Lack Of WC Writing Skills Can Be An STD
By Gary Blake
Previously Published in National Underwriters Magazine
In the past six months, I have reviewed more than 400 writing samples sent to me by workers' compensation professionals who have either volunteeredor been volunteeredto attend my one-day, on-site seminar, "Effective Writing for the Claims Professional."Although they share many of the same writing problems with their brethren in other property-casualty lines, workers' comp professionals do have several special issues that should be recognized and overcome.
In keeping with the jargon of the field, the following four "short-term disabilities" for insurance professionals will be illustrated from a range of actual workers' comp documents.
- Abbreviation Fever
STD and LTD (short-term disability, long-term disability) are two of the many dozens of acronyms thrown around in workers' comp documents. This is fine as long as the reader has a clue about what these acronyms stand for. These acronyms may work for Activity Notes (memos to the file) but must be explained for those who can't translate them. Do you know what BOP, COE, C&R, ERTW, HH, MMI, PPD and PTD mean? These are among the four single-spaced pages of abbreviations and acronyms used within a single company's workers' comp department. Spell out the term first--such as "Course of Employment"--before using the acronym (COE).
- Capitalization Fever
In some companies, the computer system defaults to ALL CAPITALS for Activity Notes. This might be a help to those with writing problems because the caps may disguise run-on sentences and other writing ills, but it is wearying to read. Add to the mix a few long paragraphs and a tendency on the part of some workers' comp people to write these notes avoiding pronouns and the word "the," and you have a serious writing problem that slows down claims handling. Use upper- and lower-case letters. Period.
- Boldface Fever
I have seen many workers' comp writers use bold face in their letters in an interesting but pedantic manner. In writing to a physician, one claims person wrote, "Please examine his neck and knee..." I feel this is a bit overbearing. In the same letter, combining caps with boldface, the writer requests that the doctor ask the patient certain questions, including, "Have you worked in ***ANY*** capacity since your injury?" Well, if the doctor didnāt get the message with the caps and the boldface type, he or she will surely get it from those desk-pounding asterisks!
- Formality Fever
Like so many others in insurance, workers' comp professionals often believe that "professional" writing is simply another way of saying "writing that has lots of formal, pompous, and stodgy phrases." I think professionalism is shown by using plain English. In a single letter to a physician confirming a claimant's medical exam, I saw the following:
The "above employer." Name the employer in
the body of the letter.
Instead of "please allow this letter to confirm," write, "This letter confirms..."
Instead of "enclosed please find," write, "I've enclosed..."
"The undersigned." Use "me."
The rest of the usual suspects: as per, pursuant to, in regards to, "please be advised," "should you have any questions..."and "aforementioned."
Hedging: "I understand that...," "indicated."
Vagueness: Don't write, "What do you do on a daily basis?" but "Describe every activity you engage in during a typical day (e.g., take a shower, shave, make breakfast, etc.)"
Phrasing a thought well is always a challenge and is well worth the effort.
As you review your department's or your own work, some of the smaller writing issues to check for include:
Spell out dates: Not "1/2/01" but January 2, 2001.
Indent the information within the RE line as well as the category itself.
Avoid "Dear Sir or Madam."
Use "Sincerely" as a close, instead of "Sincerely yours."
Check spelling (for example, "healed," not "heeled").
Put commas after introductory clauses.
Write "Claim Number" not, "Claim #."
Avoid the presumptuous: "Thank you in advance for your cooperation."
If you are not happy with the look of your workers' comp documents, you may need to institute some writing training or create a department style guide. These are just a few ways to make sure that your letters are an STD rather than an LTD!