Writing to Be Understood

Thought I would share this resource with others writing learning materials for the masses:

Well-designed materials provide information that is easy for audience members to understand and to relate to their own interests and needs. Research tells us that to communicate effectively with a general audience in the U.S., we need to write at a 6th-8th grade reading level.

Writing to increase comprehension doesn’t mean, “dumbing down” the information, it means writing as clearly and accessibly as you can. Comprehension is greatest with materials that are written at least two grade levels lower than the education level of the audience. For complex information, and for information that can be expected to cause an emotional response, writing at more easily comprehended reading levels is more effective.


Strategies in materials targeted to the general public


Keep sentences short. Sentence length is the single greatest factor affecting comprehension. Grade level 5-8: Families often find it hard to follow treatment recommendations. They are short of time. They may also doubt their skills.

Grade level >12.0: Adhering to treatment recommendations is often fraught with difficulties, for families have a multitude of scheduling commitments, and may also be highly insecure about their abilities.

Avoid jargon. New Rules of Healthcare Marketing (1998) recommends:

For — Use

morbidity — sickness

mortality — death

outcomes data — our experience shows

continuum of care — our many resources

customer-centered care — keeping the focus on the customer

healthcare system partnership — program

Avoid: gatekeeper, access, paradigm

Design your message around the needs and experiences of your audience. Do your research before you begin brainstorming about your materials
Use terminology that is familiar to your audience. Key considerations: Gender, age, education, emotional status, economic status, literacy
Write to inform rather than impress. Hyperfloridity is an egregious offender in the obfuscation of organizational communication. Right?
Use the active voice.

Avoid the passive voice.

Use active voice, so that the subject of the sentence acts:

Leigh opened the book.

FAS caused Tony’s learning disability. His parents contacted UHS to discuss assistive technology.

Avoid passive voice, with the subject of the sentence being acted upon:

The book was opened by Leigh.

Tony’s learning disability was caused by FAS. UHS was contacted by his parents; a discussion of assistive technology was desired.

Use 1st or 2nd person:

First person: I, we (speaker)

2nd person: you (spoken to)


3rd person: he, she, it , they (spoken of)


1st: At UHS, we know that staff members are caring as well as highly skilled.

2nd: At UHS, you know that staff members are caring as well as highly skilled.


3rd: At UHS, one knows that staff members are caring as well as highly skilled.

Use simple declarative sentences most frequently, while varying sentence structure as needed to maintain interest of reader. Simple declarative = subject verb object

/ / /

The team membersmet the parents.

Express statements in positive form. Yes: More than 50% of the patients reported a satisfactory outcome.

No: Less than 50% of the patients were not happy with the outcomes.

Use carefully chosen verbs; avoid overuse of modifiers. Yes: The communication device helped this child learn.

[F-K reading level: 6.7]

No: The utilization of a high-tech communication device was decidedly beneficial to the learning process for this child.

[F-K reading level: >12]

Read more >> The Informatics Review : Comprehension and reading level.


About KappaDiva
Learning Leader Tech Ed Advocate Empassioned Educator Perpetual Student Professional Learner Chief Learning Officer Tonya is a learning leader, instructional design, performance support and multimedia communications professional, with nearly 20 years of experience in healthcare, information systems, instructional design and training, web and creative design, internal and external marketing, PR and communications, social media, service excellence, leadership development and non-profit operations management. She is currently Director, Staff Learning & Development, Teach For America; President, A2ATD; principal and Chief Learning Officer of Kappa Beta Technology & Instruction; grad student at The University of Michigan; and author of the Learning Leader Blog (www.learningleader.org,) an emerging technologies resource for 21st century educators. She current is living in Macomb County, MI, with her cat and several Mac and iOS devices.

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