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Vol. LIX, No. 10
May 18, 2007

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How Would Seuss Say It?
Plain Language Keynoter Celebrates Art of Communicating Simply

  Rita Rubin, <em>USA Today</em> medical reporter, addresses NIH’s seventh annual Celebrating Plain Language award ceremony.  
  Rita Rubin, USA Today medical reporter, addresses NIH’s seventh annual Celebrating Plain Language award ceremony.  
The writings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel might be the antithesis of plain language: He sometimes wrote sentences that were 3 pages long. In her address at the seventh annual Celebrating Plain Language at the NIH award ceremony, Rita Rubin, medical reporter for USA Today, suggested that we would do well to emulate children’s author Dr. Seuss, rather than Hegel. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat appeals to generations of new readers despite using a simple vocabulary of only 220 words. Hegel’s works, while valuable, remain among the most difficult to read.

Using plain language does not necessarily mean “dumbing down” writing, just as using complicated terminology does not necessarily make the ideas expressed more intelligent, said Rubin. At her own newspaper, where layout space is precious, Rubin said she spends more time cutting text from her stories than she spends writing them. If the subject is particularly technical, she reflects more on the point of the story before starting to write.

If the story loses or confuses readers with convoluted language, why bother? According to Rubin, formal science training can rob authors of the ability to approach a story from the perspective of a reader exposed to the topic for the first time. Science writing for a lay audience must be clear and concise so that the average reader can understand it.

Rubin has been reporting, often about medicine, for 30 years. She holds a bachelor of science degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and attended Harvard School of Public Health on a journalism fellowship (1987-1988). She has been a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and has written for Health, Ladies Home Journal, Reader’s Digest and other magazines. She is the author of What If I Have a C-Section? (Rodale Books, 2004) and in 2002, she spent 3 weeks at NIH as a medical science fellow sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.

Rubin cited former NIH scientists and Nobel laureates Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein as examples of physicians who made their research on the metabolism of LDL cholesterol come alive to non-scientists. She recalled how a newspaper colleague attended a presentation the researchers gave to a group of eighth-grade students and how excited her colleague had been by her clear understanding of their work. It takes someone very smart to be able to explain a complicated topic simply, Rubin observed.

More information about NIH’s Plain Language Initiative is available at NIH Record Icon

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