Employers and new clients come to us because they want their content to feel less clinical and more appealing to the public – without dumbing down or sacrificing the scientific accuracy of the material, that is.
They want us to write in plain English and create content that’s easy for the average person to understand.
Short sentences, bullet lists, subheadings, reducing jargon, writing with an appropriate tone, explaining medical terms, stories, metaphors – all these and more can transform dry, dull academic writing into powerful, clear and simple prose.
But when does simple become dumbing down?
Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of complex topics to relate to those who may not understand the original content.
Critics argue oversimplification leads to anti-intellectualism – that we are in danger of being too simple if we reduce our work to easily digestible chunks of information, and that we remove our readers’ ability to think if we spell it out for them.
The fact is, though, when you introduce a term like mitochondria to someone who has never heard it, there needs to be some explanation.
Some readers may not even be able to pronounce it let alone know what it means.
What’s more, we can’t ignore the fact that most of our readers have poor health literacy skills.
Writing for culturally diverse audiences, as well as those for whom English is a second language, is also challenging.
Many of these niche audiences require a targeted approach – more so because they tend to fall into high-risk categories for various health conditions.
These challenges, coupled with other issues that impact consumption (device limitations, distractions out of our control, advertisements, multi-tasking), mean our messages need to be clear and straightforward (but NOT dumbed down) to cut through.
That doesn’t mean we can’t educate in the process of writing clearly and simply, though.
Instead of dumbing down – enter the notion of wising up.
Wising up – a useful approach
Wising up is helping your readers to understand why they should care through education and inspiration. Whereas dumbing down is just oversimplification.
I’ve already explored the idea of adding detail to your evidence-based writing which is a form of wising up.
It’s about empowering your readers to understand more about research and evidence instead of only writing ‘research suggests’.
Explaining key terms, instead of dumbing down through substitution, is also wising up.
Instead of finding simpler ways to explain medical conditions, use the scientific name in the copy and then explain what it means. Link out to a definition if it helps.
Explaining with metaphors and analogies also educates your readers about complex processes.
If you think a medical topic is too difficult for your readers to understand, use visual language.
Heart valves are like gates that open and close.
Blood vessels are like pipes.
Here’s another good story about heart valves I found on Nursing Times – valves as traffic police:
- Think of the valves as traffic police at the entrances to one-way streets, preventing blood from travelling the wrong way despite great pressure to do so. Healthy valves open and close as a result of pressure changes within the four heart chambers.
Moving beyond facts and fear mongering statistics to explore the reasons why people need to care about their health – this is wising up, too.
There’s a great article in the New Yorker about why facts don’t change our minds. The theme is that formed beliefs or impressions are “remarkably perseverant” and can’t be changed with facts alone.
People need to know what’s in it for them if they’re going to make a change. Aim to address what’s in it for your reader – why should they change? What will they get out of it? Help them understand. That’s what dumbing down DOESN’T do.
As health writers, we have a powerful opportunity to educate our readers and inspire them to better health.
We can do this by writing simply AND teaching in the process.
So, next time you’re wondering if your content is too simple, consider this: there’s no such thing as too simple – provided you’re wising up and not dumbing down.