Writing for the Public

An important skill for an educated therapist comes in the ability to disseminate information for public consumption. 

In English, therapists need to be able to write in a way that communicates research and theory to the layperson.  We do this all the time in therapy while providing psychoeducation.  Anyone who has explained ADHD to a middle schooler knows exactly what I am talking about.

Writing for the public is an excellent tool to have in your belt, as this can be a great way to serve the community as well as market yourself in a private practice setting.

For example, perhaps you want to write and article for the local newspaper that increases awareness on depression and suicidality.  Or, you may be asked to speak in a public setting (such as at MOPS or a church) on improving social skills or self-care.

Therapists are masters of crafting content for professional documentation, whether that be through SOAP notes or a full battery neurocognitive assessment.  Although your writing in those areas is probably excellent, you need to change your approach for public dissemination work.

So, how can therapists write differently for the public?

I use a few basic strategies for approaching public writing.  First, you need to recognize the needs and limitations of your audience.  Then, you will tailor your vocabulary, length, and information to fit the majority of your readers.  Once your shiny new draft is complete, you will want to send it to someone you consider to be within the range of your audience.

The Audience

The audience includes anyone who is likely to view your article that you believe will benefit from your content.

The most important variables to consider are typically age, ethnicity, gender, and education.  If you collected a random sample of 50% of the group, what would the mode look like amongst those variables?  The answer to that question is important, as it will shape the direction of most of your content.

For example, you may be writing a post in the church weekly bulletin on healthy sexuality.  If you know the churchgoers well enough, you can piece together what sort of information may be most digestible.

Perhaps you would write differently for a group of mostly elderly, working class folks versus a group of graduate students at a liberal arts college.  After you have established a good normative range to write your paper to, you are ready to move on to the next step.

Tailoring Content

With your main audience in mind, you are ready to begin crafting content that will best communicate your message.  The rules on this tend to vary, as each group is different from the next.

Generally, therapists tend to write public dissemination articles for news outlets of some kind, and therefore you can be safe assuming a few things about your community:

  1. Most people have at least a middle school reading level competence. 
    • With this in mind, you want to imagine how your content will be received by a 13 year old kid in terms of complexity of vocabulary.
    • Words such as “differentiate” and “pathology” have little meaning to people who are not familiar with those terms.  Instead, try breaking those lovely polysyllabic words into a few simple ones.  Rather than say “differentiate,” say “able to tell apart.”
  2. Most people will read your title and, if they like the title, the first few sentences. 
    • Make sure your title is catchy (try making it rhyme, or use buzz words) and that your first few sentences hook the reader.
    • Imagine it being read over the radio as a commercial.  Does it sound boring, or does it make you want to hear more?  Think about how Arby’s does their sandwich commercials on Pandora Radio.
  3. Most people are not familiar with concepts of psychology or sociology.
    • If you find yourself getting technical about specific theories or research findings, try to imagine your reader seeing this as their first exposure to the concept.
    • For example, you may want to describe learning as a process before talking about how trauma impacts cognition.

Once you have tailored your content to your audience, you are ready to (as one of my professors at George Fox would say) “put in the dip stick.”

Getting Feedback

Putting in the dip stick is a car mechanic reference regarding checking the oil level and quality.  Public writers tend to skip this step, which I believe takes away the chance to grow and learn how to be a better content tailor.

If you have access to anyone in the general audience (who isn’t a client), send them your article for review.  If you are writing for a child audience, try meeting with the kiddo in person.  Try to ask your reviewer a few questions that connect to your main message.

For example, you may be writing for MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) on perinatal depression.  If you happen to know someone who is affiliated with the group (and if you are writing for them, you probably do), send them your article with a few questions such as “when you read my article, do you feel like you want to read more right away?” and “what did you learn about perinatal depression?”  Although the questions may cue the reader into certain details, you want to make sure that an attentive reader is able to process what you wrote.

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