It’s no secret that health writing is inaccessible to most people. Australian research in 2015 found that almost all health information is too complex for average Australian readers to understand. The problem is that the factors that create this exclusionary writing often become invisible to us the more familiar we become with healthcare, it’s systems and jargon.
To help fix this, we’ve launched our new eLearning Reach more people with plain language writing HERE.
In the past 5 years, I’ve been working almost exclusively on how to improve communication in health. As my colleagues would probably *roll their eyes* and tell you, I’ve been particularly interested in plain language writing. What did I learn that you can use to improve your writing?
You can vastly improve your writing by focusing on just a few key areas. For the sake of agreeing with the title, let’s say 5 areas. What are they?
- Write for poorer readers- they are likely to need your help the most
The people who can easily take in your messages probably already have a good idea about their health and health care. So write for the people who struggle to understand their health or healthcare and provide easy access to further information for people who want it.
- Limit your message- Need to know, not nice to know
What can you remove?
What’s the absolute minimum you can write and still get your message across?
How can you reduce the amount of information the reader has to process to understand your message?
Do you need to provide all the information at once or can you give it to clients at different stages of their contact with your organisation??
The most obvious fault with most health writing is that there is too much of it. Stronger readers effortlessly consume larger texts, but poorer readers struggle to process large amounts of information. Make sure you’re cutting out anything that’s not necessary to reach more people.
Ask yourself if you need to explain all the complexities of the information, or can readers still understand your message without them? For example, if you’re explaining the genetic basis of a disease, do clients need a lesson in the human genome, or can you simply describe the chances of getting a disease if one parent has that disease?
- Get rid of jargon and simple words that are shortcuts for complex ideas
Aortic aneurism, bulk billing, pro-rata, heck, even something as simple as feeling blue. Jargon is everywhere and poorer readers don’t understand it. When they come across something they don’t understand, they’re far more likely to give up than a more confident reader. So you need to make sure you’re not speaking in code. It’s easy to identify some complex words like Aorta – we instinctively understand most people won’t understand them, and remove them. But words like bulk-billing have the sheen of everyday words that hide a complex set of concepts and information behind them. Bulk billing – requires far more than two words to explain to someone without knowledge of its workings. Think of the end user – what do they need to know? In the case of bulk billing, it’s simply that you can see a doctor and the government will pay.
- Headings that work hard, short sentences and short paragraphs.
Look at the headings in this article- there’s a good chance that if you read the heading, you’ll have a good idea about what will be in the paragraph that follows. Stronger readers can identify the context of writing without it being explicit, however poorer readers need more help. Give them that help with headings that give them the context of the next paragraph.
When it comes to your sentence and paragraphs you can help poorer readers out too. They’re more likely to get confused if you have long sentences with clauses, excessive punctuation, unnecessarily formal or long winded sentences- a bit like in this if one is completely frank about the situation at hand. Likewise with your paragraphs, the longer they are the more people you’ll lose.
- Use empty space to signal an easy read, support words with simple images
Leaving lots of empty space on each page is a subtle and effective way of signalling to your readers that ‘this will be easy to read’. It means your message will appeal to poorer readers and more confident alike as they see that you’ve made it easier for them to take in your information.
Simple images that support your message do the same thing. They signal to readers that there are multiple, complementary ways to take in the message. If they’re well chosen, they’re will give readers an amazing amount of context for your messages too.
Well, dear reader, thanks for sticking with me to the end of this article, I appreciate it. Obviously we can’t cover everything about making written communication great, but if you follow the 5 steps above, you’ll be off to a great start.
If you want to make sure you’re writing so most people understand you, check out our fantastic (That’s how our industry testers described it!) new eLearning Reach more people with plain language writing HERE.
“It fundamentally changes how you think about writing from the moment you do it. Thanks! I’ve been writing professionally for years and I got such a lot out of this.” Jacqueline, Diversity Programs Manager, State Government.