Know Your Audience
The first step with anything you write is to figure out who your audience is. Ask yourself: Who are they? Why are they reading? What are their goals in reading this? What do they want to do with the information? How familiar might they already be with this topic? Do they need you to explain the basics, or can you start from a higher level of knowledge?
For example, if you’re writing a marketing brochure that anyone in the world might see, assume they know nothing about NAMI. If you’re writing a training manual for a program, you can assume your reader has basic familiarity with NAMI and with some mental health concepts because they’ve been involved long enough to become a trainer.
Even if someone's a trainer, long-time donor, or has lived experience, busy readers always prefer a clearly written document that uses plain language.
Keep the following in mind when developing content:
- 1 in 5 Americans speaks a language at home other than English.
- 36 million Americans have a third-grade or lower reading level.
- Adults read 5 grades lower than their last degree achieved.
- Unless you are targeting a specific population that you know more about, on average, for print, aim for 8th-grade reading level; for the Web, aim for a 6th-grade reading level.
- Stress can affect literacy.
- Common words are more effective than jargon.
- Numeracy is part of literacy and percentages are hard for people to understand. “1 in 3” is much easier to understand than “33.3%.”
Remember, anything you publish — print or Web — should follow NAMI’s Editorial Guide and Identity guidelines.
Be Casual but Smart
You aren't writing a term paper, so there’s no need to be stuffy. Present some knowledge but engage your readers in conversation.
Example: The first step in getting help is talking to medical professional who is familiar with mental health, ideally a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist will ask that person questions about their health, life history and any injurious behaviors in the past and present. This conversation, called a diagnostic interview, may last an hour or more. Allow yourself time in your schedule so that you aren’t in a hurry during this conversation.
Don’t make your busy reader work. Limit content to what readers need to know and anticipate their questions and concerns. Sentences should deliver essential information quickly. Use short sentences, paragraphs and sections and include "white space" to make the material easy on readers' eyes.
Watch for double writing. Eliminate words that simply say the same thing again. It cuts length and can make the writing clearer.
Example: You may have also experienced pressure to drink, use drugs or abuse medication to fit in
because it seems like everyone is doing it. The strike through part is not necessary. “Fit in” already implies that everyone is doing it.
Give pointed advice. Give readers something to act on. Saying “Be there for your loved one” may sound nice, but it’s not particularly helpful. Give them specific things to do — also known as calls to action.
As a reputable voice in the field, our stats, facts and figures need to add up. As a general rule, NAMI uses the same statistics as NIMH, and anything addressing statistics, medicines or health care in general is reviewed by our medical director, Dr. Ken Duckworth, before we publish. Double check your facts and figures and cite your sources when publishing statistics.
Make the Content Scannable
Use headings and subheadings. They can cut the length and take the place of transitional sentences. Most important, they help divide up your content so people can find what they need when scanning. In addition, use bulleted lists. They break up content so it's easier to follow.
Avoid Idioms, Cliches and Jargon
Idiomatic phrases are only understood by a certain region, or by native English speakers. The exception is for personal stories.
We wouldn’t say: “If you are feeling under the weather, consult your doctor.”
We would say: “If you are feeling sick, consult your doctor.”
Avoid Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs are not well understood by people who speak English as a second language. For example, replace “work out” with “exercise” and “figure out” with “understand.”
Avoid Complicated Contractions
“Don’t” and “can’t” are easy, so use them. Avoid “could’ve” “shouldn’t” “isn’t” and “aren’t.”