5 Tips for Writing About Complex Topics

By Mark Zeni

Some subjects are harder to write for than others. It may be due to a lack of audience familiarity, the presence of technical terms and concepts, or the sheer depth of the subject matter, but in any case, it’s difficult to write about these subjects without scaring users away or alienating them entirely.

For example, writing about legal topics like bankruptcy depends on explaining complex legal systems to an (often) uninformed reader, so your style and content structure needs to take that in mind. Similarly, writing about computer programming subjects like Ruby on Rails can be intimidating to anyone unfamiliar with the nature of the language, so shape your content and choice of words to mitigate this challenge.

As a writer, your job is to overcome these hurdles—and you can, with a bit of forethought.

Goals in Navigating Complexity

Speaking generally, you’ll have three main goals in writing about a complex topic:

Cultivate approachability. First, you’ll need to make sure your audience isn’t intimidated or scared off by the topic. When people read hard-to-understand sentences, they get the urge to bail, so work to keep them around for as long as possible.

Simplify the complex. Next, you’ll need to take big, complicated, nasty concepts and transform them into smaller, more digestible ones. This is where your imagination and expressive abilities will come in handy.

Improve reader understanding. Finally, you’ll need to organize and create your article in a way that maximizes reader takeaways. Make your content understandable!

Strategies for Better Execution

These tips will help you achieve your goals:

1. Rely on illustrations and diagrams. There’s a reason visual content has exploded in popularity over the past few years; people find it easier to absorb information through visual demonstrations than with written language. Accordingly, try to include more visuals in your work. These don’t have to be glamorous or labor intensive; even a stick-figure drawing or brief sketch can make the difference in making a complex subject easier for people to understand.

2. Use metaphors and storytelling devices. Similarly, you can use metaphors and storytelling devices to improve understanding and simplify your material at the same time. As an added bonus, people will be more entertained, which will draw them deeper into your content even if it’s naturally hard to approach. For example, instead of describing how gravity represents a warping of space-time with math equations and theoretical proofs, you could describe it like a magnifying glass distorting the images it runs over.

3. Try a question-and-answer format. You may also consider opting a question-and-answer format for your post, or at least having a small Q&A segment at the end of your original post. This will help you address readers’ concerns, thoughts, and feelings directly. If you do a good job at capturing your average reader’s mindset, you’ll easily lock them in for future content opportunities. Plus, you’ll have the chance to explain your topic bit by bit, rather than in an extended paragraph-based form.

4. Start with an introductory post. “Keep it simple, stupid,” KISS, is the acronym to keep in mind here. You don’t need to dive into the full complexities of your chosen topic—at least not right away. Instead, work to create something high level and approachable for anyone, even if they’re completely new to the subject. Describe the general concept of the subject, such as stating that aerodynamics is the study of how to make things move more efficiently, rather than digging into the details. You can always expand later—for now, focus on warmly introducing your readers to the topic at hand.

5. Avoid technical language (until necessary). In what may be an obvious step, reduce your reliance on technical language whenever possible. When it comes time to introduce technical terms, do so gradually by carefully defining them and incorporating them slowly into your content. For example, instead of writing about “entangled photons,” you could say “particles of light that are fundamentally linked together.” If you get stuck, use illustrative language to bail you out.

Knowing Your Audience

In addition to these general tips, it’s also important that you know and understand your audience intimately, as your methods of execution and specific considerations will vary based on those factors.

For example, if the reading level of your audience is fairly low, you’ll need to use approachable, low-level vocabulary and sentence structures to explain your points. But if your audience is already somewhat familiar with your subject matter, you’ll need to bridge the gap between high-level material and technically complex explanations.

No matter how experienced you are in a complex topic, it can be hard to present that topic to others. Fortunately, these tips can spare you from more than one headache. Put them into practice and become familiar with them. In time, you’ll be able to make better, more approachable content from even the most complex subjects.



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3 Responses to “5 Tips for Writing About Complex Topics”

  • Vayam

    Valuable and informative article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ravi Chahar

    Hey Mark,

    In order to keep the readers’ engagement, most of the people get intimated because of the complex structure of the content.

    What’s the use if you readers can’t even understand your words? You need to simplify.

    Using the metaphors can add some value. People need to correlate to the similar concepts.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

    ~Ravi

  • Tushar Hossain

    We need to be little tricky to write about complex topics..thanks for sharing your valuable tips 🙂

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