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When an essay isn’t an essay

This week, many Australian students have been sitting the NAPLAN tests. One of the tests is about writing and the students are given a topic to write an essay on.

For my daughter, this was her fourth NAPLAN experience. After a trial essay in class last week, she was panicking about the writing NAPLAN. Being told she’s good at writing essays didn’t give her any comfort until she finally told me  she ‘had never written an essay in her life and didn’t know what one was’.

Throughout primary school and early secondary school, the kids have been taught various types of writing (I know I was never formally taught such a range as specific styles!) such as an argumentative piece, an opinion, instructions and a report. Yet no one had ever thought to tell all of them that an essay is just another term for a persuasive or argumentative piece!

Once I realised this was the issue, my daughter regained her confidence in essay writing and believes she did a good answer in her writing NAPLAN.

My children think of persuasive pieces, I think of essays – what do you call a piece of writing that covers a topic to make a case for their opinion?

Understanding jargon

jargon raises questions

Poor jargon use raises reader questions

When I went to school, we were never taught to write an argumentative or persuasive piece – we wrote essays. Technically, there is no difference but a change of terminology requires care.

If you teach kids to write persuasive pieces you can’t test them on essays unless you define and explain what an essay actually is – they have no experience of essays and figuring it out during a test is not good for their test performance.

By now, the link to business should be obvious! No matter what you are writing for a business or website, you need to be sure the intended audience will understand it.

Just because you are very familiar with jargon (technical or industry specific terms for things) and abbreviations does not mean your readers will be. So it is important to avoid jargon as much as possible.

In some contexts, using jargon is fine (for example, a doctor won’t write about an intestinal disease by saying the symptom is a sore tummy). However, it is still important to minimise the jargon use to be sure it is understood. Going back to our medical example, if a gastroenterologist is writing for a general medical audience she could use medical terms but perhaps avoid very specific terms that other doctors won’t know.

Naming and defining

Whenever you do use jargon or industry specific terms in a business context it is a good idea to define the term.

You may be able to define terms at the first use of it or perhaps have a glossary page which each use of the term can be linked to.

Adding definitions is a good idea even if you are confident your audience knows the jargon because:

  1. it ensures your understanding of a term is the same as your reader’s understanding
  2. it helps someone new to your field understand your content – a new doctor will know most of the jargon in an article but may need to check on some words for instance
  3. having words defined on a website can help with your SEO efforts
  4. it is useful for someone researching your topic. These people may not be your target audience but helping them can lead to good will – and some of those people may well enter your field later and remember who helped them learn the jargon in the first place
  5. if there are two or three common terms for something, don’t assume everyone knows them all. Such as my daughter not knowing ‘essay’ and ‘persuasive piece’ are essentially the same thing or someone in NSW not knowing kinder comes before Prep in Victorian schools.

Does your website include definitions of words that are potentially difficult for you audience to recognise or understand? Have you ever reviewed your website for words and terms that may be considered jargon?

Use real keywords

Keywords are used to help search engines relate your web pages to terms people use in the search engines.

So if you sell books, you want search engines to find you when people look for a book shop they can access so you could use keywords like books, reading, store, fiction and non-fiction. Keywords like bike, engineer, beautician and plumber would be less useful (unless you specialised in books about those things!)

I think it’s really important to use real keywords, too. By that I mean words that real people will use to find your goods or services, not jargon or unusual alternatives of words.

Terms like motor insurance, pertusiss and downhaul are actually accurate but used by professionals – most people refer to car insurance, whooping cough and (sail) rope so they are the real keywords.

Worse are words used in a different context, such as benefit. Most of us think of benefit as an advantage whereas the insurance and super industries use benefit as the money you may be entitled to; would you ever type ‘super benefit’ in a search engine to find out about superannuation?

So when preparing your website copy and metadata (meaning the text you can add to a webpage for search engines to use), make sure you focus on words your customers will use rather than words people in your industry use. Sometimes, your customers do know the jargon, but don’t just assume it.