Want to Be a Great Medical Writer? Get a Grip on the ‘Known-New Contract’

This blog post was first published on Coffee Break Medical Marketing

Being a great medical writer means putting yourself in your readers’ shoes. That can be hard to do when writing for the lay public: especially the more medical and science expertise you have.

With all your years of training and medical practice, jargon and medical concepts can become so second nature that it is hard to know when you sound like an alien-speaker to your readers.

But, you can leverage your expertise into readable and even delightful prose that fully engages your readers. Maybe you already do. If not, there is a formula you can follow! It is called the known-new contract.

This contract is between you (the writer and medical expert) and the reader. In it’s most simple form, it states that you will not introduce a complicated new piece of information to your reader without first giving them something known to give it context.

I should say here, this “known-new contract” is not my idea. Here is a nice description of it with sentence diagrams from Carnegie Mellon University. Here is another from the University of Arizona.

The idea (though not expressly called “the known-new contract”) is laid out in great detail by Gopen and Swan in their 1990 paper “The Science of Scientific Writing.” In their paper, they translate lessons learned about how readers read (taken from fields like psychology, rhetoric and linguistics) into simple writing constructs. They say:

“…readers make many of their most important interpretive decisions about substance of prose based on clues they receive from its structure.”

Namely, in the formation of any given sentence read from left to right, they suggest placing any predictable or known information to the left and new or interesting results to the right. This, they say, is what the reader expects and can process best:

“It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of the sentence.”

Gopen and Swan elaborate on this concept further in their paper (which I will link to again here for emphasis). They also present several other writing constructs that are well explained and equally valuable.

Communicating medical information effectively isn’t as easy as it may seem. I come across a lot more people who want to do it than can. Those who do it well, invariably, have mastery of concepts like the known-new contract. And so can you.

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