Updated: Jan 16
Writing is hard. Whether we're talking about writing essays, speeches, blogs posts, shorts stories, or headlines, most people don’t know where to start.
And writing becomes even more challenging when you add any layer of complexity. Want to write a book? Time to learn about long-form structure and how to carry a narrative across two-hundred pages. Want to increase conversions on your website? Now you must learn about buying behavior and human psychology—and then apply those learnings to your writing.
But perhaps one of the most intimidating forms of writing is technical marketing writing. How do you even begin to write clearly and persuasively about something boring and complex?
I’ve been writing for B2B tech companies for several years. Here are some of my favorite tactics for simplifying your prose—and taking some of the pain out of the technical writing process.
1. Interview the experts
Complexity is subjective. Something that is complicated to you might be simple to someone else. Find the people who clearly understand the subject you're writing about. Then, get them on the phone. The right expert can break down and help you comprehend even the most complicated technology.
The key is to come with good questions. As an interviewer, don’t try to sound smart by asking complicated questions. Just gather the basics. Experts can often distill their subject down into language that more people can understand. All you have to do is take their language and turn it into copy on the page.
2. Interview customers
Every inventor or creator has a bias. Their bias is that they invented the tool or service they’re trying to sell. By extension, the creator uses certain language that only makes sense to other creators and inventors. This insider language is fine in the workplace. But it's problematic when it comes time to sell.
To move past this insider language, you must get on the phone with real customers. How do they talk about their favorite features? What language do they use to describe the impact of this tool on their lives?
Customer interviews are an easy way to cut past biased creator language and discover the words that future customers will also understand.
3. Mine reviews
Read the reviews of the product you’re writing about. Read the reviews of competing products. Review mining is one of the easiest ways to find good industry language for your topic.
Review mining is a scalable form of customer interviews. In the time it takes me to conduct 2-4 customer interviews, I may be able to read through dozens or over 100 customer reviews to find similar language and stories.
4. Mine comment sections
What have journalists recently published in the industry you’re writing about? I often look for relevant articles and scroll all the way to the bottom. Yes, I check the comments section.
The people leaving comments on these industry articles tend to have a stake in that industry. By reading their comments, you can find stories, language, and ideas that relate to the industry.
5. Use the technology
Dive into the app. Click around. Try features. See the technology in action.
Seeing and experiencing technology is one of the best ways to learn about it. The greater your understanding of what a technology does, the more easily you’ll be able to write about it.
6. Focus on outcomes more than specs
As you sit down to write, how do you know what to cover? There may be hundreds of potential points to write about. How do you narrow down to the most important elements?
My recommendation is to think about customer outcomes over product features (specs). Yes, there is a place for writing about features. But most of your copy should be focused on the benefits that a customer will gain from using your tool.
7. Start with structure
Writing clear copy is most difficult when you start from a blank page. I start every writing project with structure. For example, if you are writing website copy, start by creating an outline of your entire page in a Google Doc. You can use the Headline feature to easily distinguish headlines from body copy. For every headline, simply write “Headline”. For the body copy, just write “Body copy.”
Repeat these two phrases all the way down the page. By the time you start writing, you’re at least looking at a lose wireframe of your website, which can make the writing process a bit easier.
8. Use the 80/20 rule
One way to simplify your writing is to know what information to exclude. Instead of highlighting every feature and benefit about your product, use the 80/20 rule. Only highlight the 20% of features that 80% of your customers love best. By cutting the unnecessary copy from the page, you naturally make your product easier to understand.
Let the additional 80% of features come as a pleasant surprise—or as information that the reader can find on another landing page.
9. Read your copy out loud
Your copy sounds different in your head than in your ear. After you’ve read your copy through a few times in your mind, try reading it out loud. If you get tongue-tied or find yourself out of breath reading a sentence, then it’s a good sign you may need to simplify.
10. Write in an email draft
Context is everything. Many people still associate word processing tools like Google Docs and Microsoft Word with college essays. These essays carry a lofty, professional tone that typically don’t translate well into copy.
So, if you find yourself struggling to write in a simpler tone because of your context, try writing your copy in an email draft instead. Many people associate email with a more casual and simpler writing tone than word processing tool.
11. Hand your copy off to a friend
The best way to receive writing feedback is to communicate the form of feedback you’re looking for. If you simply hand someone a document and say, “Thoughts?” you’re going to receive a lot of vague, unhelpful feedback.
On the other hand, if you tell the reviewer what you’re looking for, a second pair of eyes can help you simplify your message. If you’re sending your work to a proofreader, try requesting: “What parts do you find unmemorable or confusing?”
This request gives the proofreader a lens through which they can provide more helpful feedback.
12. Take a break
Step away from the laptop. Take a walk around your neighborhood. Go get lunch. When you’ve stared at the same problem for too long, often you need a simple break to reset your mind.
My best copy is never written the day it is delivered. I try to give myself at least one more chance to read through my copy before I turn it in. That one extra day between writing and turning in often results in some of my clearest, simplest copy.
13. “What I’m trying to say is…”
I use this phrase when I’m deep in the weeds of writing. Often I’ll write a sentence, headline, or paragraph and immediately recognize that my language is too technical, boring, or complex. So, I literally lean back in my chair, remove my hands from the keyboard, and say out loud: “What I’m trying to say is…”
I try to finish the sentence out loud right then and there. I will talk out loud until the right word or sentence clicks. Often, this one prompt is enough to trick my mind into coming up with simpler language than what I’ve written on the page.
14. Leave time to rewrite
The best writers are consistent rewriters. They know their first draft is just a stepping stone toward a later version of the copy. Every time you write, give yourself time to rewrite.
I recommend separating your writing from your rewriting by at least one full day. Spend one day writing your copy, then spend the next day rewriting it all. The process of revision is one of the foundational ways to write with greater clarity and simplicity.
We’ve all heard the tip: “Write like you talk.” For many, this advice is easier said than done. Fortunately, you can use voice-to-text tools to write your copy.
You don’t need to pay for some niche writing tool to take advantage of this practice. I simply download the Google Drive app to my phone. The app version of Google Drive has voice-to-text built in. I’ve written multiple articles on walks in the woods by simply talking through my points as I stroll. Then, all I have to do is edit and organize the words when I return home.
16. Short words and sentences
One of the best ways to simplify your writing is to intentionally choose short words and sentences. Short sentences are easier to read. Short words tend to sound more natural to the reader. If you're stuck staring at some jargon, don’t be afraid to use an online thesaurus or dictionary. I use them all the time to find simpler words or phrases.
17. Find “sticky” language
Sticky language includes words and phrases that are memorable. These phrases create images in the reader’s mind that stay with them as they scroll. For example, the word “solution” isn’t sticky. No one can visualize a “solution” because the term is imprecise. For the reader, this phrase often goes in one eye and out the other.
Now consider words like cannonball, corner office, or grandfather clock. Your mind immediately holds onto these words because you can visualize them. As you write your copy, look for sticky visual language that stays with the reader as they scroll your page.
18. Emphasize results and stories
It’s one thing to tell me what your product does. It’s another to tell me about the exact results that other people have experienced using your product. Results are memorable and compelling. Results also tell me that other people have successfully used your product to achieve their goals.
As the phrase goes, no one wants to be a heart surgeon’s first patient. Likewise, by telling success stories, you show the function and effectiveness of your product in a way that's easy to understand: story.
19. Learn the broader context through reading
As a B2B writer, I like to read in the domain of my clients. For example, I regularly read books about cryptocurrency, SaaS, cybersecurity, finance, and other technical topics. This is in part because I’m curious about these subjects. But also, every book I read helps me understand the world of my clients with greater clarity.
This reading improves my understanding and (by extension) my writing. It also helps me ask better questions on client calls, know about other technology, and learn from the marketing tactics of other firms in my client’s space.
20. Rinse and repeat
The best way to write clearly about technical subjects is to form a regular writing practice. My writing today is much stronger than it was even a few years ago. And I bet my writing in two years will be better than it is today.
This tactic isn’t a shortcut like some of the other points above. But it does capture a universal truth about technical writing: the more often you do it, the more likely you are to improve. Clear writing starts with clear thinking. Clear thinking comes from years of intentional practice getting to the heart of a complex subject.
Clear writing is persuasive writing
At the end of the day, writing persuasive B2B copy doesn’t have to be complicated. The most powerful conversion tool is clarity. If you can clearly communicate the value of your product, then people who are looking for that value are more likely to buy.
The sooner you learn how to simplify your message, the sooner you’ll convert prospects into happy customers.
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