Writing well for specialists

Government experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not need to use plain language. This is wrong.

Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain language because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.  Plain language is welcome by readers. In fact, studies show it makes the writer look smarter. (If people understand more of what you’re saying, they will likely feel that you make sense.)

People understand complex specialist language, but do not want to read it if there’s an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They do not have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.

Scientists and other subject-matter experts, like most online readers, scan content to find the information they need quickly and efficiently. When presenting scientific findings online keep your content:

  • organized
  • scannable
  • succinct

Technical and scientific terms

Where you need to use technical or scientific terms, you can. They’re not jargon. You just need to explain what they mean the first time you use them.

Legal content

Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply.

Where evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a legal term, always explain it in plain language.

If you’re talking about a legal requirement, use ‘must’. For example, ‘your employer must pay you the minimum age’.

If you feel that ‘must’ does not have enough emphasis, then use ‘legal requirement’, ‘legally entitled’ etc. For example: ‘Once your child is registered at school, you’re legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly’.

When deciding whether to use ‘must’ or ‘legally entitled’ etc, consider how important it is for us to talk about the legal aspect, as well as the overall tone of voice.

If a requirement is legal, but administrative, or part of a process that will not have criminal repercussions, then use: ‘need to’. For example: ‘You will need to provide copies of your marriage certificate’.

This may be a legal requirement, but not completing it would just stop the person from moving on to the next stage of a process, rather than committing a more serious offence.

Footnotes and legal language

Do not use footnotes. They’re designed for reference in print, not web pages.

Last update:
Jul 20, 2018