Medical writing in plain English is an important skill for today’s medical writers. If you’re writing articles, health blogs, patient education materials or any type of health content, you’ll need to know the core rules of plain English writing. Let’s get straight into it!
What is plain English in medical writing?
Plain English is simple, everyday English. When you write in plain English, you use everyday words and expressions instead of complex, old-fashioned, formal or wordy phrases.
You want your writing to feel like you’re chatting with your reader in real life.
It can take a while to get comfortable with plain English writing. In school, most of us were taught to use formal expressions.
Some of my students also tell me that their bosses ask them to use formal words and expressions as they sound more corporate, trustworthy and professional. But the opposite is true!
Everyone just wants to read content that is easy to read.
So, here are some tips to help you get comfortable with medical writing in plain English.
Before you start writing
First, planning is an essential aspect of writing in plain English. You may already know why you are writing, but what’s in it for your reader?
You need to know:
- Who you are writing for – your target audience or ideal reader
- Why your readers care about your topic – what’s in it for them?
If you can’t answer those two questions, you can’t create useful, engaging content.
When you have the answers, you are ready to plan, structure and draft your piece.
Plain English medical writing principles to know
These evidence-based, guiding principles of plain English medical writing will help you to write clearer health content.
1. Use everyday words and expressions
How do you know if a word or expression is an everyday one or a formal one? Here are some tips to help you decide:
- You’d use the word or expression in a conversation
- The word or expression has less than four syllables
- There is a simpler alternative
This table shows you some examples of medical terms and the plain English versions.
|MEDICAL TERM||PLAIN ENGLISH VERSION|
|Cardiovascular disease||Heart disease|
|Renal disease||Kidney disease|
|Hypertension||High blood pressure|
|Lesion||Cut or wound|
Struggling to know if your writing uses the plain English version or the medical version? Here are some more tips:
- Use words with fewer syllables – aim for less than four
- Use a readability tool – a tool like Grammarly will highlight complex words
- Define complex medical terms – by adding the definition, you will be using simpler words
2. Use short sentences and short paragraphs
Long sentences and paragraphs are hard to read in medical writing, while short sentences are what plain English writing is all about.
Follow these three simple plain English rules to make your sentences and paragraphs easier to read:
- Keep your sentences to around two lines – short sentences are easier to read, as full stops create natural pauses and people lose their place if the sentence goes over three lines; it’s okay if some sentences are long, but try and make most of them as short as possible
- Keep your paragraphs around 4-5 lines – long paragraphs are hard to read because they don’t have line breaks, which create natural pauses in the reading and scanning process
- Left-align your paragraphs – when your paragraphs are justified (flush with both sides), the spaces between the words are inconsistent, and this makes your writing hard to read and scan; words can be broken across lines with hyphens which also makes them hard to read
3. Use bullet lists for symptoms, treatments and tips
Bullet lists are an effective plain English writing tool – and they’re so useful in medical writing as they break down complex content easily.
Whenever you have a sentence with a list of two or more items, consider reformatting that list into bullets instead of a sentence.
Bullet lists are easy to read and scan, and they work well for:
- Disease names
- Actions and tips
Check out our guide on how to write bullet points for more.
4. Use clear subheadings
Subheadings are excellent readability tools as they provide a guide to the main topics or questions in your content. But for subheadings to be useful, they must be specific.
Imagine taking out all your subheadings and placing them in a list in a separate document. Can you tell what that section is about just by reading the list? If so, they are useful. If not, make them more specific.
Questions make great subheadings in health content, as readers often have questions they want to be answered.
Avoid generic subheadings and make them as specific as possible:
- General – Symptoms
- Specific – What are the symptoms of heart disease?
Our guide on how to write effective subheadings gives you more subheading tips.
5. Use specific language
Being as specific as possible in your language makes your content easier to understand. Your readers get frustrated when key details, like dates, contact details and examples, are missing.
Two weeks ago
|Friday 15 July|
|Reach out with any questions||Email me at [email] and I’ll come back to you within 48 hours|
|The most common ones||The most common causes of lung cancer are|
6. Personalise your writing
One of the most powerful, persuasive words you can use in your writing is you. So, use you and write to your reader like you’re having a conversation with them.
When you use you, there is no doubt you are talking to them and about them.
If you use a third-person term like patient, your reader might not know if you are talking about them.
Use you and your instead of patients and their.
You can also use we and us instead of your company or organisation’s name – as long as they are okay with that.
7. Use consistent medical terminology
Identify your key medical terms and use them consistently.
When you use common terms inconsistently, your reader may feel confused. For example:
- GP, doctor, health professional, physician
- Process, procedure
- Treatment, therapy
- Practice, office
- Medication, medicine
- Operation, surgery
Your readers may think you’re referring to different people or things when you’re referring to the same thing.
Search engine optimisation techniques recommend using synonyms for key terms, but find the balance between variety and not confusing your readers.
8. Write in the active voice
The active voice is a way of phrasing sentences so that the subject is doing an action. Whereas in a passive phrase, the action is being done to the subject. For example:
|Your GP will give you your medication||Your medication will be given to you by your GP|
Writing in the active voice is clearer, more direct and uses fewer words. Readability tools can help you with this if you are struggling.
9. Get rid of unnecessary or redundant words
Unnecessary or redundant words repeat the same ideas. To understand if a phrase is necessary, ask yourself if there is a simpler way of saying it. Here are some examples:
|Decide||Make a decision|
|Inject||Inject you with|
10. Quality control
While knowing the basic medical writing plain English principles is important, there are many other considerations for your writing. Remember to consider:
- Key requirements
- Appropriate language
Finally, if you want more tips and tricks with plain English medical writing and readability, check out the other posts in this blog series on readability and plain English here.