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Plain Language and COVID-19

Given the rate at which new discoveries are made about the novel coronavirus, writing clearly about COVID-19 is as important as ever. We’ve written before about providing translations of COVID-19 information, but here we’ll focus on another way to make important information about COVID-19 more accessible: plain language.

What is plain language? We’ll bet you can guess. It means communicating in the least complicated, most straightforward way possible. We’ll share some tips from experts on how to achieve that, and how we can help, a bit later. For now, let’s examine why plain language is a winning strategy, especially when it comes to COVID-19.


One person talking to another person who does not understand because they are using too much jargonWhy Use Plain Language?

Nielsen Norman Group, a user experience research and consulting firm, writes that using plain language increases both “readability and credibility.” The alternative to readable, credible messaging is information that consumers find difficult to understand and untrustworthy. Avoiding those pitfalls is key in a situation like the current pandemic when everyone’s actions count. Nielsen Norman Group emphasizes that plain language prevents readers from having to decipher what they’re reading. Plain language is clear language! The more complex your sentences and the more specialized vocabulary you use, the more work your audience must do, and the more room there is for misunderstanding. Marketing and PR firm Reputation Ink also makes the point that jargon can alienate your audience, making them feel as if what they are reading is not for them. When dealing with a public health issue that affects everyone, you certainly don’t want to leave anyone out of the conversation.

Where credibility is concerned, Nielsen Norman Group explains that if readers understand what you are saying, they perceive you as knowledgeable. They also point to studies that show even those welA woman throws her hands up and yells because she is surrounded by question marks and exclamation marksl-versed in technical language prefer to read plain language. A 2012 study by Christopher R Trudeau, in fact, showed that 80% of people prefer to read plain language in most instances. So, writing in plain language may achieve a want as well as a need!

Management consulting firm McKinsey has also published some guidelines on how best to communicate with stakeholders against the backdrop of a global health crisis. They write that “high levels of uncertainty, perceived threats, and fear can… lead to ‘cognitive freezing’” and that “the more complicated, abstract, or extraneous information is right now, the more difficult it will be for people to process it.”


Writing Clearly about COVID-19

If you’ve made it this far and you’re ready to begin writing clearly about COVID-19, your next question may be how to do that. Kate Murphy, a Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders, offers the following general principles for plain language writing:

  1. Use active voice.
  2. Use short sentences.
  3. Use correct terminology.
  4. Use consistent terminology.
  5. Use concise wording.

Using active voice means using a simple verb form. Passive voice is constructed as follows: verb to be + past participle + by ___. For example:

Active voice: Everyone makes mistakes.

Passive voice: Mistakes are made by everyone.

An active voice sentence typically gets to the point more directly and keeps sentences shorter, both of which aid in readability.

We’ve written a good amount on the importance of terminology. Murphy points out that “coronavirus,” “novel coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are not the same things, despite being used interchangeably by some. Using these terms correctly and consistently, without including complex explanations, requires being thoughtful and intentional. But it is worth it in the end, given what we’ve already covered about outcomes.

Murphy also makes an interesting point when she says that in certain situations, it is more important to “choose clarity over creativity.” Many of us may have been taught that using the same word over and over again is a weakness, and that variety in our writing makes it more enjoyable to read. When the subject matter of your communication, however, is a global pandemic and public health response, it is worth reassessing priorities when writing content. Using multiple terms to describe the same thing can be confusing if it is not explicit that the two words mean the same thing. If you’re feeling attached to your copy with all of its complex sentence structures and varied vocabulary, we have some tips about overcoming various attachments.

One person is confused listening to another person against a backdrop of "blah, blah, blah" plus one line that says "what you need to know"This brings us to another important point: separating the “nice to know” from the “need to know.” When it comes to writing clearly about COVID-19, this can feel a bit like turning the phrase “better safe than sorry” on its head. For instance, providing as much information as possible may seem like the wise choice – better to provide the information even if people may not need it, right? Not necessarily. This may create “information overload” and prevent readers from grasping the most important elements of the text.

McKinsey also recommends focusing on “dos”, not “don’ts.” They reference studies showing a higher rate of retention of positive instructions over negative ones. For example, in the context of writing clearly about COVID-19, it would be more effective to say “Maintain 6 feet of distance from others” than to say “Do not get closer than 6 feet from others.”


Design and Plain Language

These guidelines are not, however, the only elements that our plain language writers keep in mind. Visuals can also add, or detract, from a document’s readability. Have you ever seen a pattern or design that felt too “busy?” Have you ever played the game of finding the differences between what look like two identical pictures and gotten frustrated because there was too much going on in the pictures to pick out the differences? Visual design of written materials can create the same effect. Here you can see an example of a document before and after it was rewritten in plain language:

A Blue Cross Blue Shield letter before and after being rewritten using plain language principles

Breaking up text into separate blocks and utilizing elements such as bulleted lists and text boxes decreases distraction and allows readers to focus on takeaways.


All About Intentionality

As we’ve mentioned, much of plain language is about intentionality. Plain language writing involves much more than simply reducing word count and “cleaning up” visuals. There are various readability tests that plain language writers use and typically these are calibrated to a specific grade level. For instance, Georgia State University has created a digital coronavirus adult literacy resources library including materials up to a 9th grade reading level. We have over a decade of experience in health literacy and plain language writing and will work with you to establish an intentional strategy based on your target audience.

Various organizations (like the Kaiser Family Foundation and Yale Medicine) have published coronavirus glossaries meant to help people better understand some of the terminology that is being widely used by medical experts, government officials and members of the media. The Ceredigion county council in Wales has done one better and created a bilingual English/Welsh dictionary for coronavirus terminology. If you are providing materials to an English-speaking audience, you may stop at plain language writing in English. However, if you are presenting information to individuals with limited health literacy and limited English proficiency, it would make the most sense to provide materials that are in both plain language and their first language. We translate into over 40 languages, and healthcare translations of health literacy material is one of our main areas of expertise.


Three people doing research in order to translatePlain Language and Translation

Language Solutions works with regular translation teams who have experience in plain language writing in their native language. But before these teams can do their stuff, the source English document will need to be in plain language. Part of translation is being mindful of tone, voice and writing style. Giving a translation team a technical text and asking them to translate it using plain language is actually asking them to rewrite the text. That is not their responsibility. It also transfers ownership of the messaging. If you want to be sure of how the message will sound in the translated version of your communications, you will need to establish that message yourself in the source material.

If you keep plain language principles in mind while writing about COVID-19, that’s a great first step! But as Reputation Ink writes, plain language requires practice. If you want to ensure that your message is as accessible as possible, Language Solutions can help you get there with our plain language writing and health translation services. You’re doing the important work of sharing information about COVID-19. If you’d like to discuss how to share this information in plain language and/or languages other than English, we’d love to hear from you.