Writing for the General Public: Not as Easy as it Sounds
by Mary J. Breen

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"Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding." - The Fat Man, The Maltese Falcon.

Lots of freelance writers pay their bills by writing documents for the general public: brochures about health problems, consumer surveys, instructions for assembling machines and appliances, and voting information, to name just a few. To those who haven't tried it, these jobs may sound easy, but this is not the case. In order to write for the general public, the writer has to master both the subject matter and the art of producing easy-to-read text.

Text for the general public has to be easy-to-read because it is a very diverse group; think of how many different races, classes, religions, languages, cultures, lifestyles, and educational levels we have in Canada and the US. One of the most important differences writers must consider is reading ability.

These stats about the range of reading skills among adults may surprise you:

Making a good match

The goal for any writer is to make a good match with the needs, interests, and reading abilities of the audience. To illustrate what I mean, think about any computer manual or tax guide you've tried to read. You probably found them hard going, and the reason was not your reading skills. You had a hard time because you do not have the same specialized knowledge, vocabulary, logic, and life and work experiences as the authors of these documents. In other words, you and your background did not make a good match with the text.

People writing for the general public often make the same mistake that writers of computer manuals and tax guides do. They forget that their background knowledge, experience, education, and cultural background are not universal. They assume -- incorrectly -- that we are all just "ordinary" folk who know the same things and speak in the same way, and live our lives in similar ways. Of course, they are very wrong.

Plain speaking

Here are two pieces of nutritional advice. The first one is taken from a published brochure for the general public. Read them both, and think about what kind of audience each one would be most appropriate for.

A. Populations like ours with diets high in total calories, saturated fats and cholesterol have a greater risk of developing coronary heart disease and increased blood cholesterol levels. It is sensible and prudent to reduce your daily consumption of fat from all sources. This suggestion is especially appropriate for individuals who have other cardiovascular risk factors such as family history of premature heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

B. People who eat a lot of fat are more likely to have heart disease and high cholesterol. If you want to prevent these problems, cut down on the amount of fat you eat. This is very important if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes in your family.

Which one would you rather read?

Which one would health professionals rather read?

Which one would be more readable and accessible?

Which one makes a better match with the general public?

Here are two more examples:

A. Strict and vigilant compliance with the safety regulations will ensure the continued health and safety of all concerned.

B. Obey the safety regulations, and keep everyone safe.

Which one would work better in the employee newsletter?

Which one would you prefer to read?

What to do?

If I'm convincing you that there is a gap between lots of text written for the general public and the reading abilities of the general public, then we have two ways to address the problem: teach people to read, or write more readable text.

Solution One: Teach everyone to read.

One obvious answer to the literacy problem in North America is to teach people to read well. Although everyone deserves this opportunity, and literacy programs deserve secure funding and community support, adults do not learn to read well overnight. Literacy classes are long-term solutions, and they are not the answer to the gap in accessible information for the general public.

Solution Two: Produce easy-to-read text.

Instead of waiting for those who are not strong readers to "catch up", it makes much more sense to start right now to produce more readable information. This information would reach more people, including seniors and immigrants, and it would give a great many disadvantaged people greater access to the information they deserve.

How to produce easy-to-read text

The key to writing readable text is to focus on your audience. The more you know about them -- their interests, their needs and their abilities -- the more you will be able to select and organize your ideas in a clear and logical way.

Here are some simple guidelines for producing easy-to-read text:

One last thought: many people think easy-to-read text should test out at Grade 6 or Grade 8 or even Grade 10, and they depend on their word processing programs for "proof" that they've achieved their goal. Even if experts could agree on which grade level to aim for, grade levels are of little value because the current tools used to measure grade levels do not adequately measure readability. Word processing programs only measure two of the many factors involved in readability -- word length and sentence length -- and omit vital factors such as context, style, human interest, organization, and layout.

For example, word familiarity is very important to comprehension. A sentence that uses longer but familiar words such as "The family was watching television when their grandfather arrived." tests out much higher than "The Sherpa had an eerie sense of déjà vu." even though common sense tells us the second would be harder for limited skilled readers. Word processing programs also can't assess meaning so that a nonsense sentence such as "The apple the ate girl." tests out the same as "The girl ate the apple." As a result, a text with a low grade level score is not necessarily easy to read, and one with a higher level score is not necessarily hard. Your goal in producing clear and simple materials should not be to achieve a certain grade level, but to produce text that your audience can and will read.

And to find out if you've done this, don't depend on your computer. Go find your audience and ask them.

Find Out More...

Writing for (Not by) the Ear - Donnell King

Copyright © 2002 Mary J. Breen
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Mary J. Breen is a freelance writer who has been working on health and literacy issues for twenty years. She has written two easy-to-read books about women's health: Taking Care (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1991) and So Many Changes (with Lindsay Hall, Lawrence Heights Community Health Centre Press, 1999). She has also written numerous easy-to-read brochures, booklets, and manuals, as well as articles for both professional and popular publications. She has delivered Clear Writing Workshops in Canada and overseas. Mary lives in Ontario, Canada.


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