Clarity is the overlooked opportunity in the rush to produce COVID-19 information

Clarity is an important but often overlooked factor in COVID-19 communication. The World Health Organization, UNHCR, and the Centers for Disease Control emphasize the importance of clarity in health communications. These and other agencies urge us to use established plain-language principles to achieve that required clarity. 

The great benefit of plain language is that it requires a relatively low reading effort to understand and be able to use the information. It helps all of us, regardless of our socioeconomic or educational status, professional skills, linguistic ability, or literacy level. In a crisis, we are all anxious, rumors are common, and timing is critical. We all want to have and to offer certainty. In the COVID-19 pandemic, plain language has the potential to change behavior, overcome rumors, and ultimately to save lives. We should use it more than we currently do.

We can and should communicate more clearly, and plain language shows us how to do that

Many documents that Translators without Borders receives from humanitarian organizations don’t follow basic plain-language principles. That’s a missed opportunity, not just in how we communicate with communities. It’s also a missed opportunity to communicate more effectively with our colleagues, donors, boards, governments and other partners. Plain language can revolutionize how we communicate in general. 

I recently reviewed and edited 10 documents that 10 humanitarian organizations produced as part of their COVID-19 response. All organizations sent the documents to Translators without Borders as final versions ready for translation and distribution.

Each of the documents contains multiple opportunities to add clarity for readers. Several even contain spelling and grammatical errors. In isolation, individual issues and examples can seem pedantic. But collectively they highlight an opportunity for us to communicate more effectively. 

I identified five relatively easy ways to improve document clarity. Writers should use:

  • active voice
  • short sentences
  • correct terminology
  • consistent terminology
  • concise wording.

Use the active voice

The active voice is clearer than the passive voice because it specifies who is responsible for an action. That helps our readers to be accountable for their actions; it also allows them to hold us accountable. The active voice typically uses fewer words, leading to shorter sentences. It also makes the verb more dominant, which focuses the reader’s attention on the relevant action.

Despite those obvious advantages, passive voice is an issue in eight of the 10 documents. Two documents contain 25% or more sentences in the passive voice. Two others include passive voice in more than 18% of sentences.

Use short sentences

Sentence length influences reader comprehension. A general plain-language recommendation is to limit sentences to 20 words or fewer, although most readers can comprehend longer sentences. Longer sentences require simple syntax and grammatical structures to help the majority of readers understand them. But rather than expect untrained writers to use simple syntax and grammatical structures, it’s easier to suggest they use short sentences.

Long sentences are an issue in eight of the 10 documents I reviewed. They use multiple complex sentences with up to 50 words. The complex opening sentence of one document contains 42 words, several clauses, various tenses, and multiple verbs. It also addresses several ideas:

“In several countries and on global level, persons with disabilities have spoken out that government information is not being shared in accessible formats or that measures are not made to compensate for reduction in support services that persons with disabilities depend on.” 

A plain-language alternative with 33 words in three simple sentences is:

“Many persons with disabilities have said that they are not adequately supported by their government. Some governments don’t provide information in accessible formats. Others don’t compensate well enough for reduced disability support services.” 

coronavirus clarity

Use key terms correctly

A clear document saves your reader having to assume or infer any information. That’s important because incorrect assumptions and inferences can cause misunderstandings and rumors. Misused or unclear terms also undermine your credibility as a trusted information source. 

Three of the 10 documents that I reviewed use a significant term incorrectly. They incorrectly assert that COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus. The actual message we need to convey is that COVID-19 is the disease caused by a type of coronavirus.

Several of the other documents use “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” interchangeably. Errors or oversights like this confuse readers, and require them to apply extra reading effort to untangle the true meaning.

Use terminology consistently 

Synonyms confuse readers. So a key plain-language principle is to use one term to describe one concept. That increases reader understanding, which is a critical aspect of changing readers’ behavior. In the 10 documents I reviewed, the majority used multiple terms to refer to the same concepts.

For example, some documents use both “separate” and “isolate” to refer to the same concept. Others use “the disease” and “the illness” to mean the same thing. One document uses “germ” and “virus” to mean the same thing. 

All of these pairs are legitimate synonyms. In some contexts readers might even view such variation as a sign of creativity. But in an urgent humanitarian response, always choose clarity over creativity.

Use concise wording

Use the minimum number of words to make your point. It’s a fundamental plain-language principle and a powerful way to engage your readers and keep their interest. 

One document uses 47 words to explain how to wipe a surface:

“Bleach usually comes in a 5% solution. Add cold water (hot water will not work) to dilute it, using 2 cups of bleach in a 5 gallon bucket of water. First clean with soap and water, then clean with the bleach solution and let it air dry”

A more concise 28-word alternative is:

“Clean surfaces with soap and water. Then wipe the surfaces with a mix of 2 cups of household bleach in 5 gallons of cold water.”

Let’s clear up the confusion and the rumors

The urgent and changeable nature of the COVID-19 response partly explains the lack of clarity in the 10 documents. But it doesn’t make it excusable, especially given the ongoing concerns among responders about uncertainty, rumors, misinformation, confusion, and undesirable behavior. Plain-language writing offers a way for all of us to communicate more clearly. We should all try to understand it better and apply it more consistently.

Written by Kate Murphy, Plain Language Editor for Translators without Borders

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