Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tips
November 2014

Ethics of Simplicity

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 “average” readers 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. 

The “ethics of simplicity” is a term I came up with to describe the goals we strive for as plain language writers. I often ask myself questions such as:

  • Am I including too much information and overloading readers?
  • Am I including too little information and omitting important facts?
  • Is the tone appealing and respectful, or does it sound condescending?
  • Are the statistics simple enough for readers to understand, yet complete enough for them to make reasoned choices?
  • What is the best way to explain complicated medical concepts when even scientists and physicians disagree?

These are hard questions with no easy answers. To me, a writing team is one of the best ways to determine what to do. Ideally, writing team members 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. She or he 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 let me know.

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