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Content style guide

Health content

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.

Like this

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

Not this

Don’t lead with the condition

Disabled Veteran

Cancer patient

Blind Veteran

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.

Like this

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

Not this

Avoid overly medical terms

Chronic illness

Posttraumatic osteoarthritis

3. Avoid abstract language—and focus on the benefit to the reader

Example 1

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.”

Like this

Need to talk to someone right now?

Find out how to get support anytime, day or night.

Or

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.

Not this

Are you in crisis?

Get help from the Veterans Crisis Line.

Example 2

When writing health-related instructions, be specific and emphasize the benefit of following the instructions.

Like this

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.

Not this

Follow the directions for your asthma inhaler.

Like this

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

Not this

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.

Like this

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

Like this

Depression is a serious illness. But this common mental health condition is also highly treatable.

Or

If you’re struggling with substance use, you’re not alone.