Clock Icon 6 min read

Writing About Complex Topics

Oct 29, 2015

Whether a company sells cars, frozen yogurt machines or legal services, its website should explain the services or products offered in a simple and coherent manner. The explanations, in most cases, should focus on what sets a company’s product or service apart from the competition.

Companies often stumble when crafting these explanations. Metaphors are tortured. Thoughts set out on a walk and never come back -- or wander in 55 words later, long after a reader has lost track of the subject. Acronyms, jargon and gobbledygook can all conspire to conceal the point.

But help is available. Whether you’re a professional copywriter or a CEO preparing a pitch deck, a few rules of writing will serve you well.

Longer content is not always better

Remember that overachiever back in junior high? The kid who wrote six pages instead of the required three and printed his report in color with fancy graphics? Many writers channel that overachiever and assume more content is undoubtedly better. If you’re a magazine writer being paid by the word, by all means turn in 1,400 words when 700 would suffice. The rest of us don’t have that excuse.

Workshop Digital’s Search Engine Optimization team took notice last month of a report from BuzzSumo and Moz, two companies that offer SEO research tools. The report said articles longer than 1,000 words were more likely to be shared than shorter pieces. But far more than length was at play. Opinion pieces -- both longer and shorter than 1,000 words -- tended to get more shares. “The higher shares and links may be because opinion content tends to be focused on current trending areas of interest and because the authors take a particular slant or viewpoint that can be controversial and engaging,” Moz speculated.

The study also found that research-backed content from newspapers and think tanks was also more likely to be shared and linked to than standard articles. Here’s the takeaway for businesses: a high-quality, 700-word piece of content will almost always outperform 1,400 words of mush.

Digital marketers often urge clients to replace or expand on-page copy that might be considered “thin content” by Google. The search engine giant defines thin content as “automatically generated content, thin affiliate pages and content from other sources, [such as] scraped content or low-quality guest blog posts.”

We certainly should remove thin, unhelpful information. Google wants websites to answer a search user’s questions. A site should write as much information as it needs to answer the question thoroughly. Leaving information out is bad. Hiding the answer in a mountain of junk is bad, too. Remember to write content with the audience or user in mind.

Longer sentences are not always better

One of the best writing classes I ever took was “Introduction to News,” a journalism class at Washington and Lee University. Brian Richardson, who taught the class, delighted in giving students fictional situations full of complex and conflicting information. He’d then make us write news stories about the events using sentences that were 20 words or shorter.

That 20-word limit was drawn in part from Paula LaRocque, a writing coach who has worked with journalists for decades. LaRocque calls the period “one of the reader’s (and writer’s) best friends. In most cases, when a sentence grows to 20 words or so, the writer should start seeking a way to end it.” Professor Richardson would make this rule an absolute, because he wanted every word to matter. A self-imposed limit forces a writer to focus on clarity.

LaRocque notes that her rule is not absolute. In this article you’ll find several sentences longer than 20 words. But sticking to an average of about 20 words per sentence will serve a writer well. Shooting for an average also allows a writer to vary pace. Some of my sentences, you might have noticed, are quite long, full of adjectives, asides and subordinate clauses. Others are quite short. Varying pace keeps the reader alert. A paragraph full of sentences that are all the same length -- whether that’s 10 words or 20 -- quickly becomes monotonous. If a writer prefers to occasionally use longer sentences, he should only introduce one idea with each sentence.

Write clearly, avoiding jargon or euphemisms

Say what you mean. Don’t dress up an idea in fancy or obscure words in an attempt to sound smart.

A great -- or perhaps I should say terrible -- example of this came from Gap, Inc. this summer.

“Gap Inc. today announced a series of strategic actions to position Gap brand for improved business performance and build for the future. Following a thorough evaluation of its business and operations, Gap plans to right-size its specialty store fleet and streamline its headquarter workforce, primarily in North America, as part of the comprehensive effort to deliver more consistent and compelling product collections and engage customers across all channels. … In order to drive productivity improvements and showcase the brand in the most successful locations, Gap will close about 175 specialty stores in North America over the next few years, with about 140 closures occurring this fiscal year.”

What on Earth does that mean? The real answer is at the bottom of the passage, which I’ve already shortened by removing a lengthy statement from Gap’s chief executive officer. Gap was announcing plans to close 175 stores and lay off workers. Here’s how CNN Money’s story about the announcement began: “Gap will close 175 stores in North America, leaving about 800 open, and will lay off 250 employees this year.”

CNN’s 20-word sentence tells us far more than Gap’s 107-word, multi-sentence monstrosity. LaRocque, the writing coach I mentioned above, has found that even highly educated Americans prefer to read at a 10th grade level or below. That doesn’t mean content should be dumbed down. It is simply a reminder that clear, concrete words can have a positive impact. Some businesses are complex operations selling complex products. That means they'll be writing about complex topics. If specific, technical words are needed to explain a service, it’s fine to use them. But when using technical or difficult language, clear writing becomes even more important. As a topic gets more complex, sentences should get shorter. Words, when possible, should become simpler. Surround the complicated word or material with simple, straight-forward writing.

I’ll close with the century-old writing advice of Oliver Strunk, a Cornell University professor whose short book, “The Elements of Style,” is still one of the best writing guides in the world.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Write clearly and concisely. Get to the point. Avoid confusing expressions. Make your words tell.

Jacob Geiger