5 ways to humanize your writing

A medical writer advises how to generalize your language so that it’s compassionate yet comprehensible.

As a medical writer, it is sometimes difficult to apply the style guidelines and rules of medical writing to a general audience of writers. But recently, I was combing through the “American Medical Association Manual of Style” and I found a guideline that can apply to corporate communicators, marketers, and PR folks:

“Avoid language that is confusing, depersonalizing, informal, or vague. Words and phrases that can be understood in conversation may not always translate to formal written English. Avoid language that trivializes or de-humanizes patients or diseases.”

More generally, I think “Avoid language that dehumanizes people” is great advice for any writer. Given our sense of urgency to get our messages out there (on social media, in press releases, and in blog posts) and our need to prove our worth to executives and clients, we often forget that we are writing for human beings.

Here are a few tips from the “AMA Manual of Style” to help you avoid writing that “de-humanizes.” Although the examples are taken from health care, they can be applied more broadly.

1. Avoid euphemisms. “Euphemisms are indirect terms to express something unpleasant. Although such language is often necessary in social situations, directness is better in scientific writing.” To paraphrase, directness is better in any kind of writing. Avoid “expired,” “passed away,” or “succumbed” when referring to a patient’s death.

Avoid: The patient passed away.
Better: The patient died.

2. Use caution with “normal” and “abnormal.” Exams and tests are not, themselves, “normal” or “abnormal.” The results or findings of tests or exams are normal or abnormal, negative or positive.

Avoid: The physical examination was normal.
Better: The findings from the physical examination were normal.

Do not use “normal” or “abnormal” to describe a person’s health status.

Avoid: The infant was normal.
Better: The infant was healthy.

3. Man or woman versus male or female. Because the terms “male” or “female” could be perceived as depersonalizing, a patient should be referred to as a man, woman, boy, or girl.

Avoid: A 35-year-old female came to the emergency department.
Better: A 35-year-old woman came to the emergency department.

4. Use of “diagnose.” The term “diagnose” applies to conditions, syndromes, and diseases. “Patients themselves are not diagnosed, but their conditions are diagnosed.”

Avoid: The patient was diagnosed as schizophrenic 10 years ago.
Better: The patient’s schizophrenia was diagnosed 10 years ago.

Avoid: The patient was diabetic.
Better: The patient had been diagnosed with diabetes.

5. Disabilities. “Avoid labeling (and thus equating) people with their disabilities or diseases (e.g., the blind, schizophrenics, epileptics). Instead, put the person first. Avoid describing persons as victims or with other emotional terms that suggest helplessness (afflicted with, suffering from, stricken with, maimed). Avoid euphemistic descriptors such as ‘physically challenged’ or ‘special.'”

Avoid: The patient was a stroke victim.
Better: The patient has had a stroke.

Ragan readers, care to comment on other ways to humanize your copy?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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