Writing for a lay audience

Writing in plain English or ‘lay’ is important so you can communicate your work to all audiences. Plain English helps your audience understand your message exactly as you meant it. This is helpful not only when communicating to patients but also to other professionals.

Always consider who you are writing for and why. Sometimes we focus too much on what we want to talk about, when we should focus on what your audience wants to hear. Involving patients in writing your public facing content will help keep it focused on the audience.

When writing for a lay audience it is best to assume they have very little or no prior knowledge of the topic area. You need to provide context, background information and explain any technical terms.

Use these tips to get the most out of your communications. 

Keep it simple

Complicated words can be off putting. Provide context and explain any technical terms. If there is a simpler word that conveys the same meaning, use that.

It is also important not to use acronyms. If it is useful to the patient to learn the acronym, then make sure you explain it.

Keep it short

Aim for sentences to be 20 words or fewer but be sure to have some variety. A mix of long and short sentences will give your writing flow and make it much easier to read. Keep your paragraphs short, sticking to three sentences per paragraph if you can.

Make it inclusive

Use inclusive language that encourages patients to get involved.  Use personal pronouns (we, our, you, your) instead of words that distance the reader. For example, 'Cancer Research UK would like patients to have a say in...’ would change to ‘Have a say in…'

Back it up

Whenever you make a claim it is good practice to back this up with facts.

Separate your ideas

Try and stick to one idea per sentence – and one theme per paragraph.

Active voice

Keep sentences active rather than passive. So: 'A report was published by the Government today' would change to 'The Government published a report today'

Avoid turning verbs into nouns

So, use 'preventing cancer' (preventing = a verb) instead of 'cancer prevention' (prevention = noun).

Use lists where appropriate

A list of bullet points can help to give instructions or to spread out complex information.

Be economical

Cut out repetitions, long-winded expressions and meaningless words (‘basically’ is a repeat offender).

Use analogies and images

Use images, diagrams, quotes and examples to bring concepts to life. Choose wisely, use sparingly and avoid mixing them.

Use links

Link to further information to allow the reader to read more if they want.