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Ten reasons to write in plain English [excerpt]

Medical science writing is important and writing in plain English (that being writing that conveys the right content, clearly, and concisely) is a skill honed by practice. Learning to express complex ideas succinctly is in no way a remedial skill. Rather, it can only be seen as a sign of mastery. This matters in the 21st century, as English is the global language of science. English-language medical journals contain discoveries from doctors and other medical scientists from around the world, who, although experts in their respective fields, may not be fluent in English. Thus, it makes sense to write about complex science without using complex grammar.

Good writing takes work. If your article is good enough to get published, why should you make an extra effort to ensure it is clear, concise, and readable? Below are ten reasons, excerpted from Plain English for Doctors and Other Medical Scientists.

1. It helps spread new medical knowledge

When doctors share ideas about theory and practice, it helps the spread of medical knowledge. New medical discoveries prevent illness, relieve suffering, find cures, and extend life. Difficult-to-understand writing slows down this process; clear, concise writing speeds it up.

2. It helps to teach the profession

The Hippocratic Oath is a tradition of the medical profession; many doctors take it when they graduate from medical school. As part of the oath, they pledge to teach others the profession ‘according to their ability and judgement’. This implies that they’ll do what they can to make medicine understandable to others.

3. It shows respect for the reader

Doctors are busy professionals. When you write in plain English, it shows respect. Your reader will read faster, understand the information better, and remember it longer. Research in other fields shows that 80% of readers prefer to read plain English. Even if they can understand an article written in a traditional style, doctors are human too. Their brains work in the same way as everybody else’s. The same factors that influence reading ease for everybody else also influence reading ease for doctors.

4. It saves reading time

Research published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association reports that the average paediatrician spends 118 hours a year reading medical journals.

Writing expert Robert Eagleston thinks that writing in plain English may cut reading time by 30% to 50%. Joseph Kimble tested traditional and plain English contracts on various groups of readers and found that plain English cut reading time between 4.7% to 19.7% whilst also improving comprehension. Considering how much doctors read and how much time plain English saves, it seems likely that, if all medical journals were written in plain English, it could save the average doctor a week or two per year.

5. It helps your work reach the widest reasonable audience

When you consider the widest reasonable audience, and write in a style suitable for them, it promotes free and efficient exchange of new medical knowledge. Ideally, a medical journal article should be accessible to anybody interested in the subject matter, whether or not they are an insider in the field. This may include a doctor or scientist working in the same or related specialty, a student, or a nurse. It includes regular journal subscribers and those who search for articles on the internet.

English is the global language of science, but many people who read English-language medical journals are not native speakers. In fact, according to English-language expert David Chrystal, non-native English speakers outnumber native speakers 3:1.

6. It helps plead for a cause

Medical science articles advocate for people who are poor, sick, or oppressed. If you don’t make your point clearly, you’re not helping anybody. Writing in an inflated formal style sends the message that there’s no urgent problem. It’s just business as usual for those of us who work in a hospital, university, or research center. Writing in plain English helps to send the message that a problem is important and urgent.

7. It helps humanize your writing

Writing in plain English sounds more natural, closer to the way people speak in everyday life. It sounds professional, with careful attention to the science, but less formal and bureaucratic. This means that your writing sounds more human and puts less of a burden on your reader.

8. It shows respect for your work

Your research and ideas deserve to be presented clearly and concisely. Good writing helps build your reputation and benefits your career. More people will read your work and want to work with you.

9. It helps overcome editorial blindness

Writing in plain English helps you overcome editorial blindness, that feeling you get when you work on an article so long you miss problems that a reader with a fresh eye would see.

10. It saves time and improves content

As a medical researcher, your time is valuable. Learning to write and revise in plain English may take some extra time and effort initially; but, once you learn how to do it, it saves time for everybody. So ultimately, there is no extra cost.

Featured image credit: ‘Sign Here’ by Helloquence. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Martin Turner

    The writing in this piece is terrible! The opening paragraph is hard to read and says almost nothing. Don’t you have editors?

  2. irene

    A critical reason for needing plain English is only broadly covered in these points. We must remember that English is not everyone’s first language. Complex language is too difficult even for native English speakers so for other people it is that much more difficult. There’s too much room for error.

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