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How to simplify your veterinary writing to suit clients & the public

Posted in Client Service @ Nov 14th 2018 - By Dr Meredith Crowhurst
How To Simplify Your Veterinary Writing To Suit Clients And The Public

Quite often when I read veterinary posts, I ask myself, “How much of this post will the public understand?”

As well as being a veterinarian, I am a medical writer. I am passionate about communicating health and medical information with the public. With the rise in social media, I see an increasing trend in the number of veterinarians writing for the public. This is a fantastic way of engaging pet owners and of disseminating accurate health information. But quite often when I read veterinary posts, I ask myself, “How much of this post will the public understand?”

Veterinarians, generally, are not trained in how to communicate complex medical information. As veterinarians, we need to be aware of our audience and their level of understanding. As an example, I once saw a dog with enlarged lymph nodes (glands). After a five minute discussion with the owner on what this might mean for their dog, the owner hesitantly asked, “So, what’s a lymph node?” At that stage in my veterinary career, this was something I hadn’t even thought an owner might not understand.

I also remember a discussion with a veterinary specialist. I had written an article encouraging owners to look after their dogs’ teeth. The specialist criticised my use of the word ‘tartar’ rather than using the correct terminology of ‘calculus’. I stuck with the word ‘tartar’ because my aim was not to educate on terminology but to encourage owners to brush their animals’ teeth. People generally know the word tartar but not calculus and, for all intents and purposes, they are the same. I saw no need to complicate the message.

When it comes to communicating with the public, it is important to be accurate but it is also important to be aware of your audience, their level of understanding, and to have your aim in mind. If you want to help pets and their owners, then it is important that they understand your message.

Key points to simplifying medical and health information for the public are:

1. Write for a 14-year-old

The average level of health literacy in the population is that of a 14-year-old. You need to write to what a 14-year old will understand.

2. Remove the jargon

This can get tricky because it can be hard to realise which words are jargon when you’ve been in the business for a while. I went to write ‘proliferate’ the other day but a simple survey of the nurses soon let me know that this was a word that not many would understand. A good trick is to ask some people from the public to read your writing before you post. Ask your mum to read it!

3. Try not to introduce new terminology unless absolutely necessary.

If the topic requires complex terminology or topics, breakdown and explain them. Try simplifying your main post and provide links to more detailed information if the reader should wish to follow them.

4. Write simply.

What does this mean? It means using short sentences (of 20 words or less) and using common, everyday words. Avoid words with more than three syllables.

5. Write using an active voice

Active voice is much easier to read than passive voice. For example, “I saw this dog”, rather than “the dog was seen”.

6. Use stories

Humans respond more naturally to stories and remember them better. Tell your message in a story and don’t be afraid to use inclusive terminology, like I, we, and you.

7. Make your writing easy to scan

People tend to keep reading if your writing is easily scannable. Make use of headings, subheadings, bullet points, lists, and bold and italic fonts.

8. One point per paragraph

Keep one point to each paragraph and make sure there is lots of white space between paragraphs.

9. Always write with your reader and purpose in mind. 

10. Keep your messages short.

Practice makes perfect

These are only an insight into writing in plain English for the public. There are lots of good resources available to learn more. For example, check out the Health Writer Hub.

Keep writing because practice makes perfect. As far as I’m concerned, if more veterinarians can disseminate easily readable, clear, and accurate health information to the public, then that’s a fantastic thing.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse 21.10.18

About Meredith

Dr Meredith Crowhurst is a Melbourne University veterinary graduate with more than a decade of experience, working with domestic pets. Meredith understands the importance of the human-animal bond. Her aim is to treats pets and their owners with empathy and compassion, delivering the best standard of care. Meredith visits pets in their own home and can be called for a consultation via the PAWSSUM App or on 1300 34 35 80. Check out her Instagram blog: @drmerryoliveveterinarian.

Previously, Meredith completed a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree and completed her PhD in the biomedical sciences. As well as treating animals, Meredith’s aim is to educate and make medical science knowledge accessible for all. She is treasurer of the Australasian Medical Writers’ Association and is available for medical writing jobs in both the human and medical fields. A portfolio of work and contact details are available at Empathic Health Writing / Medical Writing 

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