’s often hard to avoid jargon. When in doubt I always refer to George Orwell’s six tips for writers, especially rule five:

“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Nearly seventy years on, Orwell’s still spot on. Here’s how I put his advice into practice.

Know your audience

Humans Invent isn’t a specialist website. Our readers are tech-savvy but they can’t be expected to understand scientific and industry terms for every topic we cover. Recognise what those words are and you’re halfway there. Parallelogram derailleurs don’t mean a thing to most people even though we all use them (they’re the transmission systems on bikes). Remember, it’s not dumbing down, it’s just making things easier to digest – nobody wants a stomach ache.

Avoid jargon when you can

To use another cycling term, few outside of the bike world knows what “regenerative braking” means. If you can explain a term with simpler words you should. You could say: “When you put your brakes on, you get that energy back when you take the brake off again.”

When you can’t avoid jargon, make it easy to relate to by throwing your readers a lifeline. In our feature on smart skin and camouflage tech, I looked at the benefits of chromatophores, and gave readers an anchor to help understand these colour shifting cells: “the most famous example of a creature with this capability, of course, is the chameleon”.

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Mix your media to break up the copy

Nobody wants to be confronted with a dense wall of text. Break things up with well timed imagery, embedded videos, pull quotes or best of all, a box out. This caught your eye, didn’t it?

In the video above, Sharp Laboratories Director of Advanced Optical Devices Jon Heffernan explains how an MBE machine works in terms anyone can understand.

Get the expert in to explain

Here comes the science part. If you’re covering a difficult topic, have the experts you’ve interviewed explain the tricky stuff. After all, they’re the ones who know best and their direct quotes lend authority to your article. In our series on art forgery, art restorer Simon Gillespie explained what ‘dendrochronology’ means:

“Dendrochronology is the science of dating trees by looking at tree rings and from this finding out how old a piece of wood is, which can determine the earliest period a painting can come from.”

Straight from the horse’s mouth – job done.

HumansInvent-Art

For our investigation into art restoration, we split the piece into two to help keep things simple – and the readers coming back for more.

How about a double bill?

If a subject’s as complex as it is gripping, there’s another way you can help break it down for readers: turn it into a series. We chose to split our Humans Invent investigation into art restoration and preservation into a two-parter. The first piece was an introduction to brief readers and set the scene. For the second, I went into more detail, using the topic of forgery as a hook for the article. It still links in to the ideas of restoration and preservation but now there’s a human interest element too. After all, everyone loves a good heist movie.

Of course, Orwell also advised writers to break any of his rules rather than say anything “outright barbarous”. That’s certainly true but there’s one commandment we’ll never break for any of our clients: keep it clear.