How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Tone: Inviting Readers to Read

Sep 1, 2023

You have a lot of important health information to share. But will intended readers want to read it? You can help by writing in a way that readers not only find worthy of their time but also feel welcomed. Here’s how-to:

  • Speak directly to the reader, using words such as “you” and “your.” This is much more inviting than impersonally writing about “the patient” or “people with [x] disease.”
  • Frame information in an honest way. Admittedly, many medical procedures are unpleasant or otherwise yucky. Be honest when writing about such topics. An example I sometimes use in workshops is a pre-procedure teaching sheet informing patients that they will be given a “pleasantly flavored drink.” But that’s not true. The drink tastes chalky and awful. In my opinion it is better to say nothing at all than describe something in ways that are untrue or misleading.
  • Frame information in a positive way. Health instructions often include activities that patients should not do. When possible, it is better to emphasize positive information such as, “You can lift up to 5 pounds” rather than vague and negative instructions like, “Do not lift heavy objects.” Almost always it is best to begin with what people can, rather than cannot, do.
  • Encourage interaction with your readers. One way to invite readers to read is with interaction. At the very least this could be a line for patients to write their own, or the clinician’s, name. Other forms of interaction include simple quizzes and check-off lists to reinforce points you’ve just addressed or preface information you soon will teach.

Ways to learn more:

Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition (2022), by Helen Osborne. You might be especially interested in the chapters “Document Design,” “Forms and Other Reading-To-Do Documents,” and “Plain Language.”

Helen has several Health Literacy Out Loud podcasts on this topic. Click each link to listen and read its transcript: