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Use plain language and everyday words

blogUse words that your audience uses in their every day lives. For example, tablets can make you feel ‘sleepy’ rather than ‘drowsy’.

Complex words, words with multiple syllables, words with multiple meanings and clinical terms are likely to disengage people, particularly those with lower levels of health literacy. Research has shown that nearly half the population can’t fully understand and use health information.

Why is this important?

Effective written consumer medicines information is essential to support safe and effective medicine taking, but the wording and layout of currently provided materials do not meet patients' needs.

Raynor DK, Dickinson D., Key principles to guide development of consumer medicine information–content analysis of information design texts. (2009.) 43:700-706.. Ann Pharmacother.

Changes to the wording included shortening sentences and paragraphs, as well as replacing difficult or technical words with a lay alternative. Examples include: from 'disease going into complete remission' to 'getting rid of the leukemia'; from 'nausea and vomiting' to 'feeling and being sick'; and from '...doctor will check your blood chemistry' to '...doctor will do blood tests'.

Knapp P, Raynor D, Silcock J, Parkinson B, Can user testing of a clinical trial patient information sheet make it fit-for-purpose? (2011) 9:89 doi:10.1186/1741-7015-9-89. BMC Medicine
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Resources to support you

  • SMOG Calculator

    A calculator to help check the readability level of documents or texts from a website.

  • A brief guide to easy read

    Top tips for writing easy read documents.

  • Producing good medicines information

    Written by Theo Raynor and David Dickinson, this ‘Quick Guide’ is based on a paper published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy in 2009. It covers four key areas of producing good medicines information (‘words’, ‘type’, ‘lines’, ‘layout’) with a list of 10 ground rules.

  • How to write medical information in plain English

    This guide gives applies the plain English approach to medical information. It includes examples and a glossary. It also covers design and layout.

  • National Literacy Trust

    An independent charity that aims to transform lives through literacy, its website contains links to resources, projects and training.

  • Plain Words

    The message of this book is that writing should be as clear and comprehensible as possible, avoiding superfluous words and clichés.

  • Drivel Defence

    A software package that will help you to check the use of plain English in reports, letters and websites.

  • NHS Brand Guidelines

    Resources and templates to support the creation of patient information. Includes guidance on written information, layout, planning and communication with different groups, and signposting to further sources of information.

  • A-Z of alternative words

    This guide gives hundreds of plain English alternatives to ‘the ‘pompous words and phrases that litter official writing’.

  • How to write in plain English

    This guide covers the basics of how to write more clearly with examples and a glossary of words to avoid.

  • Readability

    This guide covers design and layout, areas such as the use of white space, appropriate font choice and sentence length. It also contains a readability test that aims to help determine how accessible text is to a disadvantaged reader.

  • Skills for Life Survey: headline findings

    The survey aims to produce a national profile of adult literacy, numeracy, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills, and to assess the impact that different levels of skills have on people’s lives.

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How have others done this?

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Pauline talks about how health information has helped her