What are some factors that indicate a need to write in plain language?
One is literacy—the words, patterns, and rules of language that are intuitive to a person. We think of literacy as one’s ability to read and write. And it’s true. But it doesn’t capture literacy in a functional sense: how we see it used in everyday life.
I like to think of literacy as (to borrow from philosophy) one’s linguistic worldview. We build mental scaffolding that we later use to support our take on the world, and much of that gets built through the language we’re taught and the language we’re taught with.
Put another way, we move through the world using language like a dog uses its nose: taking in information, making sense and meaning out of it, and determining our reaction or response to it. As we do that, we orient ourselves to others and the world around us.
I’ll continue the metaphor, then, with respect to plain language. Unless readers are familiar with the “scent” of an industry’s jargon, when they read a memo or webpage or instructions full of words they’re unfamiliar with, it’s similar to a dog trying to smell a tree with a stuffy nose: the scent may be there, but it’s obstructed.
Plain language helps improve the likelihood that most readers will “pick up the scent” of your sentences and follow along.
Another is empathy. Readers are emotional creatures—hard stop. That doesn’t mean readers’ emotions are always getting the better of them. But it does mean emotions play an unavoidable role in how we relate to, process, and understand language.
Think of a time you were anxious or angry. And then maybe a partner or coworker said something to you that, in any other moment, would have been easy to respond to. But, in this moment, you asked them to repeat themselves. The words they used were fine. But your literacy took a hit because of what experts call the “cognitive load” of your emotions.
Your “average reader” may have a particular literacy rate. But don’t forget to consider how one’s emotions affect literacy.
Many professions (i.e., law, medicine, finance) are gatekeepers of important information for the public. What obligations do professionals have to communicate in plain language?
Professionals occupying roles within industries such as law, medicine, finance, and politics set up their offices next door to people’s dreams, hopes, and concerns. Their job titles have almost intimate proximity to others’ everyday lives. So, their obligation to clear communication is non-negotiable.
Plain language is what their customers, stakeholders, and clients need. And this requires professionals to slow down and not assume they’ve been clear. It’s important to know what you want to say. But it’s vital to know what you have said and how you’ve said it.
What’s the most important—yet simple—change medical professionals can make to public-facing documents to improve understanding?
Acknowledge that accuracy and clarity are sold separately.
A lot of professionals—clinical or otherwise—assume they’re clear because they’re accurate. That’s not to pit those against one another. You can be clear and inaccurate all the same. However, it’s important that medical professionals doing any public writing know that accuracy and clarity result from two distinct processes.
While both require processes of decision-making, the first is shaped by decisions involving verification and approval to answer the question “Is this correct?” The second is shaped by decisions involving drafting and rewriting to answer the question “Is this clear?”
It's true that ornithological specimen of identical plumage invariably conglomerate to the nearest proximity.
It’s also true, and more readable, to say birds of a feather flock together.
Learn to answer the questions “Is this correct?” and “Is this clear?”
Roy Peter Clark, author of numerous writing books including Writing Tools, wrote a great essay looking at the principles of plain language (what Roy calls “civic clarity”) used by former Surgeon General Jerome Adams at a press conference during the early days of the pandemic. I recommend it to anyone.
Beyond writing with simpler words and shorter sentences, what else can professionals do to communicate better for the public’s benefit?
- Value white space. White space offers the same mental break a period does, but for a paragraph or section of copy. Readers see the visual cue that the words surrounded by white space belong together, and it helps readers hang onto those ideas as they move to the next paragraph.
- Leverage shorter paragraphs. Like shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs slow a reader’s pace, which helps them collect and process information. And for the writer, writing shorter paragraphs forces brevity, helping them select words to keep and cut.
Clear writing is as much a product of what a writer cuts as it is what a writer keeps. The last thing a writer wants to do is force brevity through a process of compression, the attempt to shoehorn every idea from one paragraph into a shorter one.
What’s one piece of advice that you would offer to help a medical professional start using clear communication?
Cultivate the ability to translate your expertise.
Learn how to translate your expertise and competency into everyday language. Medical professionals, especially those with specialties, live and breathe the language of their field. Over time, they can forget that the habits of thought and language that became second nature to them are not intuitive for others. In which case, when miscommunication happens or there’s confusion, the typical strategy is to “dumb it down,” so to speak, which typically amounts to saying the same thing but slower.
The solution isn’t to “dumb it down” but to “translate it across”: How can you say the same thing but with different words, phrases, idioms, etc.? And, as happens with translating one language into another, it may be that you can’t create a word-for-word translation.
When I interview an expert in any field, including medical professionals, I always ask him or her, “If you were explaining this topic to a second-grade student, how would you do that? What would you say? What examples could you give?”
Having answers to those questions can be a big help.
What’s the most convincing statistic that you can share to convince medical professionals to start using clear communication?
Nearly half of U.S. adults have difficulty reading a book written at an 8th-grade reading level, which is roughly the age range most popular fiction is written at. So, if you’re communicating above the prose of The Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, you’re over their head.
Beyond that, though, I’d offer that 100% of people want to feel safe and confident.
About Ben Riggs
Ben Riggs is a writing coach and author of the book Tell Them a Story. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife, Emily, and black lab, Lewie. He believes everyone should own a copy of On Writing Well.
Plain Language and Clear Communication Interview Series
This interview is part of a series produced in connection with WordRake’s support for the Access for All: Plain Language is a Civil Right conference. WordRake is editing software for sophisticated writers who must communicate clearly. It improves writing by simplifying and clarifying text, cutting jargon, and recommending plain English replacements. WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. You decide when to run WordRake and which edits to accept, so you get quality and speed without sacrificing control. Editing for clarity and brevity has never been easier. Try WordRake for free for 7 days.