What does your publication need to do?

  • Attract the intended readers’ attention
  • Hold the audience’s attention
  • Make them feel respected and understood
  • Help them understand the messages
  • Motivate them to take action (when appropriate)

The rules of writing for a lay audience

  • Know your audience and write/design with the audience in mind
  • Engage the reader
  • Write clearly
  • Appearance matters
  • Proof carefully
  • Try it out with several audience members

First step: Who’s the audience?

  • Write for your audience.
    • Make sure you know who your audience is – don't guess or assume.
    • Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with.
  • What you need to know
    • Who is my audience?
      • Age group
      • Cultural diversity
      • Education and literacy levels
      • Interests
      • Expectations
    • What does my audience already know about the subject?
    • What does my audience care about?
    • What does my audience need to know?
    • What do I want the audience to do?
      • Work back from there.
    • What questions will my audience have?

Engage the reader

  • Make sure they know the purpose and usefulness of the material
  • Remember – you know a lot about the subject, but they may know little or nothing
  • Just because you’re interested doesn’t mean the reader is – you have to capture their interest

Determine key concepts to convey

  • Focus on what is useful to your audience

Write clearly

  • Most readers will only skim and skip around. Make the most important information stand out.
  • Use common, everyday words.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms.

More writing and design tips

  • Be direct, specific and concrete
  • Make the design easy to read
  • Organize in a logical way with headings, sections, etc.

Alternative words

  • Use, not utilize
    • Before: Utilize a shovel or other garden instrument for weed removal on invaded properties.
    • After: Use a shovel to dig up the weeds where needed.
  • About, not regarding
  • Skill, not proficiency
  • Need, not necessitate
  • If, not in the event of
  • Start, not commence

Creating effective materials

  • Both text and design must be good
  • Make sure you’re designing and writing for the specific audience
  • Yes, it’s art! And subject to disagreement.

Layout: appearance matters

  • Attract the reader’s attention
  • Use visuals to cue memory
  • Graphics are better than tables; tables are better than lengthy text
  •  Allow plenty of white space
  • The layout should guide the reader from section to section

Design a draft

  • Stick to one idea at a time
  • Don’t skip back and forth
  •  Avoid lengthy lists – use bullets or subheads to break things up
  • Use short sentences and simple words
  • Tell a story
  • Don’t preach
  • Use illustrations or photos that relate directly to the information in the publication and reinforce key messages

Use visuals to enhance meaning

  • Include only one message per visual or it may confuse the audience
  • Label visuals with captions
  • Visual should emphasize or explain the text
  • Show actions you want the audience to take – focus on the positive action rather than what not to do

Technical stuff

  • Use 12 pt font as a guideline – older readers need larger print
  • The longer the line, the larger the print should be
  • Use headings and subheadings to break up long blocks of type
  • Use “flush left” for blocks of text (not centered or flush right and flush left) to make it easier to read 
  • Be consistent with line spacing, margins, indents, font choices, use of color, bullets, punctuation, referencing
  • Avoid breaking up paragraphs if possible
  • Use page numbers

Proof carefully

  • Check spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting
  • We use AP Style Guide and the University style guide
  • Have someone else read it

Try it out

  • Have members of the target audience read it
  • Do they understand it?
  • Do they interpret the information the way you want?
  • Do they know what to do next?
  • What would they change?

AP Style and University Style

  • AP Style AP Style – FAQs
    • Cost: about $20
    • Usually updated every other year
    • Alphabetical listings regarding grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, word and numeral usage, and more
    • Punctuation guide
  • AP Style –Why?
    • Standard for news writing / public audiences
    • University uses it
    • More universal than by discipline
    • Gives us something for standardization
    • Usually keeps text space shorter
  • AP Style – Punctuation and spacing tips
    • One space after all punctuation ending sentences (including periods)
    • One space after all commas, semicolons and colons
    • Explanation points: Use them sparingly – overuse looks unprofessional
    • Sentence-ending punctuation goes inside parenthesis when the material inside the parenthesis is a complete and independent sentence (Exact figures are found in Appendix A.) But, The weeds (formerly discussed) were removed.
    • Commas and periods go inside quotation marks
    • Dashes, semicolons, question marks and explanation points go inside quotation marks only when they apply to the quoted material
  • AP Style – Commas 101
    • Between adjectives?
      • Use a comma between adjectives when you could replace the comma with “and”: “a thoughtful, precise manner” and “a dark, dangerous road”
      • Do not use a comma when the last adjective “outranks” the other: “an old fur coat”
    • Before conjunctions in a series???
      • Do not use comma before the conjunction (“and”) in a simple series: “The flag is red, white and blue.”
      • Except: Do use a comma when an element of the simple series requires a conjunction: “I had orange juice, chips, and peanut butter and jelly for lunch.”
      • Use a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series of complex phrases: “Homeowners should remove dry vegetation within 30 feet of their homes, have an evacuation plan and kit, and always leave their homes when advised to do so by authorities.”
    • AP Style – Commas 102
      • Before conjunctions linking two clauses???
        • General rule: Use a comma if the subject of each clause is expressly stated: “We are visiting Washington, and we are also planning a trip to Boston.” But, do not otherwise: “We are visiting Washington and plan to see the White House.”
        • No comma is needed after very short, clear introductory clauses: “In the morning we will go on vacation.” But, use a comma with introductory phrases otherwise: “When he had tired of the mad pace of New York, he moved to Dubuque.”
      • Essential and nonessential phrases???
        • A nonessential phrase (can be eliminated without altering the basic meaning of the sentence) is set off with a comma: “We went swimming on Tuesday, which was really fun.”
        • An essential phrase (cannot be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence) is not set off with a comma: “We went to the famous church that George Washington always attended.”
        • Which vs. That: In general, use “which” (and a comma) with nonessential clauses, and use “that” (and no comma) with essential clauses
    • AP Style – Hyphens
      • Hyphenate compound modifiers, except “very” and those ending in “-ly”
      • In general, do not hyphenate with prefixes and suffixes
      • Do hyphenate: when a prefix ends in a vowel and a word begins with a vowel; or if the word that follows a prefix is capitalized
      • Suspended hyphenation: Use hyphen after both: “A 10- to 20-year prison sentence”
    • AP Style – Dates, Time, Temperature
      • Abbreviate? Comma?: “Jan. 25, 2016” but “January 2016 and “spring 2016”
      • But, don’t abbreviate March – July
      • Apostrophe with decades?: “1960s” but “The ‘60s were a wild time.” (Apostrophe notes missing information “19.”)
      • 6 a.m.-noon, 6 a.m.-1 p.m., 6-10 a.m.
      • “68 degrees Fahrenheit” or “68 F” (latter one if degrees and Fahrenheit are clear from the text)
    • AP Style – Addresses
      • Abbreviate only: St., Blvd. and Ave., and only with numbered addresses: “49 Main St.” But: “It’s on Main Street.”
      • Use figures for address numbers: “9 Main St.”
      • Spell out and capitalize “First” through “Ninth” when used as street names: “7 Fifth Ave.” But: “100 21st St.”
      • Abbreviate compass points with numbered street addresses: “222 E. 42nd St.” But spell out otherwise: “East 42nd Street”
      • In general, only use postal code state abbreviations with complete addresses: “405 Highland Ave., Reno, NV 89512” But otherwise: “The research was conducted in Reno, Nev., in June 2013.” (Note commas after city and after state abbreviation.)
    • Dr.? (Directly from University’s Style Guide)
      • Reserve this title only for medical doctors, not those holding doctorates.
      • Do not refer to professors as “Dr.” College professors are generally assumed to hold doctorates. It’s true that there are exceptions, but it’s awkward to refer to some as “Dr.” and not others.
    • Titles
      • Titles are not capitalized when they follow a name, except for those words that are proper nouns, such as “Extension,” and the name of a specific county, such as “Douglas County”
      • Titles are capitalized when used before a name
      • Try to be consistent within a single document; it looks odd to have some titles capitalized and others not capitalized
      • Refer to AP Stylebook for specific titles
    • Academic degrees (Directly from University’s Style Guide)
      • If necessary to mention someone’s degree, try to avoid using an abbreviation and use a phrase such as: “John Smith, who has a doctorate in engineering.”
      • Spell out academic degrees when space allows. Don’t capitalize them: “John Smith earned his master of business administration degree in 2004.”
      • Uses with master or bachelor to form the possessive: He earned his master’s degree in music; She graduated with a bachelor’s in English.
      • When used after a name, an academic abbreviation is set off by commas: John Smith, Ph.D., spoke to students today.

Association for Communication Excellence (ACE): Design tips

  • Visuals: be intentional about your visuals
  • Photos:
    • Choose impactful
    • Think of cropping for more impact
    • Use nothing but the best
  • Graphics:
    • Pie charts: don’t have too many pieces; clump together in “other”
    • Charts: show charts to someone else to see if they know what you’re trying to say
    • Line charts: use them to show trends
  • Color:
    • It’s complicated
    • Limit the color palette
    • Choose ones to enhance the message
    • Contrast: Print out in gray-scale to see if you have it
  • Type:
    • Readable most important
    • Don’t forget you can reverse type (if large enough/readable
  • Keep it simple and deliver

ACE: Other tidbits

  • Tailor message to your audience while maintaining consistent branding
Wharton, C. 2016, Communications/Publications Tips, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno

Also of Interest:

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Robinson, M. L. 2000, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno SP-00-28