In many ways, plain language writers act as translators of scientific and medical information—communicating complicated, rapidly-changing, often-ambiguous health information in a manner that is sufficiently clear for those of average reading skills to understand. This process includes more than just replacing multi-syllabic terms with one- and two-syllable words. It’s about writing in ways that acknowledge and respect our readers.
“Ethics of simplicity” is a term I came up with to describe the goals we strive for as plain language writers. Whether writing something new or editing an existing document, I often question:
- Is there is so much information that readers might feel overwhelmed?
- Is there is too little information and the document omits important facts?
- Is the tone appealing and respectful? Or might it be perceived as condescending?
- Are statistics presented simply enough for readers to understand?
- Are statistics sufficiently complete for readers to make informed choices?
- How to explain complicated or uncertain concepts when even experts disagree?
These are hard questions with no easy answers. How to know what’s best to do? I am convinced that the key to figuring this out is by working closely with a writing team. Members should include:
- One or more subject matter experts. They can determine what is “need to know” versus “nice to know” information. Often, the hardest part of plain language is deciding what not to include.
- Plain language writer. Who not only knows how to write clearly and simply but also is an unceasing advocate for intended readers.
- Readers who represent the audience. To me, readers are the true experts about what is relevant, actionable, and understandable. They should be considered as equal and valued writing team members.
When you write in plain language, what ethical issues do you face? How do you resolve these concerns? Please email to let me know.
More ways to learn:
- This How-To Tip is adapted from “Ethics of Simplicity,” a chapter in Helen Osborne’s award-winning book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition (updated 2018).
- “Ethics to Consider When Communicating About Health (HLOL #150)” a podcast interview with Dr Michael Siegel of BU’s School of Public Health.
- “The Ethics of Simplicity,” an article by Helen Osborne published in On Call magazine, March 2004.
For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.