Last week I had a routine appointment with my doctor. While I was waiting for my exam, I read a poster about a new medication (I’m going to call it Acmecare).

Turns out it was a good thing the nurse had already taken my blood pressure! I was so angry about the gobbledygook on that poster that my blood pressure probably doubled.

Here are two of the sentences I was reading:

  1. Symptomatic responses to therapy do not preclude the presence of gastric malignancy.
  2. Known allergic reactions to components of Acmecare contraindicate use of this drug.

I hope you a) know why the writing is so bad and b) have vowed you will never, never write anything this way.

Deep breath.

Okay. Here’s what’s wrong: 

For #1:

  • Symptomatic is unnecessary. Every response to a drug is a symptom. Just use responses.
  • Preclude isn’t a word you hear in everyday conversation. It has no place in a poster that patients will be reading.
  • There’s no difference between “gastric malignancy” and “the presence of gastric malignancy.” (Let me give you another example: “A headache sent me to bed early last night.” “The presence of a headache sent me to bed last night.” The presence of doesn’t add anything.)

Here’s how I would rewrite the first sentence: “Don’t assume that a stomach symptom is a side effect of Acmecare. It could be cancer. If a symptom seems unusual, have it checked.”

On to #2!

  • Delete known. If you had unknown allergic reactions, you wouldn’t pay attention to them, would you? Do you see how silly this phrase is?
  • Contraindicate is another word you don’t hear in everyday conversation. Don’t use it.

Here’s my rewrite of the second sentence: “Don’t use Acmecare if you’re allergic to the ingredients.”

(I just showed this post to a friend, and she suggested a variation: “Don’t use Acmecare if you know you’re allergic to the ingredients.” I nixed it (she says it’s ok for me to disagree with her here). How can you make a decision about an allergy if you don’t know about it?

Bottom line: don’t puff up your writing with big, repetitive words. A medical poster shouldn’t be about showing off your fancy vocabulary and high IQ. Your priority is to get the information to the person reading it.

“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


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