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Writing About Complex Topics for the Lay Reader: 6 Tips

Don3

Part of the trouble in writing blog content about complicated topics (such as the law) for the lay reader is that the audience you’re writing for will determine what you can say. This is no different than it is for any other type of writing, but because the topics you’re talking about often require an understanding that the average person doesn’t have, you have to change the way you write. This is a challenge, especially when you’re not used to doing it.

Lay Reader Knowledge v Your Knowledge

If you are talking to group of lawyers and say “de novo,” those lawyers will know what you’re talking about. They’ll know you’re talking about appellate advocacy and about standards of review. You and they will share the basic shared knowledge necessary for communication. You and your audience speak the same language.

But what about a lay reader? Chances are a lay audience who hears “de novo” won’t have any idea what’s going on. They’ll be lost as soon as you utter the term, and you don’t have much time to help them get back on track.

So, you have to back up. You have to explain what a standard of review is. You have to explain to a lay reader what an appeal is, what an appeals court does, and how it does it. You have to take yourself back to what you were like before you went to law school, or before you went to college. Even then, you might have to go back further still.

Talking to the Lay Reader

So how do get a point across to a lay reader? How do you present your knowledge in a way that the reader will understand? I’m glad I asked those rhetorical questions.

  • Readability. There are several tools available that measure readability. (Word has a built in readability measurement tool.) Use them. They’re not perfect, but once you get your complexity level down to something that the average high school freshman would feel comfortable reading, you’re on a good foundation.
  • Profiles. I blogged recently about reader profiles. Use these too. Know who you’re writing for, what your reader wants, and what he or she understands. When you write your post, write it for the profile reader. Tell that reader what you want to say in a way the reader will understand, but don’t lecture. Talk to your profile reader in the same way you would talk to a friend.
  • Listeners. Do you know someone who isn’t in your field? Someone who is a lot closer to your average reader than your colleagues? Perhaps a sibling, friend, or parent? Use that person. Imagine yourself talking to the lay listener. You’ll naturally start changing how you talk. You’ll start explaining basic concepts, building on them, and getting to your point in a way you never would when you’re talking to a co-worker.
  • Explain it to them like they’re 6. In the movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays a lawyer who likes to ask potential clients and expert witnesses to “explain it to me like I’m a six-year old.” That’s you. You’re explaining it like the lay reader is six. Of course, your readers aren’t six, and you’re not actually talking to them like they’re six, you’re just explaining it with simple concepts they can better understand.
  • Definitions and Examples. When in doubt, spell it out. Does your audience know the difference between a civil and criminal proceeding? You do, of course, but you’re not the reader. Explain it to them.  Define terms. Show the reader how the terms apply by providing an example. Repeat as needed. Teach them and move on to the bigger point you’re making.

Rewrite It, Then Rewrite Again

Finally, if you’re just getting started writing for lay readers, forget the idea that you’re going to write clean first drafts. Write what you want to say, then go back and edit it. It takes a lot of practice to get your point across when you’re used to talking to other professionals.

Remember, your readers are smart people, but they don’t have your knowledge and experience. To convince them, to help them, you first have to educate them, and do so in a way that suits their sensibilities.

You’re writing for them, not you. Keep them in mind at all times and you should get better.

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  1. […] week I wrote about how you need to talk to your audience like they’re six. That’s what you need to do when you […]

  2. […] terminology helps. Examples are great. Explaining yourself like you’re talking to a group of ninth graders is […]

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