How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Readable Writing Starts with Good Organization

Mar 1, 2024

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 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 serves as an advocate for the readers. Sometimes the subject matter expert and plain language writer are the same. But neither can truly know what it’s like to read this information for the first and perhaps only time. You can help by including those who represent likely readers on your writing team. Your readers indeed are expert on presenting information in ways that are understandable, doable, and engaging.
  • Know your audience. That includes knowing where your readers are along the continuum of care. Then prioritize and sequence information in keeping with this. For instance, if you are writing an educational brochure for patients who are 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 those who have lived with this condition for many years then perhaps highlight new research or offer encouragement to continue with treatment and care.
  • Be clear about goals. At the start of all projects, I ask this question of any team I’m working with: As a result of someone reading this document (or attending this presentation), what do you hope or expect that they will know, do, and feel? I then use the answers to organize key content. Over the years, I have found that asking these questions helps ensure that you provide essential facts while also making clear that readers can act on this information and feel that doing so is worthwhile.
  • Limit information. You know a lot about this topic and want your readers to learn it, too. But try not to overload and overwhelm readers by including too much. Most readers retain only a limited amount of information at one time. Usually, this is just 3 to 5 key points. Prioritize those points and then include resources for readers to learn more.

Want to learn more about communicating in ways that patients and the public can understand? Helen Osborne can help. She offers onsite and virtual training about strategies to clearly communicate about health. She also serves as a plain language editor, helping organizations present their information in ways that readers can understand, will act on, and feel is important. Contact Helen to learn more.