Thursday, 18 February 2010

Johnny's Take on Technical Copywriting

Some years ago Springer Publishing approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some technical copywriting for their website. I was excited at the prospect of working for such a large publisher and as a trial-run they gave me some marketing material for a publication about toeplitz operators.

Now, if you look up toeplitz operators in Wikipedia (as I’ve just done) you’ll be reliably informed that, ‘In operator theory, a Toeplitz Operator is the compression of a multiplication operator on the circle to the Hardy space’.

I got on the phone to my man in Berlin.

‘Franz’, I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I’ve never heard of a toeplitz operator. I think it’s some kind of mathematical equation but maths has never been my strong point - it took me two attempts to pass my ‘O’ level.’

Franz sensed the panic in my voice and assured me that I didn’t have to understand toeplitz operators or know anything about them.

‘All the technical information is correct’, he said. ‘It’s been checked and double checked, and anyone who reads beyond the title will know what these things are.’

It was clear that Franz had also never heard of these mysterious equations. He advised me only to get the grammar right, make the material flow, and ensure this particular publication on toeplitz operators stood out from all the others. Surprised that there could be more than one book on the toeplitz operator shelf, I set about writing some trade copy, consumer copy, and I picked out a few obvious USPs.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Franz said it was ok, and four years on I’m still writing for Springer.

The format has since changed. I get sent the same kind of material, often written by the book’s author and frequently translated from another language, but now I must condense the essence of the book into 260 characters with spaces. Any longer than this and the copy won’t fit in Springer’s database, much less than 260 and it looks a bit thin.

Working for Springer has my spell-check in overdrive. Each title is bit like a puzzle and I spend a lot of time Googling words to check they exist. My mantra is ‘Keep it simple’, keep the English plain and let the science do the talking. Don’t be scared by technical detail and don’t give up because you don’t understand. My father worked for NASA and like he used to say, ‘A problem’s like a circle. You can go round it and you’ll get there but you gotta go through it to solve it.’

Writing about things immersed in technical detail can be daunting, but I can usually tell when I’ve cracked it. Perhaps it’s a bit sad, but when I succeed in making sense of something horribly complex and I hit the word count and it comes up 260 - I still get a buzz.

Top tips for technical copywriting

1. Keep it simple
2. Let the science do the talking
3. Make it fit
4. Go through the circle
5. Enjoy

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