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Triple-A S: Advancing Science, Serving Society

Writing in Plain Language

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

by Kristina Anderson

Years ago I had a job in a public hospital helping patients find easy-to-read health information on the Internet. Many of these patients were homeless, low income, elderly, or not computer savvy. If they found a health handout on their own, it was often too complicated for them to understand. But today, there’s greater awareness of the need for simple information and how the complicated can shut people out.

When you write about health and science for the general public, keep in mind the average person reads at an 8th grade level, and half of the adult population reads at a 5th grade level or less. Just because a person doesn’t read well doesn’t mean they can’t understand the information. Maybe they have a learning disability. Or maybe they were unable to finish school because their education was interrupted by a social/economic situation. Remember, your reader may be one who could understand the science if you talked to them about it rather than wrote about it, so try writing like you talk. Pretend you’re sitting across the table from a member of your audience, and tell them about your research or science topic. Explain the research or technology in plain language, and then write down what you said.

When writing the Healthy Pregnancy booklets, I had to keep several audiences in mind: the women for whom these booklets were designed; the doctors and other health care providers who treat these women; the doulas, who assist with natural childbirth; social workers who serve this patient population, and the funders of the project, which was AAAS and the Heinz Foundation. When your audience is as varied as this one was, meeting everyone’s needs can be tricky, but ultimately, it was the women who would be reading and using these booklets that I “sat across the table from” when writing. Their needs were top of mind, and I made sure that what I wrote and how I explained the science would make a difference in their understanding of what they needed to do to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Writing in plain language can open doors. I think of the process as an art, and although not easy to do, it is the catalyst in reaching a wider audience with your research and your work. So I invite you to come along with me as I talk about the tools and principles I applied when writing the Healthy Pregnancy booklets. I want what I have learned as a plain language writer to ensure the average reader understands the science behind your work.