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Triple-A S: Advancing Science, Serving Society

Clear Writing Tips

These tips are mainly common sense principles, easy in theory but sometimes hard in practice. The best advice is to envision a real reader — someone you know who has not taken a science course in 35 years, who is not a native English speaker, or who dropped out of high school.

Focus on the purpose.
I.e., to provide health information that is science-based, in an easy-to-read and interesting format.

Know your readers.
The characteristics of our readers are:
(1) Adults and older adolescents.
(2) Readers finding the information at libraries and over the Internet.
(3) Consumers of health information who have modest reading skills and limited knowledge of science.
(4) Some readers who may be under stress because of the health condition for which they seek information.
(5) Some readers for whom English is a second language.
(6) Librarians who will be referring patrons to the material.
(7) Helpers — people who are obtaining the information in order to share it with others who need it, in a formal or informal setting

Address the readers as your peers. Write in a friendly conversational voice, not a stiff, bureaucratic voice.

Use a hook to pull in your audience. Give readers a reason to be interested and stay interested.

Avoid wordiness. Simple words generally work best.

Avoid redundancy.

Keep your sentences fairly short (about 20 words or less) — but vary sentence length. A string of short sentences can sound plodding. It also makes it harder for readers to keep track of their place.

Use familiar words — words that are in the spoken vocabulary of your readers. Speak simply without speaking casually.

Do not assume that readers will know the meaning of common terms pertaining to health issues, such as:

cultural competence
etiology of the disease

Important terms for understanding the health topic should be defined in context and bold-faced when first used.

Be careful with idioms or literary references. Some readers may not know them. Also be careful with metaphors. Some readers may not get them. This is particularly important when you are creating materials that include instructions.

Word Choices”
The active voice usually works better than the passive voice.
Be concrete. Pick words that create pictures in the mind.
Don’t be afraid of personal pronouns.

Present information in chronological order, in order of importance, or in some other logical order.

Break information into digestible chunks. It’s a good rule of thumb to limit each sentence to one important idea. This can make the text longer, yet it will be easier to follow. Effective headings also make information easier to digest.