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Discharge Summary vs. Tips and Instructions

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:45 PM

The importance of what it says and how it says it.

By Jan V. White

First they carved up and rebuilt my knee. Then they rehabbed me, and now they were sending me home. Of course I was happy, but I woozy and fuzzy in the mind and a bit terrified. Then, paperwork signed, pushing the chair, the nice nurse slipped a letter in the plastic belongings bag.

In that mental and emotional state, I was just a drugged guy who was scared and pooped. The last thing I felt like was reading. No thinking, let alone technical terms. I glanced at the headline: "Discharge Summary." OMG! What sort of fluid would I discharge and where?

Later, when I came to after a good snooze, I found what was actually a very useful list of practical suggestions that nurses had prepared for what to do next. Unfortunately, it only works if and when you are fully compos mentis, ready for concentrated study and translation into normal people's English that most patients find daunting. It is not for you and me as little individuals. It is typical semi-abstract global tone. The language is medspeak; its writing is officialese. The thing is like a frightening report with all those bullets. It looks as grey and foggy as the minds are at that worrying time. Moreover, its unfriendly appearance asks to be put aside for "later," and what inevitably happens to whatever is to be studied "later"? Mind you, it isn't all that bad. It is just such a regrettably mediocre waste.

Here is what the nurse gave me. It is the "before" of the "after." You have to read both to make the comparison. It is a blend of what it says and how it says it and why it makes better sense, what the intentions are and what the actual wording is, what its whole purpose is, whom it is for, and how it works when you see what you have at last pulled out of your plastic bag of laundry and other stuff.

This Is Before...

This Is After...


Remember your targets are not at their best, and they are disinterested, anyway.

What are the changes in the text to contact and help them more effectively?

1: "Tips and Instructions" is useful to the target, so it catches them.
"Discharge Summary" is just a theoretical identifier.

2: "Now ... later ... at home ... soon ... always" is an immediately understandable structure.

3: You need merely read the "now" bit and skip the reader-friendly rest.

4: Logical groups of meaning are signaled visually by separation.

5: Regular/vs/bold for emphasis of meanings both individually and in groups.

6: Short, self-contained sentences, intimate wording.

7: No bullets -- those meaningless, off-putting clichés.

8: Flush-left alignment to create the neat left-hand edge of the texts.

9: Left-hand text edge allows heads to "hang" outside for maximal noticeability.

All the techniques of geometrical alignments and spacings make sense by clarifying the elements. Why is that useful? Because people like short bits and resent big ones. So here is a good example of such an organized set of deliberately short bits. It is the antithesis of an essay format. That is usually the start of anything: a "report". Then the essay is disintegrated into various elements, a bunch of bullets are inserted, and your "list" is done. No, it ain't.

All right, non-visual editors: What about those big, black, bold blobs of paralellipipidons. Those solid squares are not decorative superficial embellishments that disturb the clarity of your thoughts?

10: The black squares reinforce the blackness of the heads that look weak without it.

11: The black squares add sparkle that creates first-glance curiosity.

First-glance curiosity is vital, because your effort is wasted unless potential readers are interested. So we must use visual salesmanship to play up elements, make them noticeable, and thus user-friendly. Specially for old ones with lousy knees.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd ed., and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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