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Triple-A S: Advancing Science, Serving Society

Writing That First Draft

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

by Kristina Anderson

The idea behind writing the three booklets on healthy pregnancy started with a larger book from AAAS titled “The Science of Having a Health Baby” (please insert correct name of booklet. I couldn’t remember what it was.) This 80-page book was designed to reach the average reader and was targeted to an 8th to 9th grade reading level. But we knew we needed to reduce the amount of material and write it at a 5th to 6th grade reading level if we were going to reach our targeted audience, which was young, low-income moms in the Pittsburgh area.

First I broke the original content down into three subject areas: healthy pregnancy, healthy delivery and healthy babies. Under each, I listed about 10 content areas, which it turned out was way too much. To help narrow it further, we conducted focus groups with health care and social service providers in Pittsburgh.

Reducing the original content into three small booklets was our goal, but that meant I had to do a complete rewrite and reorganization of the material. In fact, after the focus group with providers, I began to cut content down to bare bones so I could rebuild it on a new frame.

One of the main things I kept in mind during the writing process was how the idea of science can make some people who don’t read well uneasy. To put the reader at ease, while keeping the science of healthy pregnancy as a central theme, I used plain language. I applied basic principles, such as chunking information and telling the moms only what they needed to know, while using simple words and concepts that explained the science and made it easy to understand.

The three booklets—Having a Healthy Pregnancy, Having a Healthy Birth, and Having a Healthy Baby—are about 16 pages each and have lots of simple, relevant illustrations and photos. When the science was hard to explain, we relied on illustrations to help.

With first drafts in hand, we conducted a focus group with the moms from the Pittsburgh area. This was a crucial step. The moms told us what was important to them and what wasn’t, and I took their comments to heart. That information along with additional feedback from health care providers gave me what I needed to begin the final writing process.

Next, I’ll talk about how I weighed all the feedback we got on the first drafts. Some of it was conflicting and negative, which was good, but it made the final writing really challenging. I had to meet the needs of a varied audience that held differing opinions—some of them personal, some of them professional.

So how do you go about making sure everyone in your reading audience is happy? Stay tuned….