Two-minute tips

Communication and Health Literacy

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Main points

  1. Know the purpose of your document and use that to decide on the content.
  2. Use plain language, the language you would use in everyday speech.
  3. Make your message clear.
  4. Present your words well and use the appropriate style guide.
  5. Edit it, proofread it, assess it.

Know the purpose of your document

Identifying the purpose of the document will help you decide what to include.

To identify the purpose of your document, you need to know:

  • who you are writing it for and the typical characteristics of the people you are writing it for, including their literacy skills and existing health knowledge
  • what your audience needs and wants to know.

Limit your messages to the ones you need to provide to fulfill the document's purpose. There's no point providing lots of information if it means the main points get lost in the detail. Don't dilute your message.

Use plain language

Plain language is for everyone. Plain language is everyday language written clearly, concisely and with the reader in mind. It's different to Easy English, which is a way of writing for people who have difficulty reading.

To write in plain language, write in a similar way to how you speak, using words and grammar that your readers are familiar with. Explain terms that may be unfamiliar. Keep it short, simple and direct, and take out the padding. Words like 'very', 'really', 'currently', 'actually', 'just' and 'carefully' usually serve little purpose.

Make your message clear

Identify your main message (often the action your audience needs to take) AND make sure your document communicates that message. Put your main message at the beginning of your document and repeat it as appropriate.

Clearly state the action you want your audience to take and focus on the positive.

Write:     Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.

Not:       Being physically active is important.

Write:     Wash your hands before handling food.

Not:        Do not handle food without first washing your hands.

Present your words well

Most organisations have a style guide with the 'house rules' for writing and designing documents. Using a style guide will help you create a document that looks good, has a consistent style, and gives your readers confidence in the information you provide.

The Department of Health has a style guide for use alongside the Tasmanian Government Style Guide at www.communications.tas.gov.au

Edit it, proofread it, assess it

Edit it: Study the content and structure of your document. Most good writers make many changes to their documents in the first and subsequent edits. Be critical!

Have you provided the main information? Is the main information lost in unnecessary information? Does your document achieve its purpose? Have you made assumptions about your audience's prior knowledge? Are there any long paragraphs, sentences or words that could be simplified? Read it out loud to check the language and how well it flows.

Proof-read it: Do a final check for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.

Assess it: Use a readability tool, but don't get hung up on readability scores. For example, including a definition may raise the reading level according to many readability tools, while actually making your document more readable. This is because readability tools use a mathematical formula that counts the number of words with three or more syllables and the length of sentences and paragraphs to get the score. Get a colleague, a communications professional and someone from your target audience to read your document and provide feedback as well.

January 2019