If you want people to take you seriously, you need to sound like an expert, right?
The internet is littered with advice on how to write like an authority in your field, but you might want to add a pinch of salt to it all.
It’s not that you shouldn’t sound like you know what you’re talking about. The problem lies in the way many of us think an expert ought to sound.
To live up to the weight of the word, we make choices we would never make in normal conversation. We douse our readers with information, say everything in the passive tense, or write in a superior, distant tone. ‘Verbification’, oversized paragraphs, and using words that are way too short or way too long are the other main hallmarks of expert writing gone wrong.
None of this helps us convey knowledge or authority; it just builds up walls between us and the people we’re trying to reach. Here’s how to share your expertise – without letting it get in the way of your message.
When you know a lot about something, and you want to share that knowledge with others, it can be very tempting to try and teach them everything you know. This is usually a mistake. The truth is, you’re never going to get someone to fully grasp a topic you’ve spent years mastering – in a single article.
That doesn’t stop a lot of experts from trying. Many make the mistake of thinking the article they’re writing for a consumer website or magazine is just a condensed version of a journal article with some of the jargon taken out. It isn’t.
When I started writing about science, I had to learn how to take dense, technical material and distil it down to easy-to-understand words, most often for a beauty magazine or cosmetics brand. At first, I thought my job was to remove complicated terms and select the simplest statistics. Eventually, I realized a lot of the detail itself had to go, too.
But if you’re a behind-the-scenes kind of specialist, you probably don’t have to translate into lay terms that often. Most of your writing is only seen by other experts who don’t need everything broken down and are used to a certain stiff, expert-y style. When you do have to write for regular folks, the communication challenges can be pretty daunting.
It’s something I see firsthand a lot. Recently, a scientist friend wanted my opinion on a newspaper article he’d been asked to write. This guy is an absolute encyclopedia in his field. The article was super informative, and on a topic many people care about. But by the time I was done reading it, I didn’t exactly feel enlightened. Dazed would be more accurate.
Why? Nearly every line was either a brand new fact, or a complex caveat to the fact before it. I tried to remember what he’d said at the start of the article and realized I couldn’t.
His desire to give the reader all the facts had sent me hurtling into information overload. As a result, the message he genuinely wanted to share was lost. The lesson? Don’t attempt to download everything you know about a topic into one 1000-word piece. Especially if you know a lot about it. It’s only going to overwhelm your reader.
Keep it lean by keeping the main idea of the article in mind with every paragraph you write. And resist that urge to sneak in “just one more line.”
In school and professionally, there are often rewards for squeezing in an extra data point, or namechecking some obscure case. But writing for a consumer audience is different. You’re not trying to prove to a professor or a peer review board how competent and knowledgeable you are. You just have one specific message that you’re trying to teach to people who don’t know that much about your subject.
And by the way, if you do manage to push your dense, complex mass of information into your word limit, that doesn’t get you off the hook. When an article is overstuffed with facts, the trimming that tends to happen usually means the parts that make it more readable – like connecting phrases and storytelling – end up on the cutting room floor. That doesn’t serve your reader.
If there’s one thing that can make your writing instantly reader-unfriendly, it’s the dreaded wall of text. When you’re writing an article for your online audience, your paragraphs shouldn’t look like they belong in a patent application – even if you’re a lawyer or a scientist. Those dense clumps of text alienate readers before they read a single word.
So break them up – the old high school essay rule of “one main idea per paragraph” works perfectly here.
Sometimes we get so used to what we know, especially when the people we know know it, that we start to think everyone else knows it, too. That’s where the abbreviations and acronyms come in.
It starts off innocently enough. You mention a concept early in your article. Saying it over and over uses up too much of your word count, so you decide to make three words become one. You abbreviate another long-winded term – and then another. You think your writing looks sleeker and cleaner without all those long words hanging around, but your reader is seeing something different.
Unlike you, they’re not immersed in your subject matter. Those specialist terms and acronyms you throw around all day? They’ve never heard them. They might have remembered that ETF meant ‘exchange traded fund’ – if you hadn’t thrown CDS and NDF at them soon after. For the ordinary reader, serving after serving of this strange alphabet soup is confusing and distracting. While they’re concentrating on deciphering these abbreviations, they’re forgetting the message you were trying to send.
So abbreviate sparingly. If there’s a lengthy term that’s central to your article, try to make that your only abbreviation. Even then, you can mix it up: play with your sentence structures – and use synonyms. Like in this piece on mycosporine-like amino acids – marine chemicals that scientists are experimenting with to make futuristic sunscreens – I used the abbreviation ‘MAA’. But I also included synonyms and restructured a few sentences so I didn’t have to repeat the term as much.
For instance, since MAAs are a type of amino acid, and a type of chemical compound, both terms made good stand-ins. And merging two sentences that both mentioned ‘MAAs’ into one also saved me from saying the term 10 times in one short article.
Gone are the days where the more complicated words you used, the more likely you were to be considered an expert. These days, readability is king. And too many syllables just get in the way.
The extra challenge for experts comes from the fact that specialist terms and formal English are both based heavily on Latin and Greek words – which tend to be longer and have more syllables than older English words. If you’re using specialist terms and a formal style, you run the risk of making your writing feel unwieldy and hard to understand.
That’s because the rhythm of the language and its grammar were built around those original, terser words. The more of them you use, the better your words will flow.
A good test is to read what you’ve written out loud. If your text is too clunky to read aloud fluently, it’s too clunky for your reader, period.
Despite efforts to make academic writing less stiff and formal, many schools still swear by the passive tense. The rationale I’ve heard most often is that it helps students sound more polished and professional. It’s probably the reason why so many of us still think that writing lines like ‘the measurement was taken’ instead of ‘I measured it’ is the way to be taken seriously – and sound like an expert.
But this is what is happening in your reader’s brain when you’re using it: distance. It’s as if a chasm forms between you and the reader, making it harder and harder for your message to get across.
Then, there’s the work. When you’re contorting your sentences to avoid saying ‘I’ or ‘we’, you’re only making your reader work harder to understand what you’re saying. The more effort people have to put in, the quicker they get bored and just stop reading.
And while some people are convinced passive=more official, it can actually diminish trust, because it often sounds so disconnected and unnatural. As a writer, that’s the last thing you want: If the person reading your words doesn’t trust them, then your message has failed to deliver.
Now, that doesn’t mean shunning the passive voice entirely; a mixture of active and passive tends to work best, as long as you err on the active side. If what you’re saying is interesting, then the active voice – which is naturally more energetic, present and engaging – will do a lot of heavy-lifting to keep your reader hooked.
‘Leverage’ is one of those terms that really raises the hackles of word aficionados. It’s a noun that many people have taken to using as a verb. The correct form is ‘lever’, but given that ‘leverage’ has become a business buzzword, that ship may already have sailed.
Most other victims of verbification undergo some changes before they morph into verb form. They typically end up with “-alize” tacked onto the end; think ‘operationalize’ or ‘situationalize’.
These are exactly the type of words you should resist the temptation to make up when you’re writing your article. No, it doesn’t make you sound more “bleeding edge”; it just makes your writing clumsier and harder to read.
Always check to see if there’s already a verb available – preferably one that’s shorter and more concise – before you go and make one up.
Generally, your tone of voice should reflect that of the publication you’re writing for. But there’s one tone issue that tends to be beyond the scope of style guides. You could call it the ‘passion problem’.
When we know a lot about a subject, we can get quite passionate about it. And sometimes, when we get passionate, we can end up sounding a little haughty. You can tell if your text is heading this way if you read it through and find a surfeit of bossy words like “you must”, “should”, “don’t”, “never”, “avoid”, “you cannot”, “impossible”.
Unless your intended audience has an appetite for a commanding approach, then you might want to tone it down some.
That doesn’t mean completely avoiding imperative words; they’re very useful for underlining important points. It’s just very easy to overuse them. To make sure you’re not being too heavy-handed, give your text a quick run-through: Can you rephrase a sentence as a suggestion, or provide an example instead of a cast-iron command? If you can, it’s a good idea to do so.
Many readers just expect their eyes to glaze over when reading an article by an expert. So surprise them by breaking that mould.
Here’s a quick recap of how it’s done: Keep the facts lean and on-topic, making sure your paragraphs aren’t too thick. Write mostly in the active voice, with a tone that’s engaging, not imperious. Limit the long words or abbreviations, and definitely skip the verbification. These tiny changes will make an outsized difference to your writing.
And here’s a bonus tip: in many people’s minds, the expert they can understand is the one they automatically think is the real deal. That expert could be you.
Jea is a writer and translator based in London.