Monday, August 04, 2008

Good answers to FAQs

Writing brief answers for the web is different from writing academic papers. Your audience is the general public. They will not know technical jargon or theory. Their primary interest is in understanding an issue, finding out something or solving a problem.

Below are some guidelines to guide you in writing. There are also a set of references at the end to provide additional information and examples.

Characteristics of a Good Answer to a Question in a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) format:

The first sentence should answer the question. In writing on the web you have to assume your reader will scan the document and look for evidence that they are going to find what they are looking for. They are unlikely to read the whole answer, so the first sentence of a good answer should provide a complete idea that generally answers the question that is being asked.

The complete answer should be no longer than 200 words. Web writing needs to be brief. If an answer requires more than 200 words, it may not be read. If the question is complex and has several parts, break up the answer into sub-questions.

Sentences in addition to the first sentence should provide examples and additional clarification. Don’t waste your sentences. Provide clear examples or suggest things someone can do in each sentence.

Write at an 8th grade reading level or even lower. Academic writing is often written at the 12th grade reading level. Assess the reading level of your writing in Word using the settings on the “Spelling and Grammar” tool. You can also paste your text into this online site to get a check on the reading level. The reading level can be lowered by shortening the length of sentences, reducing the amount of jargon, and using fewer words with 3+ syllables.

The length of sentences should be 15 words or less. Good web and popular press writing has short, clear sentences. Look for words you can eliminate.

Limit the use of technical jargon. Academics use a large number of technical terms, acronyms, etc. that rarely make any sense to the general public. It is best to avoid these terms. If you have to use a technical term, provide a definition.

Answers should be written in the active voice. Avoid using the passive voice in writing answers as these sentences are usually more complicated. In the active voice the subject performs the action expressed in the verb.


Parents make a difference in the lives of their children.
Harsh or punitive discipline can cause long-term problems for children.


Children’s lives can be affected by their parents.
Long-term problems of children can be affected by a parenting style that involves harsh or punitive discipline.

Avoid using phrases such as “research indicates” or “research has found”. In general, you do not need to use tell your reader the source of the information in an answer. This is implied. They should be able to find out this information (if they care) by some other place in the website such as the “about” section that explains the sources of information on the website. If for clarity or variation in the sentence structure you want to indicate the “source” of an idea, then use generic terms such as: “scientists have found…” “clinicians recommend….,” “parent educators suggest…, etc.”

Moral imperatives should be avoided. The tone of an answer should not suggest or imply that a parent or family member who does not do something is deficient or fundamentally wrong. Avoid using words like “should or “ought.” Likewise, it is better to suggest what people should try to do rather than focus on something they ought not to do.

Answers should be based on scientific evidence or best practice. This is the hallmark difference between good answers to questions and the usual material that you find on the web. Good answers should be based on current theory and research. Our scientific understanding is still limited and so there is not research evidence regarding all the questions and practical issues that people encounter. This requires extrapolation from existing evidence, best practice from clinicians and others who work with children, youth and families. Our knowledge from both science and practice is limited. The answers to questions will change as new information is discovered. When possible, acknowledge the limitations and weaknesses in our scientific understanding in your suggestions and recommendations .

Answers should be dated and should identify the author and the author’s affiliation. Since there is continued growth in our knowledge and understanding it is important to have material dated. This reminds us to continuously update material and why some answers may be different. It is good practice to identify authors and their affiliations as this is a way to indicate to people the source of information. Credibility is at least in part conveyed through identification with trusted (or not trusted) sources of information.

Answers should include links to additional resources or related ideas. Good answers to FAQs are short answers so there is always more to learn or related ideas that may extend someone’s understanding. Good answers should provide links to related topics or to more in-depth information.

Answers to questions that include potentially dangerous behaviors or complicated issues need special handling. Providing short answers is not always appropriate to every question or at least the answer should not encourage the reader to limit themselves to mere information sources. For example, when questions imply dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, it is important to address the real danger.

Here are some examples of dangerous or complicated questions:

  • My mother lives two blocks away so when I take my baby to visit her, I just put the infant carrier on the car seat next to me. My mother says I need to buckle her into the car seat, what do you think?
  • I have heard that vaccines cause autism, so my friends are refusing to have their babies immunized, what should a parent do?
  • My 6-month-old seems to look at me less, stares off into space, and doesn’t smile or make sounds like he was a couple of months ago. My pediatrician says I shouldn’t worry about this, but I am worried. Any advice?

Answers to these questions should include the information about child deaths in cars without car seats and the frequency of accidents near people’s homes. The autism question is very complicated, but this is probably a question that should include the danger of contracting various childhood diseases, encouragement to take to a pediatrician and links to more in-depth sources of information about the link between vaccines and autism. When particular symptoms or behaviors are reported, good answers should encourage people to seek professional help (in this case) another professional who may do more in-depth development assessments. Answers to dangerous or complicated questions should usually include suggestions for additional sources of help including telephone hotlines, local professionals or services. An answer can include information about why professional help is important and what to expect from professionals.

Additional sources of information about writing:

Kendall-Tackett, K. A. (2007). How to write for a general audience. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Nielsen, J. (1997). How users read on the web. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from

Nielsen, J. (2005). Low literacy users. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from

Nielsen, J. (2008). Writing style for print vs. web. Retrieved July 16, 2008, from


Skenner said...

This is very helpful to know as often one has little practice translating the language of academia into language that is accessible to the general public.

College Paper Writing said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.