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How to improve your written communication.

Tell the reader what to expect, then deliver in well-organized, clear, to-the-point prose.

Write in the lab with journalism's brevity and flair, and law's accuracy and logic.

Read a newspaper or watch a newscast. Notice that in journalism-much more than in lab writing-the lead sentence points to what will happen in the future. That strategy overcomes writer's block-and reader's block! Leading with the past, by contrast, bores the writer and confuses the reader with background whose purpose is yet unstated.

Consider two poster titles I saw at a national clinical chemistry meeting. The first, "Effect of Treatment with Carbonyl Iron on the Magnesium Value of Mononuclear Blood Cells," is merely topical. Although it tells you the papers about a certain effect, it doesn't tell you what the effect is.

Contrast that title with the other, "Blood Magnesium Parameters Do Not Differ with Age." This title tells you what the topic is-and where the poster presentation is headed. Using a verb lends motion to the title.

The worst memo begins, "In your memo yesterday, you asked me to look into the problem of the fact that the analyzer isn't printing. I have looked into the problem, and I conclude that one of the ways we could fix the problem is to. . ." This retracing of steps bores the reader.

Remember that the person who assigned you the problem commonly knows the problem even better than you do. What he or she wants to read first is your solution, The solution-problem memo solves the problem of the traditional problem-solution memo.

A participant in one of my seminars later told me how that journalistic technique improved a memo to her boss. An order had gone out to throw out a reagent considered "worthless," but later found valuable. Her boss asked why the reagent was thrown out and how . much money had been lost.

She investigated and came up with a surprising finding: The reagent remained in the lab! She headed her memo with a newspaper-style headline, "LPD Reagent Not Discarded After All." With that heading, she told me, her boss probably didn't even have to read the rest of the memo.

Suppose your reader would resist your proposal. Let's say quality control for a certain *instrument sounds too expensive.

Lead with the value of this decision from the reader's standpoint: "We'll save probably $1 million per year on product-liability lawsuits by spending $100,000 per year on quality control. " Think of it as emphasizing a goal your reader likes rather than emphasizing the method of achieving it.

Briefly, the writing process consists of setting a purpose for writing, collecting information, outlining, writing, and finally, editing.

Outlining, in particular, lets you accomplish a lot before having to compose actual sentences. List all your main ideas for your document, each on a separate index card (or the computer equivalent). See which cards have an affinity for each other and cluster them. Then order your clusters logically. Much of the art of writing is organization.

The physical presentation of words and data is an important aspect of organization. While writing exclusively in capital letters gets attention, it strains your reader's vision and patience.

A combination of capital and lower-case letters is easier to read. Contrast these two versions of a sentence:


Which distinguishes better between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m.?

The second version distinguishes better because the "P" in p.m. drops below the line.

Numbers in vertical columns are easier to compare than numbers in horizontal rows.

Put page numbers on the upper, outer corners of pages. Print double-sided. The reader will then have half as many pages to handle and will always know an evennumbered page is on the left.

Let's turn now from organization to clarity.

Choosing the right word is the mark of a good writer. Keep a few word distinctions in mind. Our goal is to use a word that everyone will understand and that even the language purists will accept. That way we get our point across most effectively.

For example, "assume" versus "Presume." The difference (in primary definition) is that to assume is to postulate-you can assume anything-but to presume is to assume with reason. "It makes sense to presume (not assume) that the concentrations of AMP degradation products such as hypoxanthine and xanthine would be related to hypoxia."

"Assure," "ensure," and "insure": You assure a person that everything is all right, but you ensure that a result will happen. You insure an insurable interest like a lab or a life.

Books listed as general references at the end of this article provide more examples of proper English usage.

My next few examples concern numerical nuances. The less you're distracted by computer arcana, and the more you focus on basic logic, the faster you'll correct this sentence: "The FOR NEXT loop ensures that data are accessed by the program in four cycles. That is, each operation specified in the lines between 40 and 90 is repeated four times."

Where's the flaw? The function is executed once, then "repeated" only three times. To be clear, both to casual readers and to purists, say the function is executed four times.

Use consistent units and ways of stating numbers. "Admissions increased 200 per cent, and tests tripled" mixes expressions. Instead say, "Admissions and tests each increased by 200 per cent" or "Admissions and tests each tripled." Remember that if something increases by 100 per cent, it doubles; if it increases by 200 per cent, it triples.

Unnecessary figures waste your reader's time, so delete trailing zeros after dollar amounts and times of day. Change $2.00 and 2:00 p.m. to $2 and 2 p.m. Another way to be clear is to give context by using proportions. Don't say "four lab results got lost last month. " Say "four out of 10" or "four out of 1,000." It may be even better to say 40 per cent or 0.4 per cent first than to use the raw numbers, because proportions are usually more meaningful and memorable.

An accurate writer remembers that hearsay evidence is commonly marginal. A secondhand story relies on several assumptions: that the original speaker observed correctly, remembered well, was honest, and communicated well.

You would be gullible to write your boss a note, "Acme beakers are best," if all you had to go by was a salesperson's say-so. Nor is it much better to write, "The Acme salesperson thinks Acme beakers are best." Usually, you can know only what someone says, not what someone thinks. At the other extreme, don't write that the salesperson "claims," because that would drip with cynicism and imply without documentation that the salesperson is wrong.

The clearest statement is "The Acme salesperson says Acme beakers are best."

What modifies what? A pharmaceuticals executive wrote of "high prescribing psychiatrists." Were the psychiatrists high or did they prescribe a lot? If the latter, we have a unit modifier. Hyphenate it: "high-prescribing psychiatrists."

How about this from the Washington Post:

"Noted black history scholar." He's a noted black-history scholar or a noted scholar of black history (or maybe even a noted black black-history scholar).

Carefully position words to get across your meaning. Beyond the matter of the occasional hilarious misplaced modifier, putting a modifier in the right place is the same kind of courtesy to a reader as putting a period at the end of a sentence. It speeds your reader's comprehension.

Choose the best word and stick with it throughout your document. Don't litter your writing with synonyms to show off your vocabulary. Otherwise, you may confuse your reader. If you say, as the Washington Post did, "WRC-TV takes 22 local Emmy awards while WUSA earned 13," you suggest that WUSA worked for the recognition, while WRC stole its awards.

Here's another example, from the U.S. Bureau of Mines: "Initial laboratory results have indicated which modifications are needed to make the phosphate dewatering process effective on alumina red muds. Preliminary tests have shown that the dewatering technique is also applicable to coal washing fines." The italicized phrases probably mean the same, but a reader may well wonder whether "initial" precedes "Preliminary"; "laboratory results" are more scientific than "tests"; and "indicated" is weaker than "shown."

Avoid the sexist blunder, often cropping up in personnel communications, that makes all employees male. Edit these sentences:

"Each chemist works at his terminal. " Tr "a": "Each chemist works at a terminal."

"A microbiologist must write well. He also must speak well." Combine the two sentences: "A microbiologist must write and speak well." This also saves words.

Be consistent on gender. In one news report, Dan Rather called a female member of Congress "Congressperson" So-and-So, but later in the report he called a male "Congressman" So-andSo. Rather should have called the male a Congressperson, too, or the female a Congresswoman.

First (1) and second person (you) transcends gender-and enlivens your writing. Second person is especially good in user manuals. Say "Log on with your password" rather than the sexist and wordier command, "When the employee logs on, he must use his password," or the even wordier, "When the employee logs on, he or she must use his or he pass word" (still somewhat s ' cause "he" precedes "she") .

Now brevity. A great lead sentence is brief, previews the document as a whole, and tells what's most important. "You'll win a productivity award, says our latest management report" is much better than "I will brief you now on our latest management report, which, as you know, each month covers attendance, budget, productivity, and resources."

Browse in a bookstore for ideas for headings. Book titles quickly tell the reader what's important. Sidney Rosenzweig's book could have been "Major Films of Michael Curtiz." That title would have been brief and would have previewed the book as a whole. But investing a mere three extra words, at the top, adds what's most important. The actual title: "Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz. "

Exceptions to rules often cause writer's block. How can we be both accurate and clear when our rules have exceptions? Herb Naito, a cholesterol expert, appeared on NBC's Today show last July and did a great job: "We should avoid saturated fats, primarily from animal products like red meat or the skin on chicken. There are some exceptions to the rule on animal fat." It was a brilliant answer, accurate and yet accessible. He used the formula for omitting explicitly: Most As are B, except C (in writing, he might have added "see page x" to show where he'd elaborate on the exceptions).

Overlapping words weigh down your writing. Here are five examples of overlapping:

* Superfluous words. Superfluity is contextual. "We met Monday, July 25, 1988" usually is OK without the day of the week. But "We will meet Monday, July 24, 1989" needs the day of the week to check against any typo in the date-a typo that would have participants show up for the meeting on the wrong date.

* Redundancy. "Every weekday morning at 2 a. m . ": delete "morning" or "a.m."

* Unnecessary generic terms. "The state of Maryland is beautiful in the month of September" equals "Maryland is beautiful in September." Although "state" doesn't imply Maryland, "Maryland" implies state.

A "newborn baby" is a newborn or neonate; everyone knows those terms refer to a special kind of baby.

* Do-nothing words. Why entitle a graph "Quality-Control Activity" when "Quality Control" alone does the trick? Similarly, don't say you plan to meet "emergency conditions" when you mean emergencies.

A do-nothing word can also change your meaning. Is your medical technology program struggling to keep up enrollment figures or simply enrollment? Keeping up enrollment figures sounds as if you plan to cook the books.

A do-nothing word can also dilute the punch you're seeking. Which sounds stronger: "We'll conduct strike activity" or "We'll strike"?

* Self-canceling. Delete any wimpy or macho self-canceling combinations. People will tend to believe you if you say"My position is solid." But they'll question your consistency if you express both doubt and certainty: "I think (wimpy) my position is absolutely (macho) solid" (Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., about a vote switch).

George Bush, as vice president, ran through a spectrum of views on his warning that failing oil prices would hurt the U.S. petroleum industry: "I think this is Administration policy. I think I'm correct. I know I'm correct. Some things you're sure of. This I'm absolutely sure of." All he had to say was "This is Administration policy."

Use strong verbs to save space. "The next letter may be of interest to you" (Ann Landers) is wordy. She should have said "The next letter may interest you."

Driving too fast "is in violation of the law" (Landers), but it also "violates the law," in fewer words. Shun "-tion" or "-sion" nouns in favor of verbs to help simplify sentences.

"The legal portion is predominant" simply means the legal portion "predominates." When you see a "being" verb ("is," "was") followed by an adjective, often you can find a stronger verb. Being verbs convey very little beyond the fact of existence.

Another hint: "let" usually beats "allow" or "enable," which often force the next verb to be an infinitive (the "to" form of a verb). "Soft lenses allow oxygen to reach the cornea" should be "Soft lenses let oxygen reach the cornea."

Watch out for counterintuitive wording "Marathon runners generally achieve their lowest times when temperatures are in the upper 40s" (the Post again) is confusing. Say instead that marathoners run their fastest or best when temperatures are in the upper 40s.

Double negatives also confuse. "Do not moisten except with distilled water" means "Moisten with distilled water." Say that in the first place.

Saying what is is almost always clearer than saying what isn't.

Dropped negatives are easily missed during the critical proofreading stage. Ask Dr. Ruth. Some 100,000 copies of her book "First Love" were recalled because of one wrong sentence about the rhythm method of birth control: "The safe times are the week before and the week of ovulation." She meant to say unsafe, and she honorably took the blame for the error.

Safe writing dictated that Dr. Ruth should say instead, "The risky times. . . "

A reader's eye may easily skip over the word "not," or a typist may miss it and reverse your meaning. "Not" is also misspelled as "now" sometimes: "I am not interested" does a 180-degree turn when it becomes "I am now interested."

We have discussed organization, clarity, and brevity-now we come to tone. Here's an important principle: Watch out for the bureaucratic passive voice, which dulls and clutters writing. Instead of having the subject of the sentence acted upon, use the active voice, in which the subject acts. For example, "Laboratory personnel are faced with a confusing array of options" is hopelessly passive. "Laboratory personnel face a confusing array of options" is better.

Here's a strategic mix: "While we are still seeking all the facts, it's obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made. I pledge to you, I will set things right." In the first sentence, the passive voice diffuses the blame for bad news-you can't tell who made the mistakes. The speaker takes credit, however, for trying to solve the problem by using active voice in the second sentence.

Contractions like "isn't" and "don't" make you sound relaxed.

Keep your language upbeat. Bread wrappers used to say that benzoate of soda was added "to retard spoilage." Someone got wise, and the reason became "to preserve freshness."

By the same token, it may confuse a patient when you say a test result is negative. Say "normal" instead (or "I'm glad to tell you your test is negative.") And cite the accuracy rate rather than the error rate.

My last tip is to use plain English-not big words-to impress. A method is usually better than a methodology. Rely on, rather than rely upon. A majority of laboratorians may believe something, but most believe it, too. "Practicable" means doable; you probably mean practical. Again, consult the references below for good usage.

Now in a brief test of all you've just read, I'll ask you to edit the memo in Figure 1. Read on only after you try to fix it.

How about: "Next week, probably, I'll mail you a replacement package of the research data on our analyzer runs.

"I'm putting the package together fast as possible, in response to your July 22 memo.

"About the testing task force: You'll keep getting the executive summaries only if you join. You probably have at least a month to decide."

Now write your boss a memo about memos-and letters, reports, and articles. In that memo, lead with the future. Tell your boss how you and your lab associates will become plain-English laboratorians, writing with organization, clarity, brevity, and tone to win your readers' attention, comprehension, and respect.

Fix this memo! Remember:

1. Lead with your main point.

2. Lead with what you know.

3. Change "-tion" and "-sion" nouns to verbs.

4. Avoid "I feel" and "I think."

5. State positively; avoid negatives.

"I wanted to respond to your memo of July 22, in which you said that you had not received the research data on our analyzer runs. I am putting a replacement package together tor you as fast as possible. I think I will have it ready tor you in a week.

"You also asked how long you have to make the decision on whether to join the testing task force. I do not know the exact date, but I think you have at least a month. In any event, however, you cannot continue to receive the executive summaries unless you join."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wallace, Hank
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:A pilot program for POL proficiency testing.
Next Article:Selecting laboratory instrumentation.

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