Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Weaving Definitions Into Text

Many inexperienced healthcare writers struggle to define newly introduced terms without using the same technique over and over or without sounding incredibly boring. Take heart. Writing is more a craft than a science, after all, and just as there is more than one way for a taxidermist to skin a cat, there is also more than one way for writers to weave definitions into text. Here are just a few techniques, showing an example statement with a new term, an edited version, and a short explanation of the technique itself. I've used boldface to indicate new terms. Many publications and most textbooks use boldface formatting to indicate new terms, so the reader can spot them quickly.

Comma-offset with "or"


Original: An individual's complaint of headache should not be minimized or unthinkingly treated with analgesics before the underlying cause has been determined.


Edited: An individual's complaint of headache should not be minimized or unthinkingly treated with painkillers, or analgesics, before the underlying cause has been determined.


Technique: Swapping out an unfamiliar term with a familiar one works well for articles geared for the lay public. Then just add a comma and "or" before the medical term.

"a condition in which"


Original: The prognosis is guarded if the embolism is massive enough to trigger a pulmonary infarction (which occurs in about 10 percent of cases).


Edited: The prognosis is guarded if the embolism is massive enough to trigger a pulmonary infarction, a condition in which lung tissues die and which occurs in about 10 percent of cases.


Technique: The phrases "a condition in which," "a disease in which," and similar phrases can really help you out of a jam. One of the best editors I ever worked for, the late and wonderful Vince Marteka, once told me that when space is at a premium, if you can't readily explain how something happens, then explain what happens. That's basically the formula here. Rather than a detailed explanation of how a pulmonary infarct occurs, I just explained the end result (death of lung tissue). That's often the only thing the reader needs at that point anyway.

Parenthetical definitions


Original: This involves removing the embolus or ligation or plication of the vena cava to prevent the migration of new emboli into the pulmonary circulation.


Edited: This involves removing the embolus completely. It may also involve a tying off (ligation) or folding over (plication) of the vena cava surgically to prevent the migration of new emboli into the pulmonary circulation.


Technique: This is a simple technique but one that shouldn't be overused. Parenthetical phrases tend to wear the reader out after awhile. Oh, and most publications prefer placing common terms first and scientific terms second, but others prefer the reverse.

"commonly called"


Original: In adults, the obstruction is more often acquired, resulting from blockage by uroliths or neoplasms.


Edited: In adults, the obstruction is more often acquired, resulting from blockage by neoplasms or uroliths, commonly called kidney stones.


Technique: This is a fun and easy technique that requires only the addition of a comma and phrase, such as "commonly called," "otherwise known as," or "typically named."

Multiple terms in same sentence


Original: As the lumen of the coronary artery narrows, gradual ischemia causes cells in the myocardium to weaken and die.


Edited: As the opening, or lumen, of the coronary artery narrows, the reduced blood flow deprives cells in the myocardium (heart muscle) to weaken and die, a condition called ischemia.


Technique: You can introduce several terms in one sentence but not without really thinking it through. Generally I advise limiting new terms to two per sentence. If you find you need more, you might want to break the sentence into parts. Whatever you decide, try to vary the technique used when introducing a term to avoid sounding repetitive.

Separate sentences


Original and a good way to do it:
Otitis media is an accumulation of fluid within the structure of the middle ear. The condition is subclassified into either serous or suppurative categories, according to the composition of the accumulating fluid. In serous otitis media, the fluid…. In suppurative otitis media, the fluid….


Technique: When you have several new terms, keep their definitions simple for the reader by breaking up the sentences. There is no substitute for clarity.


Learn these methods (or keep a copy of this blog handy) and you'll be breezing through those definitions in no time.