On Friday I attended the Center for Plain Language’s 2009 Symposium at the National Press Club. I also really enjoyed the training session given in the morning by John Strylowski, a plain language expert.

Some of the rules of plain language are exactly the same as the rules for good Web writing. In fact, the definition of plain language is “Communication that your readers can understand the first time they read it.” On a Web page, when you have an average of 2 seconds to catch a user’s attention, plain language is vital.

One of the main elements of plain language is the use of “you” and other pronouns to engage the reader. As a healthcare Web writer, I always struggle with the use of you when writing about difficult medical conditions. For example, the following sentence is scary, “Your doctor will open you up to examine your bowel for evidence of cancer.” As opposed to, “The physician will examine the patient’s bowel for evidence of cancer.”

I posed this question to John during the training. He agreed that context is critical, and one must decide, based on the content, if the use of the pronoun “you” is appropriate.

I have a few rules for the use of you in healthcare content:

  1. If you’re going to use it, be consistent! Use it throughout the page and don’t switch halfway through the site.
  2. Always use on logistical pages, like “What you need for your first appointment”, “Communicating with your doctor”, “What to expect at your procedure”.
  3. Use the “in their shoes” rule. Imagine you are a patient or the parent or spouse of a possible patient. Imagine how YOU would feel reading the content. If you get nauseous, or nervous, or just plain weirded out, change it.

What do YOU think? When do you use you? And when don’t you use you?


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