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

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"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:

  • At least 110 million adults in the US and Canada are strong readers who can read most things they run into. Most of you reading this article belong in this group.
  • At least 48 million in the US and Canada are essentially non-readers; they can't be reached with print materials in English (or French in Canada) no matter how easy-to-read they are.
  • The remaining 58 million are limited skilled readers. These people can read, but not well. They can read as long as the material uses familiar vocabulary, logical organization, and an uncluttered layout. These are the folks writers for the general public tend to overlook. Despite the Fat Man's sinister motives, his advice bears repeating: plain speaking and plain writing are in short supply.

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:

  • Purpose: State why your audience should know this information. Think in terms of need-to-know," asking yourself if your goal is, for example, to provide information, or to offer comfort, or to ask for support, or -- in terms of political campaign material -- all three. For example, if you are writing for people who have just discovered they are HIV positive, is their interest going to be how HIV is transmitted or how the virus replicates in the body, or is it going to be their fears about how long they are going to live? Or, another example: if people want information about how to test their drinking water, do they need to know the history of their local water company, or, as I saw in one such pamphlet, a history lesson about the aqueducts in ancient Rome? Keep yourself focussed by asking yourself what you want your readers to be able to do with the information you are giving them.

  • Context: Explain things in a familiar context, linking the information to familiar things in your audience's life. Being sensitive to cultural differences within your audience is hard, as you can't include references to every cultural group. However, you can refrain from making every family you depict the mommy-daddy-and-two-kids kind, or having everyone able to afford five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, or having everyone belong to a church, or portraying every woman as white, glamorous, and thin.

  • Logic: Choose a straightforward logical system. When in doubt, go chronological. In case your readers are not going to read the whole text, put the main ideas first.

  • Manageable Units: break the information into pieces, such as numbered steps or directions. Provide headers that capture the main point and make things easier to follow.

  • Summary: summarize the information, and repeat the most important points at the end.

  • Style: use a familiar, conversational style, sounding like one friend talking to another. Use the active voice as much as is possible and sensible. Use a friendly, not a bossy or paternalistic, tone, and make few of your sentences longer than two clauses. Aim to sound like normal speech, and check this by reading it aloud and listening to how it sounds.

  • Vocabulary: use familiar, everyday words that are sensitive and relevant to your audience's cultural, economic, and educational background. If you need to use new words (including jargon) or new concepts, explain them using familiar words.

  • Human interest: be sure to connect the information to your audience's daily life. Of course, this is hard when writing for a large audience, but writing in the second person, as in both examples "B" above, goes a long way towards making a text personal.

  • Design: layout and design can make or break the readability of a piece, so be sure yours is as uncluttered and easy to follow as possible. Type sizes and styles should be familiar and uncomplicated with no Old English or strange decorative fonts. Don't use a point size less than 12, especially for seniors, and use easy-on-the-eye paper and ink colours. Keep Italics and underlining to a minimum, and keep the text uncrowded with lots of white space.

  • Illustrations: choose clear, simple illustrations, and place them carefully in the text. Don't expect people to read text superimposed over an illustration. Choose illustrations that are sensitive and relevant to your audience's cultural, economic and educational backgrounds.

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.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
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