Don’t tell me what I should do.

A concerned doodle stands next to a computer saying "How does my content look, Tone Fixer?" as the tone fixer replies, "You called just in time! This is the worst case of the "Don't shoulds" I've ever seen!"

When writing health information, it’s important to strike a trustworthy and informative tone while remaining positive and supportive. Health writers usually get the trustworthy and informative part down, but we’re often guilty of forgetting about the other half.

Tone is the feeling behind your words, and it’s just as important as the words themselves. Here are 2 rules we follow at We ❤︎ Health Literacy Headquarters to make sure the tone is right:

  • Start with the positive instead of telling your reader “don’t”
  • Throw “should” out of your vocabulary

Think of it this way: Which of these statements motivates you to make your bed?

  • “Don’t be a slob. You should always make your bed.”
  • “Making your bed is an easy way to make your room look tidy — and it only takes a minute!”

Taking “don’t” and “should” out of your writing will help you create friendly content. And when your messages have a friendly and positive tone, readers will be more engaged and motivated — especially if you’re encouraging them to do something new or difficult.

Imagine you’ve just seen your doctor and she’s printed out some follow-up instructions for you that say:

DON’T do any activities that put weight on the injured foot. You should rest. Putting weight on the foot will worsen the injury and slow your recovery.

Although this is perfectly accurate advice, how does it make you feel? Discouraged? Negative? Maybe a little bit like you’ve done something wrong already?

Now consider this alternative:

Be sure to keep weight off your injured foot during your recovery, because the tendon needs rest in order to heal. Choose activities that won’t put weight on your foot.

It’s the same message, but a completely different tone. With any luck, this friendlier take will leave you feeling better — and ultimately increase the likelihood that you’ll follow the instructions.

The bottom line: Write without “don’ts” and “shoulds” to create positive, supportive, and effective health content.


Browse recent posts

Do you heart health literacy? We sure do! Sign up to get practical health literacy tips and tricks — delivered to your inbox every week.