Writing information

Happy woman sat at her deskWriting for the public is very different from writing for health professionals or colleagues. You need a different mindset, so a good place to begin is to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Forget what you know about health, medicine or science and start from scratch. If you were the person looking for information or you were searching on behalf of a family member, what would you want to know and how would you like to have it explained?

Plan thoroughly what points you will include. When you start writing, write as if you are having a conversation with someone. Be friendly but authoritative, reassuring and not patronizing. Sometimes it helps to read aloud what you have written, as if you were speaking it to a friend. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.

Writing like this takes a lot practice, and plenty of trial and error. Much of ‘getting it right’ comes from your tone and language as well as the content.

Be as inclusive as you can, both in the words and in any images you choose. Health literacy should be one of your first considerations – presenting information in a clear, simple and straightforward way that appeals to a wide range of people, some of whom will have limited literacy and numeracy skills. This does not mean ‘dumbing down’ information; it means being clear in what you say, explaining medical terms, using words sparingly and presenting the information well.

Don’t make unreasonable assumptions about your readers – not every couple is married and heterosexual, for example, and not every family has two parents. Don’t assume you always know what people will understand, relate to or are familiar with. Always ask your users, work with them to plan and create information and always involve them in testing and review. That way you are more likely to produce material that people can relate to, understand and use.

Visit PIF’s Toolkit for creating health information that works to view our best practice principles and key steps for clear communication.

Clear language

Friendly alphabetClear language is fair language because it informs and empowers. People have the right to receive health information they can easily read and understand, whether it’s in print or on the web.   Clear language is not an absolute: what is clear to medical professionals may be obscure to lay people. If technical language – like vasovagal syncope or endometriosis – has to be used, it’s good to give an explanation.

Good presentation is vital, too. If handled well, design features such as the type, illustrations and white space will all complement clear language so that the overall package is attractive and easy to use.

When you are deciding whether a printed or web document is clear, it is helpful to have a checklist. Here are some of the questions that the Plain Language Commission, a specialist company in this field, asks itself when deciding whether information is clear:

Purpose

  • Is the purpose obvious or stated early and clearly?

Content

  • Does the document start by getting on the reader’s wave length (good) or by talking about the aims and values of the organisation that has produced it (bad)?
  • Is the information accurate, relevant and complete, anticipating readers’ questions and answering them?
  • Is the text reassuring, where it can be?
  • Are essential technical terms explained or defined?
  • Is a contact point stated for readers who want to know more?

Structure

  • Is the information well organized and easy to navigate through, with good headings and sub-headings?
  • Is there good use of illustrations, diagrams and summary panels?

Style and grammar

  • The average reading age of adults in the UK and US is about 13 years, roughly the level of an average 13-year-old with adult life experience.[1] So is the style right for this audience, with a good average sentence length (say 15–20 words), plenty of active-voice verbs, and reasonably short paragraphs?
  • To make the text personal, are words like ‘we’ and ‘you’ used?
  • Are bullet lists used to break up complex information?
  • Is the text more ‘verby’ than ‘nouny’ (eg, ‘you may want to consider’ not ‘you may want to give consideration’)?
  • Is the text grammatically sound and well punctuated?
  • Is capitalization consistent in text and headings?

Layout and design

  • Does the document look good?
  • Is the type easily legible and is there enough space between lines of type?
  • Is there a clear hierarchy of headings and spaces?
  • Have emphasis devices, such as bold type, been used well?

Top Tips

  1. Thumbs-upIdentify the need for the document. Can it be found elsewhere or adapted from an existing source?
  2. Identify the aims, scope and target audience. Decide which medium would be best (eg print; audiotape; web page;video). Identify what information users want covered.
  3. Canvass users’ views when deciding the content and format.
  4. Pilot the information with users and evaluate it once it’s been in circulation for a while.
  5. Consider how and when to give the information and how to use it with the readers.
  6. Put the information people most need to/want to know first or near the beginning of the information.
  7. Always deal with issues that affect safety, for example medicines side-effects or contraindications, the risks of taking treatment or not. Also, be clear that information shouldn’t be used on its own without discussion with a health professional.
  8. Where it’s possible to, deal with uncertainty. If written in the right way, it’s more reassuring to say that you don’t know or that the evidence isn’t clear either way than to avoid the issue.
  9. For treatment-based information, always cover both the risks and the benefits. It can also be helpful to include information about what happens if someone does nothing or has no treatment.
  10. Don’t put in your opinion. Present the facts and allow readers to make up their own mind.
  11. Generally, prefer the active voice to the passive. For example, say ‘take your tablets twice a day’ instead of ‘tablets should be taken twice daily’.
  12. Don’t use a long word or phrase where a short one will do. For example, use ‘also’ instead of ‘In addition’, or ‘sometimes’ instead of ‘in certain circumstances’.
  13. Stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  14. Structure your sentences appropriately – put the main clause first (the ‘what’ before the ‘why’), eg If you’re very overweight (obese) you’re more likely to develop depression because…
  15. You can use simple contractions to give your writing an informal and more conversational tone – for example, use don’t instead of do not or you’re instead of you are. But avoid the more unusual contractions like it’d, it’ll and you’d.
  16. Use instructions if you need to and be assertive – for example, say ‘don’t smoke’ instead of ‘you should try not to smoke’.
Acknowledgement: Martin Cutts, Plain Language Commission
Page last updated: 14/03/13


[1]M Cutts  The Oxford Guide to Plain English. OUP Oxford; 3 edition (27 Aug 2009) ISBN 978-0199558506