Assessing Suitability of Written Materials

(Adapted from Clear and to the Point: Guidelines for using plain language at NIH & Clear & Simple: Developing effective print materials for low-literate reade rs at National Cancer Institute)

Guidelines for Clear Writing

Word Choices

  • Use common, everyday words whenever possible

so accordingly
allow afford an opportunity
later at a later date
near close proximity
if in the event that
must incumbent upon
use utilize

  • Use "you" and other personal pronouns to engage the audience
  • Avoid using undefined technical terms (jargon and acronyms).

We owe you additional money... An underpayment exists...

  • Use positive rather than negative words

Please send the completed form to us right away so your monthly payments can continue. If your cooperation is not forthcoming, the contract will end and related payments will be terminated.

  • Avoid using gender-specific terminology

Personnel, workforce Manpower
Chair Chairman

  • Avoid long strings of nouns

Development of procedures to protect human research subjects... Human research subjects safety protection procedures development...

Verb Forms

  • Use active voice

Development of procedures to protect human research subjects... Human research subjects safety protection procedures development...

  • Use action verbs


give consideration to
applies to is applicable to
pay make payment
concerns is concerned with

  • Use the present tense

Guidelines for Knowledge Organization and Presentation

  • Partitioning (chunking) the information into easy-to-understand parts
  • Use headings to inform the following text: the question-and-answer format is especially helpful.

What is cancer? Cancer
Can I get breast cancer? Breast Cancer
What causes cancer? Known Causative Agents

  • Use of illustrations and charts
  • Use of table, parallel construction, comparison and contrast

Example of parallel construction

The duties of the Chair are:
  • to approve the minutes
  • to write the monthly reports
  • to answer all correspondence
The duties of the Chair are:
  • to take minutes
  • writing of monthly reports
  • the Chair answers letters

  • Limit the number of key topics
  • Emphasize and summarize main points
  • Keeping pages short/concise
  • Include interaction and review

Guidelines for Typography and Layout

  1. Type style and size: use serif type and lowercase lettering (avoid all cap text), use 12-point type or larger, in general. Do not use reverse print, that is white on black

  2. Use appropriate space between lines (generally 1.2 to 1.5 spacing)

  3. Line length: use appropriate length lines (maximum of five inches); leave right margin jagged; do not split words across two lines

  4. Use of ordered format, steps, list (bullets): generally, don't use more than two types of bullets in a document; use numbers only if there is a sequence to identify or to help guide the reader in a long list of items.

  5. For emphasis use italics or bold (not underlining)

  6. Clearly label all illustrations and charts:
  • Offer explanations
  • Make legends clear
  • Place charts as close as possible to explanatory text
  • Avoid wrapping text around illustrations

Word Suggestions

Here is a list of words that are commonly found in health literature. Using the substitute word instead of the technical word will help lower the readability level of the material.

  1. Substitute Word List (University of Utah Health Sciences Center

  2. Simple Words and Phrases (

  3. Words to Watch (Principles for Clear Health Communication Handbook at Pfizer)
The list includes examples of prefix words (for example, preop, postop, prenatal, premature, unsweetened, decontaminate, antibacterial, etc.) and the difficult words found in a sample of Pfizer educational materials, followed by suggested substitutes.

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