Content writing principles for effective digital communication
Do you need to write or edit digital content for healthcare? We’ve got you covered with writing principles and advice that you can use to improve your written digital communication.
The guidance below will show you ‘how’ we write (and how you can too) and expands on our previous blog post regarding how to write blog posts.
Fundamental content writing principles
Josh Bernoff’s digital content writing principles apply to every piece of written digital content we write. We recommend his book, “Writing without bullshit” to anyone who wants to write clearly in business and their personal life.
- Write short. Readers are impatient. Edit out extraneous text.
- Write short sentences. Long sentences puzzle readers. Break long sentences into shorter sentences (that is, 20 words maximum).
- Write using an active voice 90% of the time. A passive voice hides the true meaning. Make the actor the sentence’s subject.
- Eliminate weasel words. Weasel words make statements wimpy. Cut weasel words; if you can’t, cut the sentence.
- Replace jargon with clarity. Jargon makes readers feel stupid. Replace with plain English.
- Cite numbers effectively. Statistics support your point. Include both context and source of statistics.
- Use “I”, “we”, and “you”. Pronouns invite the reader to relate. Imagine the reader; write directly to them.
- Move key insights up. Bold statements retain attention.
- Write bold openers; rewrite with each draft. See below under format.
- Cite examples. Text without examples is boring. Plan to spend half your time on research – you should know the customer avatars you’re targeting.
- Give signposts. Readers want to know what’s coming. After stating your argument, explain what’s coming next.
Next, we’ll share some supplementary copywriting principles relating to target customer segments. If you’re writing a page about LASIK, it follows that you will want to write that page with millennials in mind. When writing a page about cataract surgery, you’ll want to write with traditionalists in mind.
Supplementary content writing principles particular to content targeted at readers over 40
Traditionalists (born before 1945, the target market for cataract surgery and treatments of other age-related ophthalmic conditions – for example, glaucoma, AMD, and dry eye) respond to:
- formally written information (correct language and proper grammar)
competent and confident writing
- seeing your dedication, attention to detail and discipline
- ethics and experience
- appeals to be family-minded and frugal
- patience and past-focus
- tactful and task-focused, logical arguments
- appeals to authority
Baby Boomers (born between 1945 to 1965, the target market for refractive lens exchange, lens replacement, presbyopic LASIK and dry eye) respond to:
- competitive claims (clearly show how you’re better) while still showing you are collaborative and communicative
- educated, efficient and ethical arguments
- appeals to idealism (the way things ought to be)
- positive language
- a results-orientation
- a hint of rebelliousness
Generation X (born between 1966 to 1979, the target market for presbyopic LASIK, SMILE, other laser eye surgeries and dry eye) responds to:
- informal language
- healthy scepticism
Supplementary content writing principles particular to content targeted at readers under 40
Millennials (born between 1980 to 2000, the target market for LASIK, SMILE, ICLs, corneal cross-linking, and dry eye) respond to
- opportunities to gain achievement
- optimism, open-mindedness
- tolerance, and
- political correctness
Additional pointers concerning Millennials:
- Immediately answer the question “Why should I care?”
- Indicate reading time at the top of the article to give them a sense of the required time investment.
- Use one idea per sentence.
- Use one page per topic.
- Summarise pages at the top (sometimes, we’ll specifically use a TL;DR section, which means “too long, didn’t read”).
- Write descriptive subheadings (1 subheading per viewport). Useful subheadings enable the reader to understand the gist of the article from the headings themselves.
- Wherever possible, replace paragraph text with bullet points. Bullet points enable scanners to absorb content quickly. If the text is ordinal, choose numbers.
- Add “footnotes” where necessary linking to supporting evidence.
SUPPLEMENTARY CONTENT WRITING PRINCIPLES PARTICULAR TO SEO (SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMISATION)
Search engine optimisation is the process of increasing the quality and quantity of website traffic by increasing the visibility of a website or a web page to users of a web search engine.
We consider SEO as secondary to writing for humans. Only humans buy elective healthcare services; search engine robots do not. With that said, we can still include these elements into every page without interfering with readability:
- A unique focus keyword phrase for which we aim to rank (which we identify if the SEO keyword plan) on Google. The focus keyword phrase should appear in the first paragraph of the content (or headline). Then, it should appear throughout the text where possible (with a 2.5% keyword density goal).
- A unique page title that includes the keyword phrase near the front.
- A unique meta description that consists of the keyword phrase near the front and written as a call-to-action.
- A unique URL that contains the keyword phrase.
- Images that contain the keyword phrase in their alt text and file name and ideally the clinic or doctor’s name.
- Instances of synonyms of the keyword phrase aiming for a density of .5%.
- Internal links to relevant pages or posts (1 for every 150 words of text).
- Outbound links that open in new windows, where appropriate.
- An excerpt that you can also use as the meta description written as a lede (or lead).
ON STYLE, SPELLING AND PUNCTUATION
If you’re writing for the British market, write in British English, which is the standard dialect of the English language that people speak and write in the United Kingdom. Where appropriate, switch to American English or Canadian English. Switching is especially crucial if you outsource your writing to foreign firms.
CHOOSING A STYLE GUIDE
A style guide is a manual detailing the house style of a particular publisher. Typically, we refer to New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Style Guide, which mainly covers grammar conventions. For more modern style, spelling and grammar conventions, including the proper use of abbreviations and numbers, we consult the GOV.UK Style Guide. This guide is up to date and covers modern usage. The NICE Style Guide is specifically helpful regarding medical terminology.
WRITING GOALS IN GRAMMARLY
While perfect grammar isn’t necessary (or even advisable) for effective copywriting, Google and users alike know lousy grammar when they see it. For many visitors to your website who are 40 years or older, poor grammar can be a turn-off. We use Grammarly UK or US writing goals when preparing content in Grammarly. Grammarly offers writing goals. Mostly, we write marketing content with the following goal settings:
- with an intent to inform
- targeted at a general audience, or other audiences if customer avatars are different (for example, professional)
- written in an informal style
- using mild emotion
- for a general domain
To avoid debate on spelling and meaning, choose a dictionary that you will refer to before starting your writing project. Unless otherwise agreed, we use the Grammarly UK or US dictionary.
A common mistake is capitalising too many words. Leave the names of medical conditions, diseases, procedures, tests, and operations as lowercase. For diseases that include a proper name, such as Alzheimer’s, capitalise that word. Similarly, if the name of a test is an acronym (like OCT – optical coherence tomography), capitalise it.
We’ll talk about headings later, but there are specific guidelines we adhere to regarding capitalisation and headings used in text and navigation.
ON BULLET POINTS
Bullet points often cause confusion regarding capitalisation and punctuation. Displayed lists are usually introductions that:
- list a series of items
- makes for simplified readability
- creates legibility by providing white space
- follow a colon
- are not capitalised
In this case, the list items are sentence fragments, not full sentences. If the list is a series of sentences (like the one we used at the start of this post), follow the conventions used for sentences.
A general audience should be able to decipher what you write after reading it only once. We write in plain English. We aim to score 70 or above on the Flesh-Kincaid readability test. Seventy or above indicates a reader who has at least an 8th-grade education (age 13-14) should understand your text. With that as a guideline, your writing should be reasonably easy for most adults to read.
We include transition words and phrases between paragraphs (a minimum of 30% of sentences). If, however, we note we are using first, second and third, we’ll replace these ordinal words with ordinal figures (1., 2., and 3.).
Legibility refers to how visually clear something is to read. To ensure clarity, we:
- use larger than average body text font sizes (at least 16 px)
- limit most paragraphs to 150 words
- add hard returns after every paragraph to create white space between them
A contraction is a word or group of words resulting from shortening an original form. People most typically speak using contractions.
To align with an informal style, we write using contractions. For example, we’ll use “isn’t” instead of “is not”. If we’re writing in a formal style (which we typically reserve for traditionalists or for branded services that aim to communicate a formal tone), we do not use contractions.
ON EXCLAMATION MARKS
We rarely use exclamation marks. We will only use exclamation marks if what we’re writing is:
- exceedingly important – like a warning; for example, “Don’t rub your eyes!”
- super exciting – like a special announcement; for example, “We’re opening a new clinic!”
- a legitimate emergency, for example, “Get your eyes checked immediately!”
- ironic – using an exclamation mark gets a humorous reaction
- in social media, chat, and social messaging – social media, where emoticons and internet-speak are standard, is a particular case when it comes to exclamation marks. That’s why you’ll see us using all of the above more often when posting or commenting on social media.
ON GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUNS
We use gender-neutral third-person pronouns (for example, we use “they”, “their” and “them”) instead of singular third-person pronouns (for example, “he”, “his” and “him”) unless specifically when referring to individuals that identify as males. In many cases, we can avoid the indefiniteness inherent in these pronouns by using the second person pronoun “you”. Avoid using “one” because it is distant and too formal.
ON HEADERS AND NAVIGATION ELEMENTS
Headers include page titles and text surrounded by heading tags (for example H1, H2, H3, etc.). Some points to consider are:
- Leave full stops off the end of headlines.
- If your tone is casual and friendly, write headers in sentence case (that is, only capitalise the first word of a headline) as we do in this article.
- If your tone is formal and serious, write headers in Title Case. Title case involves
- capitalising the first word
- capitalising the last word
- capitalising the important words – important words refer to adjectives (words to describe nouns), adverbs (words that qualify or further define verbs), nouns, pronouns, subordinating conjunctions (for example, although, because), and verbs
- Do not capitalise articles (for example, a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (for example, and, but, for), short words (fewer than 5 letters), and prepositions (for example, at, to, by, from).
SPECIFIC NOTES RELATING TO NAVIGATION
Be concise and transparent with navigation labels. Users should have a good sense of what is on the other side of a click.
Most people don’t know what they’re looking for by name, which is why we recommend using general language, not medical terms in navigation. However, you still must serve the needs of directed searchers by having menu items with medical terms that are easy to scan and in alphabetical order. Usually, we will use that type of menu in the footer, opting for a plain-language version in the top and main menu.
ON GRAMMAR RULES THAT YOU CAN SAFELY IGNORE
Grammar rules you can safely ignore:
- The rare use of sentence fragments (sentences missing a noun or an object of a verb). We are not overly-concerned with sentence fragments if it allows us to be succinct – this applies especially to headings and metadata.
- Expressing small cardinal numbers (representing the quantity of something) below 100 as words. We tend to leave small numbers as figures (i.e. 1, 2, 3). That practice should be consistent throughout the site.
- One-sentence paragraphs. We allow one-sentence paragraphs to provide impact or draw attention to a critical point.
ON PAGE LENGTH
Aim to write pages to contain at least 300 words of text. Words exceeding this number should have a call to action breaking up the text before displaying more text. Do not, however, write more than you need to. Consider user intent and prioritise that over content length.
We aim to write text in the inverted pyramid style (see image below). This structure applies to both pages and blog posts.
SPECIFIC ADVICE RELATING TO MEDICAL TERMS AND DRUG NAMES
USING MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY
By definition, medical terminology is jargon. Jargon is appropriate when writing for peers; not when writing for patients. Define every medical condition in its first instance by translating it into plain English.
For example, when referring to:
- myopia, use “short-sightedness”
- hyperopia or hypermetropia, use “long-sightedness”
- presbyopia, use “the need for reading glasses”
- emetropia, use “refractive error”
- emmetropia, use “normal vision”
Note again that the above terms are not capitalised. In some cases, like “astigmatism”, there is no plain English counterpart. In cases like these, define astigmatism in the first use of the word on the page content. From then onwards, use “astigmatism”.
USING DRUG NAMES
Due to regulations and search engine marketing blacklisting that prohibits their use in paid advertising, use brand names and generic names for SEO and use the generic name for paid landing pages.
Exceptionally, we can use brand names in content if we do not intend to use the page as a paid search landing page, like this: “botulinum toxin, or Botox”. We do not use drug brand names in page or post titles, navigation or URLs. Search engines can find these elements in the source code if we link to them from landing pages or navigation.
USING MEDICAL PROCEDURE NAMES
There are currently no laws precluding the use of procedure names in the markets in which we work. We use specific procedure names with the correct form of their names or their initialisms.
Some examples of medical procedure names we use are:
- LASIK (Lasik)
- PRK (P.R.K.)
USING PROTECTED TERMS
When using intellectual property marked names include the symbol in a superscript style on the first mention of the trademarked term on the page. For example, the common-law trademark ™ is unregistered and pending registration. The more protected registered trademark is ®.
Some examples of commonly used protected terms include:
- IOLMaster ® 700
- Pentacam ®
- PRESBYOND ®
- ReLEx ®
- MEL ® 90
- VisuMax ®
While the proper way to display either symbol is immediately following the word, leave a space between the term and the emblem to aid rigid search queries.
USING COURTESY TITLES
Titles for physicians and surgeons in the UK are different than what is customary elsewhere in the world. If you’re interested in the reasons for this peculiarity, see this article by the Royal College of Surgeons. Some examples of courtesy titles we use include:
- Mr for male surgeons
- Ms for female surgeons (many people continue to use the traditional title of “Miss” for female surgeons, whether married or not. We seldom see the title “Mrs” as a title for surgeons. Using “Ms” does not depend on marital status. We believe that a doctors marital status is irrelevant to their abilities as a doctor, so we use “Ms”)
- Dr for doctors
- Prof. for Professor
Note the lack of full stops immediately following titles which are customary in British English, except for Prof which can use a full stop, or not.
REGARDING ACADEMIC DEGREES
All surgeons must first qualify as doctors. Then, they will append specific surgical qualifications to their names. Some examples of commonly awarded titles in the UK that we use are:
- BA – Bachelor of Arts
- BSc – Bachelor of Science
- BCh – Bachelor of Surgery
- DO – Diploma of Ophthalmology
- FACS – Fellow, American College of Surgeons
- FRCOphth – Fellow of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists
- FRCS – Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons
- GMC – General Medical Council
- MBChB – Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery
also conferred as variations of the Latin Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae:
- MB ChB,
- MB BCh,
- MB BChir (Cantab),
- BM BCh (Oxon),
- MA – Master of Arts
- MBA – Master of Business Administration
- MD – Medical Doctor
- MRCP (UK) – Member of the Royal College of Physicians of the UK
- MRCS.Ed – Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
- MSc – Master of Science
- O.D. – Doctor of Optometry (used in the US and Canada)
- PGDipCatRef – Post Graduate Diploma in Cataract and Refractive Surgery
- PhD – Doctor of Philosophy
When in doubt, refer to how the person displays their credentials.
- (Cantab) refers to Cambridge
- (Oxon) refers to Oxford
- (Hons) is with Honours.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
This cheat sheet of writing best practices for healthcare websites can feel overwhelming at times. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do it yourself, then all is not lost. If you want to convert visitors into telephone or email enquiries, give us a call and we can talk about your digital marketing options.