Overview

Consistency, accuracy, and proper use of language are the mark of professional writing. A professional style and tone convey our institution’s character and make it easier for readers to understand the material we provide to enhance University of Utah Health's reputation and standing.

Why Use a Style Guide?

This guide is meant to help writers and editors adhere to professional standards in grammar, syntax, and punctuation that are expected of a major academic health care institution and the state of Utah’s flagship university. It focuses on issues specific to U of U Health and our enterprises in health care, research, and teaching. This guide is based on the University of Utah writing style guide and the Chicago Manual of Style.

Application

The principles listed here apply to our content and annual and special reports—whether electronic or in print. These principles also apply to all entities under the University of Utah Health umbrella.

News releases issued to media and/or posted on the web or sent to Newswise, Eurekalert, or other distributors use the AP style guide in accordance with this communication channel. For general questions of grammar and usage please refer to the U of U style guide.

If grammar, usage, or spelling issues are not specifically addressed in this style guide, the University of Utah, or Chicago Manual of Style guides, consult Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition.

Writing For Our Audience

Our goal, in all cases, is to write in language easily understood by our patients, the media, and the public at-large. This means:

  • avoiding the use of jargon, whether it’s scientific or health-care related;
  • chunking important information into smaller bite-size pieces to make it easier to absorb, and;
  • making use of subtitles.

The better our patients and the public understand us, the easier it is to show the outstanding work that takes place every day at University of Utah Health.

Brand Guide

This writing style guide is part of our University of Utah Health brand, which addresses key messages, tone, voice, and other important topics. Please read the brand style guide to become familiar with it. Doing so will enhance our ability to communicate to all our audiences.

Questions?

Please call Marketing & Communications with any questions. The latest editions of the Associated Press Stylebook and Webster’s dictionary can be ordered through the University Bookstore or online.

  • Marketing & Communications (U of U Health)
  • 801-581-7387

For questions about the University of Utah style guide, contact the main campus office of marketing and communications.

Tone

Tone is the attitude a writer or brand takes toward her audience. We create and communicate our tone through word choice, sentence structure and length, and point of view. We also strategically use tone to develop an action-oriented, personal relationship with our audience.

We are a trusted, approachable provider of health care. We use tone to:

  • empower patients, donors, staff, and researchers to take action. Actions can include changing a health behavior, donating money, or supporting U of U Health.
  • educate patients, the public, and researchers about health care, treatments, and medical advances.
  • encourage and support patients who are seeking/receiving health care.

Tone Words

  • Future-focused (expert)
  • Caring (sympathetic, empathetic, & reassuring)
  • Unconventional
  • Established (trusted & credible)
  • Accessible (friendly, approachable, & conversational)
  • Leading edge (expert)
  • Collaborative

To use our tone correctly, it can also help to think about “this but not that” adjective lists. We are:

  • expert but not condescending (to achieve this tone, use active voice instead of passive voice);
  • established but not elite (to achieve this tone, use plain language) and;
  • approachable but not sloppy or silly (to achieve this tone, don’t use slang).

We also use first- and second-person voice to develop a relationship with our audience. Use the second-person voice when possible.

Example: Patients can access their health information by logging into MyChart.

Better: You can access your health information by logging into MyChart.

Adjectives

Even though we use adjectives to help us develop our branded tone and voice, we still encourage writers to use adjectives sparingly. Adjectives usually don’t provide enough additional value or meaning to sentences.

Voice

Our voice is similar to our tone. We use a confident, approachable, and reassuring voice to communicate news and key messages. Even though we're a world-class research institution, we still use a conversational and approachable voice that anyone can understand.

Who We Are

We are University of Utah Health. Use the full name on first reference and in all materials distributed outside of Utah. On second reference, use U of U Health.

Never use acronyms, such as UUH or UH.

On second reference, never combine U of U Health into one word (UofUHealth).

Never use U Health or UHealth.

The human resources website on Pulse adds the words Hospitals and Clinics and Academics to our branded name so employees can distinguish between these groups for administrative and payroll reasons.

Example: University of Utah Health Academics

Example: University of Utah Health Hospitals and Clinics

However, no group or office outside human resources should use these terms. In all other cases, use University of Utah Health to refer to our institution.

Health Sciences is still used when referring to Vivian Lee’s title.

Example:

Vivian S Lee, MD, PhD, MBA
A Lorris Betz Senior Vice President for Health Sciences

Also, never use University of Utah Medical Center or UUMC to refer to University of Utah Hospital, the School of Medicine, or University of Utah Health. We are University of Utah Health.

University of Utah Health comprises the following:

Four Hospitals:

  • University of Utah Hospital—University Hospital is acceptable on second reference
  • Huntsman Cancer Institute
  • University Neuropsychiatric Institute—UNI is acceptable on second reference
  • University Orthopaedic Center—orthopaedic center on second reference

Note: We spell orthopedics with an “a” only when referring to the University Orthopaedic Center, the Department of Orthopaedics in the School of Medicine, or the Mountain View Orthopaedics or Orthopaedic Injury Clinic community clinics. All other uses, such as calling someone a professor of orthopedics or an orthopedic surgeon, or when referring to the practice of orthopedics, are spelled without the “a.”

Two Institutes/Centers:

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah (HCI) on first reference; HCI on second reference.

Do not use the term Huntsman Cancer Hospital. The formal name is Huntsman Cancer Institute. If you need to distinguish between the clinical operations, use "Huntsman Cancer Institute" on first reference, and "cancer hospital" on second. Never use The Huntsman.

Example: Patients at Huntsman Cancer Institute are treated in a leading-edge cancer hospital.

John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah on first reference; the Moran Eye Center or Moran on second reference. Never use “The Moran.”

12 Community Health Centers:

  • Centerville Health Center, Centerville
  • Farmington Health Center, Farmington
  • Greenwood Health Center, Midvale
  • Madsen Family Health Center, Salt Lake City
  • Mountain View Orthopaedics, South Ogden
  • Parkway Health Center, Orem
  • Redstone Health Center, Park City
  • Redwood Health Center, Salt Lake City
  • South Jordan Health Center, South Jordan
  • Stansbury Health Center, Stansbury Park
  • Sugar House Family Health Center, Salt Lake City
  • Westridge Health Center, West Valley City

Always use formal names on first reference: The Madsen Family Health Center. On second reference, use “the health center.”

18 Regional Partners

Schools, Colleges, & Library

University of Utah School of Medicine on first reference and in formal titles; U School of Medicine, School of Medicine, or medical school (not capitalized) or SOM on second reference.

Go to the School of Medicine website for information on the school and its departments.

Dean: Vivian S. Lee, MD, PhD, MBA

University of Utah College of Pharmacy on first reference and in formal titles; U College of Pharmacy, College of Pharmacy, or pharmacy college on second reference.

Go to the College of Pharmacy website for information on the college and its departments.

The official name of the building is the L. S. Skaggs Pharmacy Institute. (Note: there is a space between L. S.)

Dean: Randall T. Peterson, PhD

University of Utah College of Nursing on first reference; U College of Nursing, College of Nursing, nursing college, or CON on second reference.

Go to the College of Nursing website for information on the college and its departments.

The building is formally called the Annette Poulson Cumming Building.

Dean: Patricia Gonce Morton, PhD, RN

University of Utah College of Health on first reference; U College of Health; College of Health, or health college on second reference.

Go to the College of Health website for information on the college and its departments.

Dean: David H. Perrin, PhD

University of Utah School of Dentistry on first reference and in formal titles; School of Dentistry or dental school on second reference.

Go to the School of Dentistry website for information on the college and its departments.

The building is formally called the Ray and Tye Noorda Oral Health Sciences Building.

Dean: Wyatt R. Hume, DDS, PhD

Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library

Executive Director: Jean P. Shipman, BA, MSLS

Find more information on our research centers, programs, and institutes at the U of U Health Sciences website.

Know Your Audience

In all forms of writing, you need to know your audience: If content on a page isn’t relevant to your readers, they can stop reading the section or leave the page.

But even if you’re writing for doctors, researchers, or graduate students, readers still overwhelmingly prefer and expect to read easy-to-digest content in a variety of contexts and formats.

The guidelines below are writing best practices that many audiences appreciate, regardless of literacy level.

Chunking

Readers expect to find content they can easily scan. Readers search for this content and gloss over or ignore content that looks difficult to read. One of the easiest ways to format content so it can be scanned is to use a technique called chunking.

Chunking breaks content up into small sections that readers can scan quickly and easily. Many readers are intimated by long, dense “walls” of text and skip to sections that look easier to read. This is especially true for readers who have low health literacy levels.

Just as important, chunking lets readers find the sections that are most relevant to them and skip the sections they don’t want to read.

To chunk content, follow these guidelines:

  • Keep paragraphs three to five lines in length
  • Use bullet point or numbered lists when possible:
    • Use bullet points when order doesn’t matter.
    • Use numbered lists when order does matter.
    • Include a maximum of seven to nine items in a list. If you have more than nine items, make multiple lists.
  • As a general rule, use short sentences. Good writers vary sentence length, but you should aim to use shorter sentences as much as possible while keeping a paragraph’s flow.

Headings & Subheadings

Headings and subheadings give readers a quick description of the content on a page and within a section. They act as “sign posts” by telling readers what information they will find. They also allow readers to skip sections of content that aren’t relevant to them.

To use headings and subheadings effectively, make sure they sum up the most important information in the section.

  • Use short headings about three to 10 words in length.
  • Make sure headings are descriptive.

Departments

Formal names, like the Department of Dermatology or Department of Medicinal Chemistry, are capitalized on first reference and in titles but are lowercased on second reference and when used informally.

She is a physician in the Department of Dermatology. He practices in the dermatology department. He teaches in medicinal chemistry.

We do not abbreviate department names, with the exception of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology – OB/GYN is acceptable on second reference.

Use OB/GYN on second reference to refer to the discipline of obstetrics and gynecology.

Please note the spelling of the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine. In all cases, preventive is used rather than preventative.

Divisions

Division of Nephrology, Division of Adult Psychiatry on first reference; nephrology division, adult psychiatry division on second reference.

We use ampersands in subtitles, department and division titles, and office titles to reduce the number of characters in both web and print copy. Do not use ampersands in a sentence in place of the word and.

Academic degrees are set off by commas following a name.

In news releases put periods between the letters (B.A., M.S., M.D., Ph.D., for example). In all other communication channels, do not use periods between the letters:

Susan L. Smith, MD
Susan L. Smith, PhD
Susan L. Smith, DDS
Susan L. Smith, JD
Susan L. Smith, BS, BA, MA, MS, PhD, MBA, JD, PharmD, DO (doctor of osteopathy), OD, (doctor of optometry), MPH (master of public health), MPA (master of public administration)

Bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, or bachelor’s degree; master of arts, master of science, or master’s degree; doctorate in biochemistry, doctoral degree, or doctorate; bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s; master’s degree, master’s; and doctoral degree or doctorate are acceptable in all references.

She has a master’s degree in physiology and a doctorate in genetics.

Academic titles are not capitalized but are set off by commas following a name:

Susan L. Smith, MD, associate professor of surgery, presented the grand rounds.

In news releases always use the full name followed by degree(s) and academic rank on first reference; on second reference, use the last name.

Susan L. Smith, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery, presented her paper at the conference. Smith is widely acclaimed for her research.

Avoid using an academic rank before a person’s name. Chicago style is to always lowercase academic ranks: professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and the like.

Chair is the preferred term for those who lead departments. Chief is the term for division heads.

Lynn Jorde, PhD, professor and chair of human genetics.

Richard Kendall, DO, associate professor and chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Do not use Dr. before names in news releases and other health sciences publications.

RN (no periods) is the accepted abbreviation for registered nurse; LPN for licensed practical nurse.

Do not list designations such as FAAN (Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing) or FACS (Fellow of the American College of Surgeons). The media, patients, and public generally don’t have any idea what these capitalized letters mean.

Specialties and subspecialties, such as neurology and interventional cardiology, are not formal names and should not be capitalized.

She is a pediatrician. She is on the pediatrics faculty. He is the new interventional cardiologist.

Health care is always two words. Do not hyphenate as an adjective.

The US health care system needs transformation. Health care professionals are in high demand.

Medical/Latin terms should be used without italics: ex vivo, in utero, and the like.

Inpatient and outpatient are one word. Please see how to define and describe these terms so patients can understand what they mean in the health literacy section of this guide.

Quick Reference

The information below is covered by both the University and Chicago style guides. For quick reference, we are including it here, too.

Numbers

Figures or Words?

Spell out whole numbers below 10.
The emergency room treated three patients for flu-like symptoms in December.

Use figures for 10 and above.
University of Utah Health has 12 community health centers. An estimated 999,000 people have been tested for the infection.

Percentages: always use figures.
The budget was cut by 3 percent (or 3.2 or 5.7 percent, etc.)
Always spell out percent in copy.

In numbers of 1 million or more use numerals followed by denomination.
More than 1 million people are at risk for the disease. An estimated 2 billion to 4 billion people may be at risk.

Use figures for precise amounts greater than one.
Her textbook sold more than 1.3 million copies.

Spell out first through ninth when they indicate sequence in time or location.
First floor, second in line. Starting with 10th use figures.
10th place.

Fractions:

Spell out amounts less than one.
The data showed two-thirds of the study participants were affected.

For fractions greater than one: 1 ½, 2 ⅝.

For precise amounts greater than one, use figures up to two decimal places.
She had a temperature of 102.6 degrees.

Ratios.
A ratio of 2-to-1; a 2-1 ratio.

Dimensions/Measurements:

Use figures and always spell out inches, feet, yards, etc. to indicate depth, length, height, and width.
The room is 20 feet long by 12 feet wide; the 20-by-12 room.
The nurse is 5 feet 9 inches tall; the 5-foot-9-inch nurse.

The storm left 7 inches of snow.

Spell out numbers at the beginning of a sentence. If necessary, reword the sentence.
Incorrect: 120 students were admitted to the School of Medicine.
Correct: Last year, the School of Medicine admitted 120 students.

Exception: Years may be used to start a sentence.
2005 was a good year.

Monetary units

Use figures in all instances.
5 cents; $3.04; $333,333.

For dollar amounts of $1 million or more, give the figure and amount.
He received a $3.5 million grant.

Include the full number when giving a range.
The grant will total from $1 million to $12 million.

Ages

Use figures in all instances.
A 34-year-old man, but the man is 34 years old.
The woman, 20, has a daughter 2 months old.
The health screening is for 3-year-olds.
The man is in his 50s (no apostrophe).

Dates

Use figures always set off with commas.
On May 23, 2006, she performed the surgery.

When a month is used with a specific date – month/day/year: abbreviate. Do not use periods in the abbreviations.
January (Jan); February (Feb); August (Aug); September (Sept); October (Oct); November (Nov); December (Dec).

Always spell out March, April, May, June, and July.
He will give the lecture on Feb 14.
He performed the operation on June 24, 2016.

Spell out months used without a specific date.
January was a very cold month.

Do not use a comma when just stating month and year
He came to the University in June 2006.

Days of the Week

Do not use periods to abbreviate days of the week. Use Wed instead of Wed.; use Fri instead of Fri.; etc.

Times

Use figures with lowercase am and pm when referring to a specific time.
The ceremony took place at 11am.
She arrived at 9pm.

In news releases put periods in a.m. and p.m. in accordance with AP style.

Use noon and midnight instead of 12 pm and 12 am. Never use 12 midnight or 12 noon. It is redundant.
The program started at noon.
They finished the surgery at midnight.

Do not use zeroes or colons to indicate time. 8am instead of 8:00am.

Phone Numbers

Do not use parentheses around area codes; use hyphens. See main campus style guide.

When in doubt, consult the U of U and/or the Chicago Manual of style guides.

Commonly misused words, words to avoid

That/Which

That is used in essential clauses—those that are integral to the meaning of a sentence.

Which is used in nonessential clauses—those that are not integral to the meaning of a sentence. Which is often incorrectly used in essential clauses.

Correct: The doctor went over the parts of the treatment that were essential for the patient to learn about first.
Incorrect: The doctor went over the parts of the treatment which were essential for the patient to learn about first.

Correct: U of U Health, which serves the entire Mountain West region, is a leader in health care transformation.
Incorrect: The Mountain West is the geographical region, which University of Utah Health serves.

Because the word which indicates a non-essential or adjectival clause, it is usually preceded by a comma.

Very is very, very, very much overused. Avoid in most cases.

Past and last

Use past when speaking about a recent period of time.
The past year has gone by quickly.

Last generally refers to something final.
This is the last time she will give the lecture.

Compare to; compare with

When comparing one thing to another, it means to regard them as similar.
The boy compared his father’s bald head to an egg.

To compare something with another item, you are examining it for similarities or differences.
The investigator compared the facts of the case with those of the Billings incident.

Defining Commonly Misunderstood Medical Terms

As medical professionals, we use medical terms that have specific meanings every day. Even though our fellow doctors, researchers, and medical staff understand what these words mean, we need to remember that many of our patients don’t.

Words like “inpatient” or “ambulatory” may seem commonsense to us, but most patients don’t understand the specific context or meaning behind these terms.

Because of these reasons, use medical terms for internal audiences only. For external patient-facing or consumer-facing audiences, be sure to define medical terms in plain language.

Below, we list some common medical terms. To the right of the word, we give examples of how you can define the term in plain language for patient and consumer audiences.

Ambulatory care:
use “same-day care” or explain that an ambulatory clinic is a clinic outside the hospital that provides all the treatment you need.
Inpatient:
a patient who stays in the hospital (usually overnight) to receive care.
Outpatient:
a patient who doesn’t need to stay in the hospital overnight to receive care. Outpatient care is usually provided in community health centers. A patient can go home after their clinic appointment is over.

Other Words of Note & Punctuation

HIV and AIDS are acceptable in all references.
HIV-positive; HIV-negative.

Note: HIV is the virus that causes HIV infection. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

AirMed
is one word with the M capitalized.
atrial fibrillation
On second reference, abbreviate like this: a-fib.
board-certified
Always hyphenated, because it is either a compound modifier or it follows a form of the verb to be: He is board-certified in pediatrics.
caregiver
Not capitalized other than at the start of a sentence.
deceased donor
Use deceased donor when talking about a donor involved in a transplant surgery.
follow-up
Use a hyphen when you are using follow-up as a noun or adjective. Do not use a hyphen when using follow up as a verb.
  • Be sure to arrive early for your follow-up appointment.
  • Talk directly to the nurse to follow up with her about your tests results.
Health Sciences
is two words (not one).
MyChart
is one word with a capital M.
newsroom
is one word (not two).
Pap smear or Pap test
both use a capital P on Pap.
X-ray
always include the capital X even if X-ray is not the first word in the sentence.

In all cases referring to the geographical region that U of U Health serves, use the term Mountain West. Never use Intermountain West or Mountain States.

colons and capitalization
When a complete sentence follows a colon, capitalize the first word. When a phrase or series follows the colon, lowercase the first word.
  • He promised this: Patients would come first.
  • There were three considerations: expense, time, and feasibility.
space after periods
Use one space (not two) between a period and the start of a new sentence.
commas
Use commas to separate elements in a series. We use the oxford comma.
  • Correct: The flag is red, white, and blue.
  • Incorrect: The flag is red, white and blue.
extraneous punctuation
Do not use extraneous (or extra) punctuation like periods in abbreviations.
  • Correct: am or pm; US (as an abbreviation for United States); ie
  • Incorrect: a.m., p.m.; U.S.; i.e.
dashes
Do not put spaces between dashes and words. Please see the Chicago Manual of Style as to when the en dash, em dash, or a hyphen should be used.
  • There are three treatment options—medication, surgery, or therapy.
disc, disk
Use disk for all medical references such as a pinched disk. Also for computer-related references (diskette); disc is for laser-devices and phonograph records.
disease names
For both consumer and professional audiences, use the name and include the apostrophe plus s. Note that disease is lowercase.
  • Correct: parkinson’s disease and alzheimer's disease
  • Incorrect: Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease

Disease names shouldn’t be capitalized unless a disease is named after someone. If a disease is named after someone, only capitalize the person’s last name. Do not capitalize any other words in the phrase.

Correct: autism; autism spectrum disorder
Incorrect: Autism; Autism Spectrum Disorder

Correct: long qt syndrome
Incorrect: Long QT Syndrome

Correct: Brugada syndrome
Incorrect: Brugada Syndrome

Apostrophes
Use apostrophes to indicate possession or a contraction. Do not use apostrophes to indicate periods of time or the plural form of ages.
  • Sheila’s children visited the health center.
  • It’s too early to predict her test results.
  • She received her degree in the 70s.
  • Most of the doctor’s clients are in their 80s.
drug names
We prefer using the generic terms for drugs and lowercase. If you must use a drug's brand name, include the registration mark. Use Google to search if you don't know whether a drug is generic or branded.
  • Coumadin® and warfarin
hyphens
A hyphen is not a dash. Please see entry regarding dashes.

Health Literacy

Just 12 percent of adults in the US have proficient—or basic—health literacy skills. That means 77 million adults have limited health literacy skills. Most Americans can’t understand health content that’s written above a seventh to ninth grade reading level.

Angela Fagerlin, PhD, chair of the department of population health sciences, has found that most Americans’ ability to understand health-related content is about two grade reading levels lower than their overall literacy level.

We follow recommendations from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Health & Human Services, the Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion, and health literacy researchers to make sure our readers and patients can understand what we write.

It’s important to think about the impact of health literacy on all patient-facing materials we produce. These guidelines especially apply to marketing collateral, patient communications material, HealthFeed blog posts, and clinical web content.

Write in Plain Language

Plain language is a set of guidelines that helps readers easily understand the information we’re trying to communicate.

To write in plain language, you should:

  • Use active voice.
  • Use short sentences that have a simple sentence structure.
  • Use words and language that’s familiar to your audience.
  • Use simple vocabulary and define complex terms.

Be sure to define medical or complex terms or jargon the first time you introduce them on a page. Put the definition between em dashes or make the definition part of the sentence. You can also define the term in the next sentence.

Example: Doctors will perform tests to see if you have hypertension—or high blood pressure—before you have surgery.

Use Active Voice

It’s easier for readers to understand sentences that use active voice. Sentences that use an active voice assign a subject who performs the main action of the sentence.

Active sentences:

  • are easier to read;
  • suggest responsibility, accountability, and transparency;
  • generally need fewer words;
  • and are more direct. They also easily communicate any action steps readers should take (especially in health content).

Example—Passive Voice: Evaluations will be performed to determine the best treatment.

Examples—Active Voice: Your doctor will perform evaluations to determine the best treatment.
Your doctor will evaluate you to determine the best treatment.

Use Simple Sentence Structure

Shorter sentences that use a simple sentence structure are:

  • easier to read,
  • faster to read, and
  • easier to remember and understand.

We use shorter, simpler sentences so our patients, donors, and staff can easily process and retain key messages.

Writing Sentences With a Simple Structure

Sentences with simple structures usually have a clear character/subject and action/verb.

Example: Evaluations are given to patients before surgery. (This sentence doesn’t have a clear character who is performing an action).
Better: Doctors will evaluate you before surgery. (This sentence has a clear character that performs an action expressed as a verb).

Sentences that don’t have subordinate clauses are also usually easier to read. This is because subordinate clauses don’t express a complete thought and therefore can’t stand on their own as a complete sentence.

It’s better to place subordinate clauses at the end of a sentence instead of the beginning if you must use them.

Example: In order to make sure patients have access to information they need to recover, our hospital staff will distribute patient education materials.
Better: Our hospital staff will distribute patient education materials to make sure patients have access to information they need to recover.

Also, avoid nominalizations. Nominalizations hide the subject (or doer of the action) in a sentence.

Writers use nominalizations when they make a verb like “analyze” into a noun by adding a –sis, –ment, or –tion ending.

Examples: analyze/analysis, indicate/indication, treat/treatment, evaluate/evaluation.

Tone

Our goal is to create an approachable, friendly, and trusted tone. We also want to convince readers, patients, and users to take action—and that’s easier to do if we use a style and tone that sounds like we’re having a conversation with them.

On the web, readers expect a less formal tone, but this is increasingly true for print writing as well. In many types of writing, readers can also understand content that has a less formal tone more easily than content that uses a formal tone.

How Do We Create an Approachable Tone?

  • Use first-person (we) and second-person voice (you) to create a direct conversation with your reader.
  • Use contractions. Contractions create an approachable tone and also help readers understand and remember content better. (See the health.gov Health Literacy Online entry on writing actionable content.)
  • Define terms and complex words (especially medical jargon).

Speak directly to the reader/patient by using the second person voice (you).

Example: Patients may have anxiety before their surgery.
Better: We understand you have may have anxiety before your surgery.

Limit Overt Marketing Language

Research shows that readers are deterred by voice and tone that sounds like a sales pitch. When this happens, readers judge this type of content as less credible, and conversion rates actually go down.

We are careful to treat our readers and users with respect by presenting facts and relevant information and then letting them make their own decisions.

Example: Call today before it’s too late!
Better: Call to make an appointment.

Overall Recommendations

  • Write in plain language.
  • Use active voice.
  • Define jargon and complex terms.
  • Use a friendly, approachable tone.

More Resources

For more information, sources, and links to hundreds of studies about health literacy and web user behavior, please read the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s toolkit: Health Literacy Online: A Guide for Simplifying the User Experience.

Several tools assign a grade reading level to your content:

Writing for the Web

People read differently on the web than they do in print. On the web, readers search for answers, information, or to finish a task. Most readers don’t read all the text on a page. Instead, they scan and skim.

A web writer needs to make it as easy as possible for the user/reader to find what they're seeking. Writers must do this quickly—or readers will go on to another page. This is true for many forms of writing, but especially on the web.

Because readers scan, we as writers also need to format our content so it reflects our readers’ behavior preferences. This is especially important for web content and HealthFeed blog posts. But more and more, readers expect that print content should be easy to scan too.

Our guidelines below reflect standards and best practices from web usability and accessibility experts.

Grade Reading Level: Use Simple Vocabulary & Sentence Structure

Most readers prefer and expect to read content on the web that’s written at about an eighth grade reading level. It’s important to use plain language and short sentences that have a simple sentence structure.

You can read more about plain language in the health literacy section above.

Put the Most Important Information on the Page First

Eye tracking and heat map studies show that on the web, users tend to read more of the content that’s located toward the top of a page. Organize your content so the most important information appears on a page first.

Putting the most important information first also helps users quickly decide whether the content on a page is relevant to them.

  • Include the most important information toward the top of the page.
  • Put supporting details further down on the page.

Meta Tags

Meta tags help search engines recognize content on a webpage. We use meta tags so search engines can better understand the content on a page and determine what pages are relevant to a user's search query. We also wrap headings and subheadings in meta tag code.

Follow these guidelines for meta tags:

  • Use h2 tags to emphasize the main subheadings and note the most important content on the page.
  • Use h3 tags for subsections within an h2 block.
  • Use h4 tags for subsections in an h3 block.
  • Don't use bold, italicized, or all upper case characters to denote headings and subheadings. Instead, use their appropriate meta tags.

Links

Place text links on the most descriptive part of the sentence to let readers know what information they will find. Don't use generic, empty language like “click here.”

Overall Recommendations

  • Chunk content.
  • Use headings and subheadings to give readers a quick description of content on a page.
  • Aim for a seventh to ninth grade reading level for all content.
  • Use active voice.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use simple sentence structure as much as possible.