Where do you begin when writing documents that readers really need to understand? In my experience, the best place to start is with organization—matching information to the needs, interests, and abilities of your reading audience. Here’s how-to:
- Assemble a writing team. It takes a team to write a readable document. Team members should include one or more subject matter experts along with a plain language writer who not only knows how to write clearly but also serves as an advocate for readers. The subject matter expert and plain language writer may be the same. You also need team members who represent the intended audience. Indeed, readers are the best to judge whether documents truly are understandable, relevant, and useful.
- Know your audience. This includes knowing where your readers are along the continuum of care and using this to prioritize information. For instance, if you are writing an educational brochure for patients newly diagnosed with a disease then you might explain what this disease is, how to self-manage, and what to expect in the months ahead. But if you are writing for patients who have lived with this disease for many years, then you might focus on new research or offer encouragement to continue with self-care.
- Be clear about your document’s goals. My favorite question to ask at the start of a writing project is, “As a result of others reading this document, what do you hope or expect they will know, do, and feel?” To me, these answers are key as readers not only need to learn facts but also understand what to do and feel deep inside that this information truly matters.
- Limit information. You know a lot about this topic and want your readers to learn that, too. But it isn’t helpful to overload them with too much information. Readers can only retain a limited amount at one time, usually just 3 to 5 key points. Organize those points in a practical, reader-friendly way. This could be to start with actions, from first step to last. Or side effects, beginning with the most common. Also include a list of print, online, and phone resources for readers who want to learn more.
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