writing tools to make COVID-19 comprehensible

This writing advice becomes now and then more urgent. I dragged it out to help reporters covering the Great Recession. I am sharing it again to see if it can stand up to the test of a great pandemic.

I don’t expect such advice to “go viral” — what a newly loaded phrase — but I hope it spreads in support of coverage that takes responsibility for what readers and viewers know and understand. Our goal is twofold:

  1. To give people what they need to make safe decisions about their personal health and the public’s health.
  2. To give readers confidence in their knowledge so they will not be harmed by the type of anxiety that leads to panic — and worse.

There are a dozen strategies of clarity and comprehensibility listed below, some with specific reference to coverage of the coronavirus. I have rearranged their original order from the belief that there is one writing strategy that stands above the rest.

While accuracy is clearly the most significant virtue in reporting on something as consequential as a global pandemic, it too often happens that reporters don’t take the next step — working to be understood. Yes, a writer can be accurate and incomprehensible. Perhaps the only thing worse is to be inaccurate and comprehensible because then readers will be acting upon information that is useless or even dangerous.

One human is more memorable than tons of data.

Roy Peter Clark, writing teacher at Poynter

1. Slow down the pace of information, especially at points of complexity.

A child calls a parent on the phone and blurts out that they are in trouble, talking at the speed of light. What does the parent say? “Slow down, honey, slow down. Now tell me what happened.”

The great writing teacher Don Murray taught me this lesson, and I have tried to pass it along to countless writers: “Use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.”

What does that have to do with slowing down the pace of information?

My best illustration is borrowed from my book “Writing Tools.” Here is a single sentence from an old editorial about state government. It is titled “Curb State Mandates.”

To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensations, working conditions and pensions.

The writer of this sentence is working hard, but not hard enough. The writer suffers from what psychologist Steven Pinker calls the “curse of knowledge.” He has forgotten what he did not know. And now the writer knows so much, he makes the mistake of thinking the reader can keep up.

So how would you slow down the pace of “Curb State Mandates”? Here is my best try.

The State of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called “state mandates.” On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local governments, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called mandates.

The differences in these passages are worth measuring. The original writer gives us one sentence. I give the reader eight. The original writer gives us 58 words, while I deliver 81 words in about the same amount of space, including 59 one-syllable words. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is clearer.

To the point, the pace of my version is slower.

Since it’s easier to read, why wouldn’t I say the pace is faster? In a sense, yes, it feels faster because the path is smoother. But a sentence is a sentence. There is a period at the end. The Brits call the period a “full stop,” and that’s what it is, a stop sign.

The pace of longer sentences — well-written ones, anyway — has to be fast because we are speeding along, reaching for the period that completes the thought. A series of shorter sentences — with lots of stop signs — offers a slower pace, where readers are more able to grasp a piece of information and then use that piece to get ready for the next sentence.

This is so important I want to repeat it: Too often, the reader gets sprayed with long complicated sentences and just can’t keep up. Think of the period as a stop sign. The more stop signs, the slower the pace, which is good if you are trying to make something clear.

Now let’s see how this might apply to coverage of the current public health crisis. I found this brief description from CNN.

The coronavirus is actually not one type of virus. It is a large family of viruses that also includes SARS and other minor to major respiratory illnesses. Coronaviruses can be spread between animals and people, as we have seen with this current strain. The term “corona,” which is from a Latin root meaning crown or ring of light, refers to the shape of the virus under a microscope.

This feels like the right pace to help readers learn. No need to resort to Dick and Jane sentences in this passage. Let’s count the number of words in each sentence: 9-18-16-25. The pace is fairly easy, and the variation of sentence length gives the reader an agreeable rhythm.

That said: Consider the effect of slowing down the pace even more:

The coronavirus is actually not one type of virus. It is a large family of viruses. That family includes SARS and other minor to major respiratory illnesses, ones that affect your breathing. Coronaviruses can be spread between animals and people. That’s what happened with this current strain. The term “corona” comes from a Latin root meaning crown or ring of light. It refers to the shape of the virus under the microscope.

You can decide if that’s clearer. The word count is 9-7-16-8-7-14-11. I have revised four sentences into seven. Maybe defining what “respiratory” means may be a step too far. Reading the two passages again, I believe that mine is a little more comprehensible. There is still a variety in length, but with a slower pace. That slower pace is created by those seven periods — seven stop signs.

Here is a list of other reporting and writing strategies designed to create comprehensible prose, summarized in a dozen more tips.

2. You may wind up with thousands of readers, but begin in your head with one.

When you are ready to sit at the keyboard and write, you may already know too much. Steven Pinker calls that “the curse of knowledge.” In other words, you forget that just a while ago you were a curious learner. Don’t write down to the audience, but imagine how you would begin to explain your topic to a single person in a congenial telephone chat. (I used to say, “How you would explain it to that person sitting next to you on a barstool,” but that violates social distancing!)

3. Create the illusion of conversation.

Writers talk about wanting to achieve an authentic voice. But in most cases, no writer is speaking aloud. The text is coming off the page or screen. But you can create the illusion of someone speaking to another. The most powerful tool for achieving this is addressing the reader directly as “you.”

This has become absolutely clear in coverage of the pandemic: You cannot overuse the question and answer format. I am seeing Q&As across media platforms, with questions coming from journalists but also other members of the public. A question from a civilian has a way of getting experts to explain things in the language of the common person, at an easy pace. If the pace of information comes too quickly, the questioner can interrupt to slow the expert down.

4. Either avoid jargon – or translate it.

All of us are multilingual, which is to say that we belong to lots of different language clubs. My grandfather was Italian. My grandmother was Jewish. I have a degree in English literature. I play in a rock band. I coached girls soccer. Each of those experiences has taught me to communicate in a different dialect.

When I report on a technical subject, I have to learn a specialized language. But readers are out of the loop and will not understand jargon, unless I teach it to them.

This pandemic generates countless technical terms. They are coming at us so quickly, we often let them fly by us as news consumers. For example, before I wrote this essay I could not tell you the difference between the phrase “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.” Hmm, why were some reporters and specialists using one of those terms rather than the other? In a CNN glossary of related terms, we get this:

“COVID-19 is the specific illness related to the current epidemic. The acronym, provided by the World Health Organization, stands for ‘coronavirus disease 2019,’ referring to the year the virus was first detected. The name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2.”

5. Use as few numbers as will get the job done.

I learned this from Wall Street Journal writer and editor Bill Blundell. “My goal,” he told me, “is to write a WSJ story without a single number. If I can’t do that, then it is to write a story with only ONE really important number.”

Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs. Readers don’t learn that way.

There are lots of confusing numbers coming from government officials and scientists. By reputation, journalists are more literate than we are numerate. When you are using numbers in a story, it is wise to triple check. And have a reliable source with whom you can test your accuracy.

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by Roy Peter Clark, Poynter

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