To Write Clearly: SIMPLIFY

I posted an essay yesterday that was published in the Journal of Participatory Medicine called, “But You Said I Wouldn’t Need Radiation.” It’s about how two different doctors took the same tumor results and communicated them to me in completely different ways. One doctor’s communication style left me bereft and anxious, while the other doctor’s style made me feel informed and hopeful. (FYI, I’m a 20-month breast cancer survivor and doing great now.)

To make the essay work–translation: fit into the <2500 words requirement while not compromising the story–I had to choose my words carefully. I had a big story to tell in a small amount of space, so I crammed my “back story” about having a post-surgical staph infection into only one paragraph.

One of the peer reviewers recommended that I define “staph infection” and “vancomycin” in my essay. This suggestion was excellent; I wasn’t meeting the needs of the lay audience.

No problem, I thought. I can just stick in the definitions and be done, right? That idea made perfect sense to me, but implementing it was another story.

I like to complicate things. Why just knock out an essay in an afternoon when you can labor over every word and stretch it into a week? What if it has a typo? What if I get some scientific detail wrong? Will I lose credibility with the audience?

Thank goodness for deadlines. They make me focus. I jumped into the essay, testing different ways to insert the definitions. First I gave them footnotes. I looked up definitions from several sources and created my own morphed versions. Of course, I felt like I should cite my sources, so that idea turned complicated. How do you cite a footnote?

So I abandoned that plan and decided to insert short definitions after each word, encased in parentheses. Also a bad idea. This edit just made the sentence structure awkward and the definitions more confusing.

Then I decided to write the definitions out in a separate sentence, but those definitions seemed out of place and lengthy.

Finally, I grabbed the paragraph and stuck it into a new Word document. (This technique works well when I don’t want to commit to changes in my original draft.) That’s when the magic happened. I needed to take my own advice: SIMPLIFY.

I deleted all of the footnotes, parentheses, and extra junk. Then I tucked abbreviated versions of those definitions into the sentences in front of the words they defined. Here’s the result:

Twelve days ago, my plastic surgeon, Dr Black, admitted me to the hospital with a “fever of unknown origin” just a few hours after removing my last two mastectomy drain tubes. That fever came from a bacterial infection in both breasts caused by Staphylococcus aureus.

Staph infections can be difficult to eradicate, so Dr Black ordered a truckload of tests and an infectious disease consult that led to treatment with an IV of the high-powered antibiotic, vancomycin.

And here’s the lesson to this post: when you get tangled up in sentence structure–or any content issue–SIMPLIFY.

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