25 tips for writing effectively for older readers

Vera

Sarah Carr’s friend, Vera, celebrating her 100th birthday – when she was born in 1911, the UK had 102 centenarians; by 2013, it had 13,780.

Misleading information, unclear instructions, technical jargon and illegible print: these are all barriers that can stop older people accessing products and services. Apart from the obvious ethical problem – it is unacceptable for a civilised society to withhold important goods from citizens – it makes good business sense to value older consumers. The 65-plus age group represents 20% of the UK consumer population (those aged 16 and above) and is expected to rise to 25% by 20301.

As experts in written communication, members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) are well equipped to help ensure that texts meet the needs of target readers. The SfEP is launching a three-tier commercial package for organisations targeting older consumers. Comprising a communications audit, editorial consultancy and in-house training, the project kicks off with the publication of a booklet on communicating with older readers. Drawing on research and anecdotal evidence gathered with the help of SfEP members and editors from other English-speaking countries, Sarah Carr presents in this blog a list of 25 top tips. For more ideas, and advice on how to implement these in your work, watch out for the booklet!

Attitude

  1. Do what you can to challenge attitudes towards ageing and older people.

Features of older people

  1. Understand the needs of older readers, remembering that they have widely varying abilities, and encompass two or even three generations.

Inclusive writing

  1. Take an inclusive approach to writing, suitable for all members of the public (sometimes known as ‘plain language’).

Purpose, content and structure

  1. Before you start writing, think about why you are doing so, what you want the text to achieve, and the best medium for this purpose.
  2. Plan your messages and ideas, ensuring they are clear and honest.
  3. Organise the content logically, using an appropriate structure and good navigational aids, and avoiding very long paragraphs.

Style and grammar: words and phrases

  1. Consider using graphics to help present your ideas.
  2. Omit redundant words, and use short, familiar words and phrases.
  3. Use jargon and abbreviations only when necessary, and explain each term when you first mention it.
  4. Ensure that you refer to people equally; failing to do so may not only offend readers (and so lose their attention) but also helps prolong inequality.

Style and grammar: sentences

  1. Ensure that you use good grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  2. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words, with some longer and shorter for variety and effect.
  3. Use strong verbs (rather than nominalisations/deverbal nouns, e.g. ‘decide’, not ‘make a decision’).
  4. Favour active verbs (‘the team decided’, not ‘it was decided by the team’), writing in the first and second person (‘I’/‘we’ and ‘you’) and phrasing points positively.

Layout and design

  1. Use a simple, clear font, in sentence case, at a size of 12 to 14 point, avoiding italics and underlining.
  2. Align text to the left, with lines of a reasonable length, and avoid splitting words between lines.
  3. Use white space effectively, for example to help show the logical structure of your text.
  4. For text on paper, use good-quality paper with a matt finish, ensuring a good level of contrast between background and ink colours.
  5. Keep images clear and simple, ensuring they do not stereotype older people.

Writing for the web

  1. Ensure it is easy to understand the structure of your website, and to navigate around the site.
  2. Think about web-specific aspects of layout and design, and the readers’ familiarity with using computers and the internet.
  3. Include text alternatives, e.g. audio and video.

Checking the suitability of your text

  1. Aim for a reading-age level of 12 to 14 years, using a readability formula (available in Word).
  2. Consider testing your text on a real audience, if time and money allow, or otherwise using plain-English editors to provide an expert opinion.

Acquiring or commissioning the skills

  1. For a professional and cost-effective service, commission support from SfEP members. And don’t forget our specialist training courses and publications!

1 Analysis by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University quoted in Age UK (2010) Golden Economy: The Consumer Marketplace in an Ageing Society (research by ILC-UK).

Sarah CarrSarah Carr works as a writer, editor and proofreader, specialising in plain English and business communication. She feels strongly that our society should value old age and older people more, and is saddened by its mysterious obsession with youth. As a practical demonstration of her principles, she refuses to dye her (increasingly) grey hair!

Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Louise Lubke Cuss.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

12 thoughts on “25 tips for writing effectively for older readers

  1. Maria D'Marco

    I’m confused (perhaps it’s my advanced age (65) that’s disallowing my ability to comprehend complex concepts), the title of this post refers to writing specifically for ‘older’ readers, and then proceeds to list writing tips that would/should apply to any adult consumer audience.

    No offense at all to the post author, Ms Carr, as she expresses concerns for the older citizens of the world – but, I’m sorry to say, this post offended me from the title through all the material prior to the ‘list’. Older readers don’t require a special approach and don’t revert to pre-grade school comprehension levels at a certain age. Just write straightforward, logically presented material and EVERYONE will understand, purchase, use, and enjoy.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my concerns.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Carr

      Maria, the approach I take in the booklet (in line with that taken by Age UK) is indeed to advocate clearer writing for all readers. The whole booklet is based on the notion of inclusive writing/inclusive design/plain language (to use several of the possible terms for it). It takes the view that there are many groups of people aged over 60, looking at the fact that this age bracket may encompass two or even three generations, and span a wide range of abilities and needs, in the same way as a younger age range would do. The logical solution therefore is to write to suit all members of the general population.
      Having said this, I think it is useful to consider how older people may differ from younger people in their needs, reading habits etc. There may be specific points to learn from this that can be applied to inclusive writing. For example, some changes are brought about by the natural ageing processes that happen to every human body, albeit at differing rates and to differing extents. The booklet seeks to be very much evidence-based, and draws on research to provide such information where relevant.
      I hope this is reassuring, and thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog post.

      Reply
  2. Wendy Pope

    Whilst I agree with the majority of the 25 points, I am concerned at the lack of integrity in point 23.

    I work as a volunteer proofreader, copy-editor and writer with my local Age UK and having met and interviewed several of our service users, I would say most of them would probably not be happy knowing that written material intended for the over-65s had been, effectively, aimed at a readership of 12-14 years of age.

    There are some very eloquent and educated older people, erudite, in fact, who might find the dumbing down a little offensive. I could understand this approach being more appropriate for, perhaps, older people with a dementia – but even then, not necessarily.

    I apologise if this appears too negative, but I really think older people deserve better.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Carr

      Wendy, there is evidence that the average reading age of UK adults (of all ages) is 12 to 14 years; plain-language professionals therefore recommend writing text aimed at the general public at this level. Research has also shown that – when it comes to business text (i.e. factual information – not literary writing) – those individuals who do have a higher reading age in fact prefer text written at the 12-14 level, don’t find it condescending, and judge its writers to be more competent. I agree that older people – in common with everyone else – deserve the very best. In line with the evidence, I believe the best is text they like, and can understand easily and read fast. Happy to provide the sources of the relevant research if of interest. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
      1. Wendy Pope

        Hi Sarah – thank you for your concise response.

        It would be very helpful for me to see copies of the relevant research, please, although I have been reading about literacy levels on the National Literacy Trust (NLT) website and note that the information it contains, agrees with point 23 of your list (although erring on the side of pessimism).

        I think this is going to be a bone of contention for a lot of people (even though the NLT’s recommendations are based on research).

        The subject of older people has become very close to my heart since I began offering my services as a volunteer for a few hours per week. Whilst all written material passed to me by colleagues (and proofread or copy-edited by me) is based on the Age UK style guidelines (which do not mention using a Flesch Grade Level check – which I understand should be at least 80%) – but which do recommend suitable fonts, font sizes etc.), anything I can do to help improve our local older people’s reading experience has to be a good thing.

        Reply
        1. Sarah Carr

          Hi Wendy, the best free-to-access research (in my view) is the work by Prof. Joseph Kimble (a law professor from the USA), as this collates many research studies; I know Joe has been very rigorous about ensuring the methodology used in these is of high quality. He wrote two famous articles for The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing in the 1990s: ‘Answering the Critics of Plain Language’ (1994–1995) at http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble/critics.htm; and ‘Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please’ (1996 –1997) at http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble/Writing1.pdf. He has since also written a book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law (Carolina Academic Press, 2013), which incorporates these articles and adds much new material. But this is only available to purchase.
          Another useful (but older) book that again collates many studies is Designing Public Documents: A review of research, by Elaine Kempson and Nick Moore (Policy Studies Institute, 1994). I think this is now out of print, though Amazon often has secondhand copies. Last but not least, Martin Cutts (Plain Language Commission) has written an article on the strengths and weaknesses of readability testing – see http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/plcdev/app/public/system/files/22/original/WritingByNumbersKaraoke.pdf.
          Well done on your voluntary work – I’m greatly in favour of doing voluntary work if you possibly can, and I think it’s great that you can use your expertise to help older people in this way.

          Reply
    2. Imogen Olsen

      How about ’25 tips for writing effectively for women’? What would a suitable reading age for women be, I wonder?

      How patronising. All text should be aimed at a particular readership and written with that readership in mind. ‘Older people’ is far too broad a category for sweeping generalisations. Brochures for art history tours or wealth management services for the retired aren’t the same as usage instructions for heart attack pills.

      Reply
      1. Sarah Carr

        Imogen, a suitable reading age for women would be 12 to 14 years – just as it is for men, young people, older people, in fact any UK adults at all. The booklet makes the point that inclusive writing is just what we should be doing – which requires us, when writing for the public, to take account of the biological changes that (like it or not) happen to the vast majority of us as we get older.
        Although writing for a specific readership is ideal, many texts are by necessity aimed at a wide readership – let’s face up to this commercial reality and ensure such texts are accessible to as many people as possible.
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        Reply
  3. Gerard Hill

    I’m not sure that older people need anything different from the general population of all ages. Even problems of eyesight and unfamiliarity with on-screen/internet navigation are still present in some younger people.
    If 12 to 14 is the average reading age, there will be as many people below that as above it, so it’s no good writing for that level if one is writing for a broad readership. The tabloids are generally said to be written for a reading age of 8 (though not the vocabulary of a typical 8-year-old) and most topics can be presented at that level.
    Gerard

    Reply
    1. Sarah Carr

      Gerard, the booklet agrees with your stance on writing inclusively, so that text is suitable for as many people as possible.
      I disagree that it is easy to write for a reading age of 8; your comment, for example, comes in at 18.3 years. 12 to 14 is typically recommended by plain-language practitioners, based on research evidence.
      Thank you for your comment.
      Sarah

      Reply
      1. Gerard Hill

        Sarah, I’m glad we agree on inclusive writing wherever possible — and of course that includes older people. I certainly didn’t say it was easy to write for a reading age of 8. It is very difficult — but perfectly possible with good editors (reading age probably 18.3).
        Gerard

        Reply
  4. Laura Hicks

    Gerard has put it perfectly. Clarity of communication for everyone, irrespective of age or gender, should be the norm. It should also be the aim for all editors as well as writers.

    Reply

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