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Why Your Written Materials Should Be in Plain Language

Published on February 18, 2021 by Nicole Coen

Over a quarter of Americans struggle with literacy: 42 million Americans cannot read, and 50 million adult Americans read at 4th or 5th-grade reading levels.

When it comes to health information, the percentage of Americans who feel comfortable reading and comprehending it are also at almost a quarter of the population. When the research firm PRC conducted its National Health Survey of 1,000 adult Americans, it reported that 23.3% of surveyed Americans gave one or more of these responses:

  • Seldom/never find spoken health information easy to understand
  • Always/nearly always need help reading health information
  • Seldom/never find written health information easy to understand
  • Not at all confident filling out health forms

A review of 10.7 million Medicare records identified medical misunderstanding and miscommunication as the primary driver of unnecessary readmissions. Using plain language can help improve understanding and increase positive health outcomes among your patients.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language (also called plain writing or plain English) is communication that your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain writing helps your audience to:

  1. Easily find what they need
  2. Understand what they read or hear the first time they encounter it, and
  3. Use what they find to meet their needs.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language as:

Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires the federal government to communicate in plain language to the public. The following recommendations may also help organizations that want to improve communications for their customers or patients.

How to Use Plain Language

While your organization may not be legally required to communicate in plain language, it is still important to use language that your customers or patients can easily understand. A good practice is to assume your audience is quickly scanning your writing. Will they understand the gist of your message easily, or will they miss critical details?

Here are a few guidelines to consider when using plain language:

  • Write from the reader’s perspective.
  • Use pronouns (you/your) when you can.
  • State your most important points first before going into details. You can even bold or use larger text to emphasize important information.
  • Write in active voice (“Susan opened the door”). Use passive voice only in rare cases (“The door was opened by Susan”).
  • Use short sentences as much as possible.
  • Write with commonly used, simple words. If you need to use technical terms, define them the first time they appear.
  • Cut out unnecessary words and use clear, concise language.
  • Keep the subject and verb close together.
  • Use headings, lists, bullets, and tables to make reading easier.
  • Proofread your work and have a colleague review it.

 

We Can Help

CyraCom can help convert your organization’s materials into plain language. Reach out to us today at getstarted@cyracom.com to learn more.

About CyraCom

Bypass cultural and linguistic barriers by providing content and materials in a language that your customers or patients can understand. CyraCom is a leading provider of language services, with 25 years in the industry. Our professional linguists offer secure, cost-effective translation and localization services in over 300 languages.