Writing for the People

I am lucky to work with some of the smartest people in public health. Really, world-renowned in many cases, and more often than not, we hire people more intelligent than those whose role they are filling. Very, very lucky. And I’m reminded of this every time I read something written by one of my colleagues; it is invariably well-reasoned, well-organized, thoughtful, comprehensive and engaging.

And then, many times, I have to rewrite whatever it is they wrote because only a public health professional can understand it.

(And don’t let anyone tell you that rewriting a scientific piece for a general audience whilst still keeping the information correct isn’t a skill. It’s hard!)

I recently came across an article that talks about the need to target public information pieces for the public they’re intended to reach. The author argues against the idea that the work we do is “dumbing down.” In fact, he says that by not writing at an appropriate level, we are making our audience feel “dumbed down,” like they can’t understand something that is obviously important enough for someone in government to write about it.

I really appreciated this description of what subject-matter experts do when they resist rewriting of their prose:

The writer is hiding behind their words, using them to conceal a lack of appreciation and respect for their audience and a lack of understanding of their topic. They are revealing their limits and fears – and they are not getting their message across.

So, while I’ve never run into someone who’s vigorously opposed changing written materials, I know that there is some level of resentment felt. And I’m sure there are people out there who don’t appreciate why things are being rewritten, and may take that frustration out on communications staffers. The fact that dense materials are still available on government websites is a testament to the lack of plain language acceptance.

My suggestion, if you’re in such a situation, is to reframe the problem. We’re not dumbing down language, we’re increasing the influence of the document by ensuring that everyone who sees it understands it and can implement the recommendations the subject-matter experts have developed. We’re making sure that everyone, regardless of level of education or language, can fully appreciate all of the hard work and time the subject-matter expert has put into developing the content. If people can’t understand it, they’re not going to read it or heed it. And in fields like public health and public safety, that might just be the most important part of the equation.

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5 thoughts on “Writing for the People

  1. Jim! This is a terrific post! Technical writing and translation to a specific or even non-specific audience is very very hard. It is in fact a rare skill. Congrats as you seem to have it.

  2. I began my career as a technical writer, adapting what scientists wrote for general audiences. My experience has been that most subject matter experts who resist writing effectively to broad audiences are not truly worried that their work is being “dumbed down,” whatever they may claim, but that by sharing their knowledge with the general public they are losing their exclusive right to that knowledge…and thus their power.

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