Last Monday Stephen Fry and Charlotte Green hosted a show talking about the importance of plain English. While everyone agreed that it was important information was easy to understand, no one could agree on what plain English was. It also brought up questions on how you determine how easy text is to understand. Well, this is where the idea of plain English got complicated as we learnt that this was done by readability calculators.
There are many ways of calculating readability which, while different all work to the same standard. The general rule for a good readability level is to use short words and sentences that are between 15-25 words long. The main part of the show was about a readability test used to see who was best at writing information simply.
The study compared text written by a group of parents whose children suffered from the same disease, a government leaflet and text written by a marketer. Coming out on top was the marketer, with text that was simple to understand and gave the reader exactly the information they needed. The Government leaflet did well, people understood the general idea of what they were being told; but the parents group struggled to get their point across.
The reason behind this clear difference was simple. The parents were far too close to the subject matter. Like most specialists they used complex language to explain topics which while important, weren’t necessarily essential for the reader to know. The government information was useful and did well; however, it contained a lot of jargon meaning the reader needed help in understanding parts of it. The marketer came out on top, because of their training. They were able to filter out the non essential facts and provide the reader with exactly what they needed at the time.
So despite the complex measurements for simplicity, and the problems defining it, writing in plain English is pretty easy. You need to keep your words simple and sentences short. By putting in all the time and effort required to revise your work, you’ll help keep your writing inclusive and easy to read. Or, you could just hire a marketer; they are pretty good at writing.
Listen to the full show on BBC iPlayer
Fun Fact: This document has a SMOG readability level of 16.4, meaning we could expect someone as young as 11 to understand what has been written.
The Plain English Campaign offers plenty of easy to read guides to help you to improve your website text.
Saying Goodbye to Hannah
We’re saying a fond farewell to our intern Hannah, who has been an important part of our team since the beginning of the summer. We always knew Hannah would leave at the end of August, but now that we’re organising her leaving party we’ve suddenly realised that soon she’ll be back at Exeter University; continuing with her Maths degree and no longer part of our everyday life here at Silicon Practice.
When we interviewed Hannah for a summer internship all those weeks ago, one of the questions we asked her was “what do you want to get out of your time with Silicon Practice?”. Hannah told us that it was important that she felt included and that she undertook a project was useful rather than just being office tea maker. She wanted to look back and remember what she had done, the team that she worked with and feel that the experience had positively shaped her future career.
Adding an intern to our team was always going to be a big undertaking especially since we wanted our intern to have the responsibilities as a full time member of staff, taking on real work with real problems to solve. We felt that this would allow our intern to make a significant contribution to the company and would give them a true taste of what it’s like to work here.
Over the last few months we had noticed an ever growing demand for responsive websites. So the shaping of Hannah’s time with us began as we worked out how many responsive websites we needed done and tried to gauge how many Hannah would be able to do while she was with us.
At first we thought that this would be a difficult task for her, but before we knew it she’d designed a number of responsive sites for our clients, blazing through a heavy work load with determination. Luckily for us as not long after she arrived we were asked by a client to create a web app to allow people to find their nearest Practice to the visitor’s current location.
We needed to understand the complexities behind utilising interactive maps on mobile devices to generate information in a user friendly way. Undaunted by the fact that she was going into unchartered waters Hannah started the project. As her mentor, our Technical Director, Steve Treadwell was on hand to guide her through the project; however, Hannah worked on this assignment largely on her own and produced the final product ready for testing. A huge achievement!
We’ll all miss Hannah greatly. She has been an important part of our team, fitting in brilliantly and bringing with her new thoughts, ideas and innovation. The work she has done has been fantastic providing us with responsive website designs and a web app that we can be proud of. After such a positive experience, we won’t hesitate to bring another innovative young intern to our team next time we have an exciting project.
Getting Big Ideas into Little Words
Writing healthcare and medical information for the masses is tough. Really tough. That’s why a lot of leaflets and websites end up coming across as either completely patronising or impossible to understand. So, where do you start? The simplest answer is by looking at who your main audience is. This is, I know, a shockingly basic sounding piece of advice; however, it is vitally important.
Working out who your main audience actually is, is determined by a range of factors such as age, gender and social classification. This information can get incredibly specific, but all you need is a general overview of the majority of your population. Try to focus on the age range that most people are in e.g. 35-44, what their main spoken language is e.g. English and which social classification they come under e.g. middle class. Once you know who you’re focusing on your task becomes easier; instead of trying to appeal to everyone (which is impossible) you can write to target a specific group. This can become especially helpful when it comes to deciding how much ‘medical jargon’ your patients can understand.
Abbreviations and shorthand are the bread and butter of the medical world, and mostly make perfect sense once they’ve been explained to you. However, when patients are using your website, abbreviations can become a barrier if patients can’t understand them.
Try to put yourself in the position of a patient. When they’re looking for healthcare information they’re probably feeling ill and a little bit worried. This is not the best mindset to be in when trying to work out what COPD means and what exactly they should be doing. So try to keep abbreviations and shorthand to a minimum by adding a full explanation when they are used for the first time on a page; for example COPD which alone could be confusing becomes COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) which is more informative.
Once you have a good idea of who you are writing for you’ll want to try and make your writing as gender neutral as possible. Medical writing tends to be written in a more feminine way, which is a good process of writing and many people respond well to it. However, this can be made much more inclusive for men by including a good mix of statistics and a car metaphor or two. As a grand generalisation, men typically respond better to facts and figures than they do to plain written text; so adding in a relevant statistic can help to improve their retention of important information.
The most important thing to remember when writing for patients is to keep your tone friendly and helpful rather than angry and annoyed. No-one likes being told off and aggressive sounding text instantly makes people defensive. Try to encourage the behaviour and outcomes you want by asking patients in a nice way. This increases the likelihood that they will act in a way which benefits you.
Top Tips to Remember
- Work out who your target audience is and then write for them
- Keep shorthand and abbreviations to a minimum, only using them if they are necessary and helpful.
- Explain your abbreviations; just because you know what you mean doesn’t mean everybody else does.
- Add a good mix of relevant and interesting facts and figures to your text; this will encourage both men and women to pay more attention to what you’re trying to say.
- Keep your tone friendly and helpful throughout your text; aggressive sounding text will make people defensive. Remember you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!
The Inside Scoop
For the past 10 weeks I have been the development intern at Silicon Practice. My time here has involved developing responsive websites for a number of clients and creating a location app to help people find their closest GP Surgery. I know that probably sounds really dull to everyone who isn’t a developer but to me this was brilliant.
During my summer here I always felt like I was part of the team; they encouraged me, joked with me and helped me to find my feet. Everyone at Silicon Practice was brilliant and in the end I made some great friends. So now I’m back off to Exeter Uni to finish my degree in Maths. Once again it’s more fun than it sounds! I’ve loved my time at Silicon Practice and I’m going to miss everyone. Web development has been an interesting internship for me and I could see myself having it as a career, but I think I’ll try out some other jobs in the tech industry before I settle down.