Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip
What is plain language? As defined on the website PLAIN (Plain Language Association International), plain language uses language, structure, and design to help readers “find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
To me, plain language is both a science (following well-tested rules) and an art (applying these rules in engaging and appealing ways). Here is a brief look at how to write in plain language.
Content and organization
- Differentiate between “need to know” and “nice to know” information
- Organize information from the reader’s point of view
- Provide ways to learn more, including non-written options
- Use common 1-2 syllable words
- Define unfamiliar, yet necessary, words and terms
- Be consistent, using exactly the same wording each time
- Avoid or explain acronyms, jargon, and needlessly “stuffy” words
- Write short sentences (about 15-20 words), each with only one idea
- Use an active voice, identifying who is doing the action
- Avoid conditional if/then sentences
- Speak directly to the reader, using “you” and “your”
- Frame information in positive, yet honest, ways
- Give specific instructions, not assuming readers know exactly what to do
Format, Layout, and Graphics
- Use headers to identify new sections and topics
- Create short dotted lists, chunking similar items together
- Have enough white space so that pages do not look crowded
- Use at least 12-point type, with combined upper and lowercase letters
- Line up (justify) on the left margin, but not right or center
- Include graphics to show key ideas or actions
More Ways to Learn:
- Helen Osborne often leads plain language writing workshops. Learn more about many of her presentations.
- Talk with Helen about leading a plain language workshop for your organization or association. Start by emailing Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition. Helen Osborne’s best-selling, award-winning book looks at many strategies to communicate clearly, including with plain language. Order your copy (in print or e-book) from Jones & Bartlett Learning or most online bookstores.
For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at: email@example.com, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.