When Writing…Let’s Keep It Simple

Content From: Rachel Powell, Associate Director for Communication Science, Health Communication Science Office, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention (NCHHSTP), CDCPublished: October 10, 20192 min read


A worried man looks at a tablet.
Credit: iStock

Incidence. Prevalence. Morbidity. As a public health professional, I use all these terms throughout the day. But when I’m writing, I look for ways to sort through the technical and specialized language we use in public health for just the right word to prompt action among readers. There are some questions I keep in mind as I write:

  • Who am I trying to reach?
  • What do they need to know or do?
  • How can I make the information ‘digestible’?

October is National Health Literacy Month. This is an opportunity for us to raise awareness of the importance of these questions as we work toward clear communication. Do the words we choose resonate with our audiences? Are we taking every opportunity to communicate our messages plainly and simply?

One study by the American Press InstituteExit Disclaimer shows that reading comprehension drops as the number of words in a sentence go up. So, using shorter sentences can help with reading comprehension and reaching our audiences. But this is just one aspect of plain language and health literacy.

Individual words matter, too. It can be helpful to use plain language alternatives to the jargon-y world in which we work. One resource to consider is CDC’s Everyday Words For Public Health Communication [PDF, 282 KB]. This document lists frequently used terms in public health materials and their common, everyday alternatives with examples of plain-language sentences.

With a multiagency program such as Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America, it is especially important to use language that is clear and accessible. When developing the four pillars [PDF, 283 KB] or strategies, health literacy principles guided the development of messages. Beginning each pillar statement with a verb makes it easier to remember the main points: Diagnose, Treat, Prevent, Respond.

This is one example, but there are so many more. How about you and your organization, do you see an opportunity to address health literacy and carry out health literacy principles? Check out CDC’s health literacy website for help identifying ways that you can improve your communication materials and enhance your work to protect the health of the Nation.