Tips for Effective Print Materials

(Including patient and family education handouts)

22 ways to make print materials easier to read:

  1. Put important messages first.
  2. Use bold type, underlining, indenting and bullets (•) SPARINGLY to help get important messages across to the reader. These techniques are effective, but only if they look different from the majority of the text in your document.
  3. Use headings to separate ideas.
  4. Keep to one idea per paragraph.
  5. Use short sentences (under 12-14 words).
  6. Use simple words when you can.
    • Use “tell” instead of “notify”
    • Use “help” instead of “assistance”

7. Avoid using capital letters.

    • Using all capitals also takes up more space, and takes longer to read.

8. Avoid using large areas of “reversed out” text (i.e. white or light colored type on a dark background). They are more difficult to read. Try to use reverse type for headlines and highlights only.

9. A type size of at least 11 point is recommended.

10. Use an unjustified, or “ragged-right,” margin instead of a justified margin.

11. Be consistent with style and format.

12. Avoid technical jargon when you can.

    • Use simpler words: “high blood sugar” instead of “hyperglycemia”

13. Always explain a technical word when you must use it:

    • “Your mouth has plaque (sounds like ‘plack’). Plaque is a clear, sticky coating found on teeth.”

14. Keep the message positive. Tell the readers what you want them to do.

15. Use examples to clarify things that readers may never have experienced.

16. Avoid abbreviations, except when commonly understood:

    • Common: Mr., Mrs., Jr., St., Apt., Ave.
    • Less common: t.i.d., b.i.d., oz., lb., mg., cc., ml., g., tsp., tbsp.

17. Use an active voice rather than a passive voice. Write directly to your reader:

Active voice: The subject is the actor in the sentence. When you use active voice, it helps you clearly emphasize your message.

Passive voice: The subject in the sentence is acted upon. Key information often appears at the end of the sentence. This may cause low literacy readers to lose track of the first part of the message.

Passive voice:

    • Uses a form of the verb “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being)
    • Uses a verb ending in -ed or -en, except for irregular verbs, like “kept”
    • May use a prepositional phrase starting with “by”


Active voice: “After you have missed one period, come to the clinic for a pregnancy test.”

Passive voice: “Pregnancy testing is done by the clinic after you have missed one period.”

18. Pretest all messages. Ask clinicians/families to review your content for clarity and substance.

19. Organize your text to have plenty of white space, that is, the blank spaces, such as margins and space between sections.

20. Use appropriate illustrations and graphics that relate directly to your text. Put graphics close to related text and use clear captions. Good graphics can help readers overcome resistance to a text or even help them to understand the material more easily.

21. Make sure that the colors used in graphs and charts contrast enough so that the meaning of the data comes through clearly.

22. Test the reading level of the message. Aim for a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level.