Readability and How to Best Achieve It

This meandering article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks back seems to be advocating for increased job opportunities for veterans, which I can’t imagine is something that anyone is particularly opposed to. The beginning of the article, and the headline, focus instead on the Plain Language Act that was signed by President Obama this fall. (I can’t understand the wild shift in focus either.)

The law defines its purpose: “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

As someone who regularly works with—and is sometimes guilty of writing—confusing government documents, I can tell you what a sea change that statement is. I recently spoke with a subject matter expert who felt that the extra step of rewriting for usability sake was a burden and ultimately diluted the message being proffered. And that person has a point, I think.

In my field there are many concepts that are very specific, but which demonstrate very little difference to the public at large. The best example is the difference between bacteria and a virus. I don’t have any expectation that the general public knows the difference (in fact, the research on patients demanding antibiotics for what is clearly a virus shows how little they know about the difference). And both words raise the reading level of the document that they’re in. So when we rewrite for readability sake, one of the first things we do is to change both (or either) to “germ.” Everyone knows what a germ is and, for the majority of people, there is no functional difference between the three terms.

For the doctor who wrote the document, though, the only similarity between the terms is that they learned about both in medical school. There are so many things inherent in calling something a virus or bacteria, the etiology, the treatment, the transmissibility, the biochemical processes, the disease progression, that in their mind it’s tantamount to malpractice by conflating the two.

On the flip side, the vast majority of nearly completed documents produced by health departments are nigh unreadable by hundreds of millions of Americans.

So where’s the happy medium?

I think there’s two ways to handle this situation. Unfortunately, both are best done in traditional risk communication situations (read: non-emergencies), though the second one, I argue, should be attempted during emergencies.

The first is to stop divorcing the writing and rewriting processes. Have the subject-matter expert work hand-in-hand with the risk communicator to adapt the source document with a mind toward readability. This doesn’t solve the problem but, over time, may help the expert consider readability in their initial drafts, while allowing the risk communicator to understand the subtle differences that their axe-like (as opposed to a scalpel) approach to rewriting can gloss over. Maybe an important distinction is preserved, which wouldn’t have been if the doc wasn’t in the room.

The second is my preference, and can work in both emergency and non-emergency situations. They say that emergencies are also opportunities. I agree with this in spades; opportunities for teaching. What a better time to teach people about the difference between viruses and bacteria than during a pandemic! The public is already paying attention to you, the media is beating down your door, and it’s relevant!

Here’s how I think this should work. The experts write their jargon-filled documents, then (ideally working with the expert) the risk communicator cleans it up for readability sake, but instead of just washing away the difficult words, she defines them, uses them in readable sentences. Instead of just saying, “Don’t ask your doctor for antibiotics, because they don’t work on the flu,” explain why. That’s the nice thing about going direct to your public, you don’t have to fit your message into a 5-second soundbite. Then you can point the public to your agency’s YouTube page where the Health Officer has a 60-second video on improper antibiotic use and how that contributes to resistance, or to a website with basic disease information (highlighting the difference between viruses and bacteria).

Your public isn’t dumb, and they’re (for the most part) not children. Talk to them like adults who just haven’t been through semester after semester of biochem. Teach them and maybe next time your messaging will be easier.