Writing for the Public: My Key Rules for Success

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Did you know only half of adults in the United States can read a book written at an eighth-grade level?

It’s true! That stat is from the Literacy Project. The same project also reveals that 45 million American adults are “functionally illiterate” and cannot read above a fifth-grade level.

If you’re writing for the public–whether as a journalist, consultant, expert, business owner, or communications professional–you cannot be successful if you refuse to acknowledge these facts.

So how can you ensure your writing is effective? As a former journalist myself, who’s now been a writer, editor, and communications consultant for more than 15 years, I’ve spent nearly half my life writing for the public.

Here are my key rules for success.

Stay Consistent in Your Writing and Messaging

People cannot handle too much information.

In fact, Bertram Gross, a Professor of Political Science at Hunter College, first coined the phrase “information overload” in his 1964 work, The Managing of Organizations. I don’t have access to the original peer-reviewed article, but the Interaction Design Foundation quoted him as defining information overload as the following:

“Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”

In other words, if you provide too much information at once (especially conflicting information), people will make poor decisions.

Therefore, decide what you want your content’s main point to be, and stay consistent with the angle. Don’t provide conflicting messages or information.

Write Content at an Eighth-Grade Level or Below

How do you know whether your content is at an eighth-grade reading level?

Check your readability stats!

If you use Microsoft Word, like me, you can check your content’s reading level under the Home tab. Here are more specific instructions from Microsoft on accessing your reading level information.

Keep Your Sentences and Syllables Short

Words with shorter syllables lower reading levels. Therefore, rather than using words like “gregarious,” use words like “social.” On a similar note, average comprehension begins to diminish after 14 words in a sentence. This means the shorter your sentences AND words, the more the public will absorb and understand your content.

Cut Out the Jargon

As a communications professional, I’ve primarily written for healthcare companies. This means I’ve also interviewed and written articles for doctors, chief medical officers, and medical directors. One of the most common problems I’ve run into is jargon.

The average person does not understand an industry’s jargon. While a well-written article can explain some terms, using too many will still confuse people. You’re better off simplifying the language into more common terminology.

Less is More

At the end of the day, people will understand more of your message if you provide less information. Write shorter blog posts (400 words or less) and keep your topics narrow. If you have several angles you want to cover, break them up into a series of posts.

And here’s the big one: ask readers to take only ONE action.

  • Buy my product
  • Sign up for my newsletter
  • Make a donation
  • Share this post

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