Content style guide
Writing health content takes special care because of the medical or clinical nature of some topics that affect people. On VA.gov, we avoid being overly clinical and follow our content principles and person-to-person, empathetic, and conversational voice.
5 tips for writing clear, empathetic, and plain language health content
1. Put the person before their condition
Try to use words like “Veteran” or “person” instead of “patient.” This helps to make it clear that a person is not defined by their illnesses, disabilities, or status as a patient.
Put the person first
Veteran with disabilities
Veteran who has a disability
Veteran living with a disability
Person living with cancer
Person being treated for cancer
Veteran who is blind
Veteran with vision loss
Veteran with low or no vision
Don’t lead with the condition
2. Avoid overly medical terms or jargon
But recognize when it’s important to explain specific terms that their health care provider may use. In those cases, use the term along with a plain language definition or examples of symptoms to provide context.
The word list contains common VA jargon and our recommended plain language alternatives.
Use everyday words
An illness that lasts for a long time Chronic (long-lasting) illness
Pain and swelling in your joints that happens when a past injury causes a joint—such as your knee or elbow—to wear out
Avoid overly medical terms
3. Avoid abstract language—and focus on the benefit to the reader
When directing Veterans to crisis counseling, frame the language around the specific benefit (talking to someone right away for support). By reframing the language, we don’t force the Veteran to question if they fit into the definition of being “in crisis.”
Need to talk to someone right now?
Find out how to get support anytime, day or night.
Talk to a Veterans Crisis Line responder now
Whatever you’re struggling with, our responders can offer confidential help 24/7. Many of them are Veterans themselves.
Are you in crisis?
Get help from the Veterans Crisis Line.
When writing health-related instructions, be specific and emphasize the benefit of following the instructions.
Using your asthma inhaler correctly will help you breathe easier. Follow the directions for your inhaler. If you’re unsure of anything, ask your health care provider to explain.
Follow the directions for your asthma inhaler.
Don’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for the first 2 weeks after surgery. This will help your wounds heal more quickly and lower your risk of problems like bleeding.
Common items that are about 10 pounds include:
- 1 ¼ gallons of milk
- A large bag of garbage
- A laundry basket filled with towels or jeans
- A large watermelon
- A large bag of sugar or flour, or a sack of potatoes
Avoid lifting heavy objects for the first 2 weeks after surgery.
4. Provide brief reassurance of medical expertise
While we don’t want to be condescending, some situations may call for more sensitivity. Provide brief reassurance that the information comes from experts to help readers feel more confident—while keeping the main focus on the reader’s needs.
Whether you just returned from a deployment or have been home for 40 years, it’s never too late to get help for PTSD.
Our National Center for PTSD is the world’s leader in PTSD research, education, and treatment. Find out how to access PTSD health services through VA.
5. Destigmatize sensitive conditions and build hope
Especially for sensitive issues, provide reassurance that the reader is not alone and that there’s hope for their condition.
This may come in the form of:
- Brief statements about the condition
- Quotes or stories from others living with the condition
- Links to communities and advocacy groups for people living with the condition
Depression is a serious illness. But this common mental health condition is also highly treatable.
If you’re struggling with substance use, you’re not alone.