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.


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