Readable Writing Rule #9: Tell Us What You’re Talking About

Readable Writing Rule #9Say What?!

If you read this sentence, “He developed high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, something he had never had before,” would you know which ailment was new? The high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, or both?

How about this: “He complains of frequent fatigue, pains in the lower back, chest pain and tightness.” Which is frequent; the fatigue, the back pain, the chest pain, the tightness, or all of them?

Clarity is essential

The reader must know exactly what you’re talking about. Let’s look again at, “He developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, something he had never had before.”

  • If both the elevated blood pressure and cholesterol are new, you might write, “He developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, neither of which he’d had before.”
  • If only the elevated blood pressure is new, you might write, “He developed high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. He had never had high blood pressure before.”
  • If only the elevated cholesterol is new, you might write, “He developed high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. He had never had elevated cholesterol before.”

These sentences won’t win a Pulitzer for poetry, but they are clear.

Let’s look at the sentence, “He complains of frequent fatigue, pains in the lower back, chest pain and tightness.”

  • If the fatigue is frequent but the other complaints are not, write, “He complains of frequent fatigue. He also complains of pains in the lower back, chest pain and tightness.” Now the reader knows which problems are frequent, and which are not.
  • If all of the symptoms are frequent, write, “He complains of fatigue, pains in the lower back, chest pain and tightness, all of which are frequent.”

You try – clarify the sentences below

Remember that your goal is to be crystal clear, not Shakespeare.

  1. The patient received frequent injections of penicillin, vitamin C and B2. (Only the penicillin injections were frequent.)
  2. The 53 year-old woman complained of frequent sweats and fevers, constipation, back pain, depression and nausea. (The sweats, fevers, constipation and back pain were frequent.)
  3. He had a broken toe and broken arm, which he had set. (Only the arm was set.)
  4. The office manager was responsible for regular recaps, deposits, hiring and firing, and employee reviews. (The recaps, deposits and employee review were regular. The hiring and firing were sporadic.)
  5. On the job, the patient developed high blood pressure, felt sad and nervous, and at times had crying spells. He saw doctors at Kaiser for this. (He saw the doctors for all of the problems.)
  6. The patient’s left femur was fractured in the accident. Although the bone was set, he had a great deal of pain. The patient developed epigastric burning pain as a complication of his occupational injuries. The pain was severe. (The femur and the epigastric pain are severe.)

Possible answers

  1. The patient received frequent injections of penicillin, as well as injections of vitamins C and B2.
  2. The 53 year-old woman complained of depression, nausea, frequent sweats and fevers, frequent constipation and frequent back pain.
  3. He had a broken arm, which he had set, and a broken toe.
  4. The Office Manager was responsible for hiring and firing, as well as regular recaps, deposits and employee reviews.
  5. On the job, the patient developed high blood pressure, felt sad and nervous, and at times had crying spells. He saw doctors at Kaiser for all of these problems.
  6. The patient’s left femur was fractured in the accident. Although the bone was set, he has had a great deal of pain. The patient developed epigastric burning pain as a complication of his occupational injuries. The bone and epigastric pain have both been severe.

For more ways to make your writing sparkle, see “Readable Writing Review.”

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