Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, sharing tips for writing in plain language is our favorite. And, as you probably know, a fundamental principle of plain language is to keep sentences and paragraphs short. But what happens if you need to use a lot of words to communicate something clearly? What if, alas, you have to choose between brevity and clarity?
Our answer: choose clarity every time. When writing about health in plain language, the fact is that sometimes you need a lot of words to tell your readers what they need to know. And while you may feel like this is at odds with your clear communication instincts, it really isn’t!
Let’s look at a couple of examples. Which of these options works best?
- Your out-of-pocket maximum is the most you have to pay for covered health care services in a plan year.
- Your out-of-pocket maximum is the most you have to pay for covered health care services in a plan year. After you spend this amount on deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance, your health plan pays 100% of the costs of covered benefits.
In this case, longer is definitely better, right? The second sentence (courtesy of HealthCare.gov) gives helpful context for a tricky health insurance-related term.
In general, it’s best to fight the urge to use a more complex phrase just to lower your word count. Here’s another example:
- You may have swelling at the injection site.
- You may have swelling in the place where you got the shot.
Again, more words — but way clearer.
So remember, dear readers, a higher word count isn’t always the enemy. And you can still look for opportunities to break up longer sentences into 2 and “chunk” your content into bulleted lists or short paragraphs.
The bottom line: Sometimes, writing in plain language means more words — and that’s okay!