Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world created and shared health content daily. But the pandemic undoubtedly increased the volume of health content – and misinformation – on the web.
To avoid sharing misinformation, health writers must provide good-quality information. Accuracy is, of course, a key component of quality health content.
Accurate information supports health literacy and behaviour change – and, it also helps reduce the mental health burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Black Dog Institute. They argue that misinformation, rumours, myths and alarmist content fuel stress, fear and panic.
So, to alleviate pandemic-related anxiety, aim to provide clear, factual communication that supports health literacy. Here are six tips to help you write clearly about COVID-19.
1. Clearly define unfamiliar COVID-19 medical terms
Think of the words and phrases that could be unfamiliar to your target audience and define them before using them in a sentence. To determine which terms are unfamiliar, you’ll need to research your target audience and gather your requirements in detail.
The clearest way to define an unfamiliar medical term is to define the term first, then use it in a sentence.
- CORRECT: The time after exposure and before having symptoms is called the incubation period. The average incubation period for COVID-19 is 4.9 – 7 days.
Sometimes, you may not be able to define the term before using it in a sentence. While it’s best to define the term first, including a definition in the second sentence is better than not including a definition.
- EXAMPLE: The average incubation period for COVID-19 is 4.9 – 7 days. The incubation period is the time after exposure and before having symptoms.
2. Differentiate between similar-sounding terms
Many pandemic-related terms sound similar and can confuse your readers when misused. An essential aspect of writing clearly about COVID-19 is differentiating between common terms to avoid confusion. Here are just some of the many similar-sounding terms you may need to define or explain:
- Restrictions and measures
- Physical distancing and social distancing
- Quarantine and isolation
- Lockdown and self-isolate
- Medication and vaccination.
3. Use key terms consistently
One of the fundamental rules of medical writing in plain English is to use consistent key terms. Decide whether you’re going to use the term COVID-19 or coronavirus, for example. If you go with COVID-19, make sure your capitalisation is consistent.
Using consistent key terms is important as it alleviates confusion. For example, if you use the terms physician, health professional, doctor and GP interchangeably, your readers may think you’re referring to different people.
Tip: SEO best practices tell us to use a range of synonyms for Google, but there’s a balance between substituting terms for variety and confusing your readers.
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4. Define acronyms
Most abbreviations and acronyms need defining, except the ones you can assume everyone understands. For example, writing “Cable News Network (CNN)” is unnecessary. But your readers may not know what PPE or AZD1222 vaccine mean.
The correct way to use an acronym is to spell it out in full at first reference, then include the abbreviation in parentheses. You can then use the abbreviated term throughout your content.
- CORRECT: Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- INCORRECT: PPE (personal protective equipment)
- INCORRECT (no need to capitalise every word): Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Tip: You don’t have to place an abbreviated term in parentheses if you’re not going to refer to it in your content.
5. Careful of redundancy
Redundancy is when your words and phrases repeat information unnecessarily. These extra words can confuse your readers and make sentences longer, contributing to poor readability.
Here are some examples:
- Global pandemic: Global is unnecessary as a pandemic is, by definition, global or affecting multiple countries
- COVID-19 virus: As COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019, virus is unnecessary
- A total of 30,000 people: A total of is unnecessary.
Watch out for general redundant words and expressions, like:
- First and foremost
- My own opinion
- Past experience
- Exactly the same.
6. Convey factual information
If your writing feels too emotional or threat-based, readers become anxious and may not understand. A review of media dramatisation of the H1N1 pandemic suggested that news content stressed threat-based information over accurate and factual information, creating artificial hype or hysteria around the new virus.
To avoid confusion and alleviate pandemic-related anxiety, focus on providing:
- Accurate information about the signs, symptoms, risk factors
- Information on how to effectively prevent or control the disease
Practical, actionable information gives your readers a sense of control and reduces confusion.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget to follow the best practices of clear communication
To write clearly about COVID-19 or any public health issue, read our short guide to the best practices of health communication and responsible reporting.
More and more people are reading about how viruses spread, how to prevent diseases and how vaccinations work. By providing good-quality information, we can help our readers make informed choices and create better health outcomes.