The “curse of knowledge” is real, biasing scientific and medical communicators – and other experts – into thinking their audience knows more about a topic than they do. The bias can result in miscommunication, misinterpretations, and, potentially, mistrust of experts. Luckily, the internet offers several free plain-language tools to help communicators enhance and simplify content without changing the accuracy.
With the emergence of open science and citizen science, the interest in plain language content or plain language summaries (PLS) has gained momentum over the last few years. Communicating complex scientific content and patient material clearly and understandably helps patient comprehension, informed consent, and adherence to treatment plans.
Yet, writers can find simplifying complex content while maintaining scientific accuracy and factuality daunting. As we become more accustomed to specialized material and terminologies, we may unintentionally ignore the needs of the general public. This bias is known as the “curse of knowledge,” in which experts tend to overestimate the general knowledge of others.
As a result, communicators may start doubting how to best communicate jargon and technical terms to a general audience without alienating the reader. How much can and should we simplify? How do we translate concepts that have served the scientific community to streamline communication between researchers or healthcare professionals without leaving out important information?
Throughout my years as a science and medical communicator, I’ve tried several more or less helpful resources supporting plain-language writing. The resources presented in this article have helped my colleagues and me in our mission to spread scientific and medical information beyond the ivory tower of science. Try them out and define which ones you prefer for your content-writing goals and purposes.
Note: the resources are listed in no particular order, and I have no affiliation with them.
A free tool that helps you write clearly and concisely. It highlights long and complex sentences, passive voice, and other writing issues that make your content difficult or dull to read.
Don’t let the basic design of the Hemingway Editor fool you. On the contrary, its simplicity ensures that you focus on the most essential issues with your content, removing all other minute distractions from your content writing.
I use the paid version of this app all the time. Grammarly does not specialize in scientific or medical writing. However, the tool checks your grammar, spelling, and punctuation and provides suggestions for improving your writing style.
The free version can be used by anyone who wants to review writing mistakes and highlights parts of your content requiring syntax and consistency improvements. It’s a crucial first step to making your content accessible for readers of any expertise level, nicely complementing the other resources in this list.
I recently discovered this one, and it looks pretty complete. This app analyzes your text and gives it a readability score. It also highlights complex words and phrases that make your content hard to understand. The Pro (paid) versions expand the features to optimize website scoring, URLs, and brand.
I’m pretty impressed by the simplicity of Simplish (pun unintended). You can copy and paste your text into the plain-language tool, and it will replace difficult words and phrases with simpler alternatives. It also highlights its suggested changes into different color codes, so you can review why the tool has made the suggestions. Pretty neat!
Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications
I think most of you know Thesaurus. But did you know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Marketing shares a list with plain-language equivalents of medical terms, phrases, and references? It can help you find simpler words and phrases for your writing. Just Ctrl+F (or Command-F) your medical terms and find lay-friendly alternatives that fit your needs.
EMA’s Medical Terms Simplifier
Like the Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) offers a list with simplified descriptions of medical terms. Although it doesn’t cover all medical jargon, especially very specialized areas or some rarely used terminologies, it’s a helpful resource for:
– Medical communicators who simplify content for lay audiences.
– Lay people who consume medical and regulatory content, especially terminologies used on EMA’s website.
Sometimes, my brain gets stuck working on medical content for lay audiences, and I’ll use the simplifier as inspiration. It might help you too. (And it’s free.)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
The Elements of Style is a writing guide that gives practical advice on clear and concise writing. A helpful resource for writers. Although a book – and not a plain-language tool – it is a free e-book that can increase the impact and clarity of your writing.
The Plain Language Action and Information Network
This resource provides guidelines and best practices for writing in plain language. It also offers training and helps to learn more about plain-language writing.
This resource provides a wide range of tips and tricks on the best practices of plain-language communication. Navigate through the website and discover guides, courses, training, and examples that can improve your communication skills.
Pick the resources that fit your purpose and have some fun
That’s it for now. Of course, to simplify your work – and avoid redundancy or contradictions while working – I recommend you eventually select the resources that best fit your goals and time. Since many of us are perfectionists, we can easily spend hours trying to perfect our writing. So, instead of creating a distortion of suggestions – which happens when we over-rely on various helpful plain-language tools – realize their benefits and shortcomings and use them to the best of their ability.
And while you’re at it, have fun experimenting with these tools.
While I have you here, I have a request to make. Feel free to share, like, and comment on my content.
- Do you use social media? Share the article with friends, colleagues, or whoever may benefit from these tips. You can also follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter (@Santiago_Gisler) for similar daily content and other information and thoughts that can help scientists and communicators.
- Have I missed your favorite plain-language tool or guide? Feel free to comment and add these to the list. Any helpful information is good information.