How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Readable Writing Starts with Good Organization

May 1, 2022

Where do you begin when writing documents that readers must understand? In my experience, the best place to start is with organization–matching your information to the interests, abilities, and existing knowledge of the intended 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 advocates for the needs of readers. Sometimes the subject matter expert and plain language writer are the same. But neither can truly represent those who may be reading this document for the first, and perhaps only, time. Make sure that your writing team also includes likely readers as they are the true experts about what is understandable, doable, engaging, and relevant.
  • Know your audience. This includes knowing where your readers are along the continuum of care. Then use this knowledge to prioritize information. For instance, if you are writing an educational brochure for patients newly diagnosed then you might explain what this condition is, how to self-manage, and what to expect in the future. But if you are writing for patients who have lived with this condition for many years then you might focus on new research or encouragement to continue with treatment and care.
  • Be clear about your document’s goals. My favorite series of questions at the start of any writing project is, “As a result of reading this document, what do you hope or expect that readers will know, do, and feel?” The answers then guide my writing as readers not only need to know basic facts but also must understand what to do and feel that taking these actions matters.
  • Limit information. You know a lot about this topic and want your readers to learn, too. But it isn’t often helpful to overload readers with too much information. Most readers can only retain a limited amount at one time. Usually, this is just 3 to 5 key points. Prioritize those points and then include resources for readers who want to learn more.

Want to learn more about communicating health information in ways that patients, caregivers, and the public can understand? Helen Osborne can help. She offers onsite and virtual training to help teams clearly communicate about health. She also works with groups to present information in ways that their readers can relate to and will understand. Contact Helen to learn more.