Professional writing in dentistry's digital age

Jan. 21, 2015
Acting like a professional still counts in everything from official correspondence to social media

Acting like a professional still counts in everything from official correspondence to social media

BY Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD

TY 4 the email about r order . . . b4 i called u i was falling behind n my boss was on my case. If u know what i mean haha LOL U saved me big time . . . I'm gonna d/l the info u emailed me 4 future reference.

The above email certainly does not scream professional. Far from it. Whether emailing patients to confirm appointments, updating a resume on LinkedIn, creating a blog or Facebook presence to reach new clients, tweeting oral hygiene tips, or texting colleagues, writing (especially digital communication) is all around. Even though these mediums often don't feel like writing because of their perceived casualness and immediacy, these communications still reflect a dental hygienist's (and practice's) professionalism.


Other articles by Munoz


Much of this communication is accomplished through smartphones. In fact, the PEW Research Center states: "The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in 2020."1 Smartphones allow people to communicate anywhere and everywhere; people can text, tweet, send email and instant messages to a network of colleagues, clients, followers, connections, and friends.

The iPhone 6 Plus notwithstanding, think of the ever-shrinking size of communication - from a standard-sized, 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper to an email screen to a smartphone. Thus, what readers are able to see is less and less text at a time. Whether the small screen on a smartphone or a formal hard-copy report, the ultimate goal of good professional communication is clarity and conciseness. If one writes an email message, blog entry, or tweet that is unclear to clients, problems can occur. Unclear writing can lead to missed appointments, inaccurate procedures, or danger to the client. Conciseness means shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs. Write to express, not impress; write to communicate, not confuse. Omit the out-of-date terms, extra-long words, and wordy construction.

Go from this:

• "I would like you to take into consideration the following points, which I know will assist you in better applying new HIPAA rules and regulations currently burdened by the need to execute all date manually and on paper rather than through standardized, electronic transmission." (44 words, 10 containing words with more than three syllables)

To this:

• "Please consider the following points. This will help you apply the new HIPAA rules by submitting data online instead of having to type text on separate forms." (26 words) (see sidebar titled "Concise terms")

Specific word choice will depend on the audience. Colleagues will be able to understand acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon, yet our patients and those outside of the dental field will need parenthetical definitions or translation of technical terms. For example, patients will need for us to say, "Remove the last tooth on your lower right" rather than "Extract No. 31."

In addition to thinking about the reader's technical knowledge, be mindful of issues of diversity. Sexist and ageist language, as well as language that reflects a heterosexual bias, have no place in professional communication. Additionally, native speakers sometimes forget how jargon, idioms, clichés, puns, and so forth exclude a multicultural audience. One reason concern for diversity is important is because diversity is protected by the law (Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity). Diversity is also good for business because in a workplace where employees and clients feel valued and respected, they feel more committed to the practice. Clients prefer patronizing a business that is free from prejudice - and people from diverse backgrounds spend money. Most importantly, however, respecting diversity is the right thing to do. Our words are reflections of thoughts, ideas, and values of us as individuals and of our business as a whole (see sidebar titled "Inclusive business language").

Concise terms6

1. Replace out-of-date terms with modern alternatives

Out-of-date, wordy term

Modern alternative


Discussed above

In lieu of


As per your request

As you requested

Pursuant to






Pertain to


2. Choose concise versions of long words

Long term

Concise term








First (or 1.)







3. Shun the -tion words.

"Shun" word

Concise term

Came to the conclusion


With the exception of

Except for/but

Make revisions


Investigation of

Investigate/look at/review/assess

Consider implementation


Utilization of


4. Avoid wordy construction ("to be" verbs, passive voice, expletives, camouflaged words, prepositional phrases).



I am in receipt of your payment of $100.

I received your $100 payment.

It has been decided that Joan Smith will head the dental hygiene department. (Passive voice is when the subject (Joan) is passive and camouflages who is the doer-Who decided?)

Dr. Muñoz named Joan Smith to head the dental hygiene department

There are three people who will work in sterilization. (Expletives are "there" or "it" followed by "to be" verb)

Three people will work in sterilization.

Make an adjustment (Key word is buried in surrounding words)

Adjust (or revise, alter, change, edit, fix)

He spoke at a rapid rate (includes a preposition and a noun)

He spoke rapidly.


Length of Sentences

Very easy to read

Average sentence length is 12 words or less

Plain English

Average sentence length is 15-20 words

Extremely difficult to read

Average sentence length exceeds 20 words

Just like hard-copy documents, readers have certain expectations of what digital communications should look like, sound like, and how they should be formatted. One of these is email communication. Emails are a hybrid between letters and phone calls. As opposed to letters, emails are used when we need fast, efficient communication. And, rather than phone conversations, emails are used when we want to keep a chain or electronic record of communication. The drawbacks are that emails lack privacy, can lead to inaccurate information, and can be depersonalized. When people take the attitude that emails are merely casual communications where grammar and style are unimportant, they are sadly mistaken. For businesses and practices, email may be the major form of communication. Therefore, people should pay particular attention to correctness. Some managers say the following about email messages:

• Most workplace communication is now via email. Business email needs to be almost as formal and as carefully written as a letter because it is a formal and legal document. Never send an email that you would not be comfortable seeing on the front page of a newspaper, because some day you may.

• Many people tend to be very social in emails. Your employer owns your emails written on your work computers. They are NOT private. They can be used not only against you, but against your firm in court. For example, if I send an email to a coworker that states in it somewhere what a lousy job Frank is doing on the such-and-such project and that project goes bad, it is possible that the email could end up in court and be used against my employer. In my mind, all I was doing was venting my frustrations to an understanding friend and coworker, but, in reality, I am creating a permanent record of everything I say.2

One step to creating good emails is to identify yourself by name, or title, or affiliation. The "From" line or the signature file serves as an online business card. Once readers know who you are, they will be more comfortable opening the email without fear of corrupting their computer. Keep in mind, having a professional digital identity goes along with having a professional-sounding email address. The safest strategy is to use a first name or initial and last name. When emailing a potential employer, would you really want to use, or interact with, [email protected]?

Providing an effective subject line is also essential for readers to know the nature of your email. Many readers are unwilling to open unsolicited or unknown email due to fear of spam. In addition, business professionals receive many emails every day and cannot or will not read every one of them. To ensure that your email is read, avoid leaving the subject blank or putting "Hi," "What's new?" or "Important message." Write something like "Date for Periodontal CE."

Just like a letter, an email needs be organized, including an introduction paragraph, a discussion paragraph, and a conclusion paragraph. Even if the paragraphs are only one sentence long, all elements should be included. Remember though, email is not the best communication channel for complex information or long correspondence. If the topic demands more depth than can be conveyed in a screen or two, write a report instead.

Within the formatting and organization of the email, use highlighting techniques such as boldface, bullets, and underlining sparingly. Many email platforms will not display these visual enhancements and if these are included, those parts of the message could get distorted.

When sending email attachments, tell the reader within the body of the email message that you have attached a file. Specify the file name and the software application used (HTML, PowerPoint, PDF, RTF Word, or Works) and use compression (zipped) files to limit your attachment size.

As always, use courtesy or "netiquette." Be courteous and avoid abusive, angry emails. Because of a quick turnaround, email can lead to "flaming."

These same rules of conciseness and professionalism apply when texting or using instant messages. These feel very casual yet more and more companies include these communication tools within their business. Therefore, always put your best image forward even when using these immediate and brief communication channels.

Social media is another channel more businesses are using. This can take on many different forms, including Internet discussions, forums, blogs, online videos, and more. A dental practice can blog to transmit information about itself, its personnel, and its services. The information can be delivered fast and efficiently to an individual's smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer anytime, anywhere. Using Facebook, clients can post directly to the dental practice's page.

When using social media for business purposes, dentists, owners, and managers should create guidelines for use, because - while companies might hope that employees will use social media ethically and professionally - without precise guidelines, employees could disclose confidential information creating damage to a business's image. Understanding social media can allow dental professionals to participate in online communities and incorporate social media into their workplace. While many social media channels exist (see sidebar titled "Examples of social media"), this article focuses on blogging, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.

A blog, short for Web log, is created online and can include words, images, links, and videos. Blogs allow and encourage input from readers. Blogging allows professionals to communicate with colleagues. Some businesses encourage employees to use blogging for updates, issue resolutions, and company announcements. In contrast to private internal blogs, businesses also have public blogs. A dental practice can initiate question/answer forums, create interactive newsletters, introduce new products and services, and build rapport with patients.

Marketing is a key attraction of corporate blogs, and a blog using keywords, allowing comments and responses, and providing references and links to other sites, tends to rank in the top 10 to 20 listings in Internet search engines.3 Also, unlike websites where clients need to know the URL or use a search engine, blog writers can allow readers to subscribe to the blog. These subscriptions make Web feeds available for people to access, immediately delivering the content to their computer. Blogs also track public opinion, allowing businesses to learn what patients are saying (good and bad) about their practice.

Inclusive business language

1. Sexist language uses words that ignore women or treat them as secondary; describes women in physical terms not applied to men; stereotypes; and uses terms that exclude women and denote that only men are involved.


Inclusive/gender neutral

When setting up his practice, a dentist must always be mindful of location.

When setting up practice, dentists must always be mindful of location.

Call your Congressman.

Call your Member of Congress

Suzy, a gorgeous blonde, is Dr. Dan Drill's dental hygienist.

Suzy Saliva is Dan Drill's dental hygienist.







Authoress (marked term; denotes a real author is not female)




The male hygienist/the female dentist (we rarely say the female hygienist/male dentist - thus this is stereotyping)

The hygienist/the dentist

2. Ageist language such as "elderly" could imply feebleness. A better strategy is to write "retirees." The best is to avoid reference to age altogether.



Dr. Kimura, an elderly dentist, is presenting a CE course on periodontics.

Dr. Kimura, a dentist, is presenting a CE course on periodontics.

3. Biased language about people with disabilities creates negative image.

Negative Tone


Debbie Brown, our blind patient, won employee of the month at her job.

Debbie Brown, our patient, won employee of the month at her job.

Sheila is confined to a wheelchair.

Sheila uses a wheelchair.

The AIDS victim changed insurance carriers.

The AIDS patient changed insurance carriers.

4. To achieve effective multicultural communication, avoid jargon and idioms

Ballpark figure

Eye on the prize


Face the music

Brownie points


Bite the bullet

Jump through hoops

Buck stops here

Pass the buck

Crunch time

Pull the plug

Dog-eat-dog world

Shape up or ship out

Get it in gear

Through the roof

5. Avoid heterosexual bias in language.7

For example:

•Refer to a child's family rather than mom and dad.

•Avoid the assumption that pregnancy may only result from sexual activity.

•The term sexual activity is preferred to the term sexual intercourse.

•Omit discussion of marital status unless legal marital relationships are the subject of the writing. Otherwise, use the term spouse rather than husband or wife:

No: When the mother is employed, her husband may discover that his share of childcare has increased.

Yes: When the mother is employed, her partner or spouse may discover that his or her share of childcare has increased.

•The term sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference.

•Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the word homosexual.

•The term transgender is preferred to transvestite, cross dresser, and transsexual.

•The term cis-gender is the preferred term when referring to a non-transgendered person. Do not refer to cis-gendered people as "normal" implying transgendered people are abnormal.

•NEVER use the term gay pejoratively to express dislike; instead use the more accurate and specific term: awkward, stupid, bad, foolish, uncool, boring, etc.

If your practice decides to blog, make the blogs fun and informal. The blog can have personality and encourage outreach by including news, staff biographies, question/answer forums, updates, opportunities to add comments, and information about new products and services. Next, start talking, or "blogrolling." Not only do you want to dialogue by adding content to the blog, but also link to other sites.4 Keep things fresh and post frequently (daily or weekly) and respond quickly to all comments. Finally, develop guidelines. Because blogs encourage openness from patients as well as vendors and employees, things can go awry without guidelines.

YouTube is another way for dental practices to use social media. Patients are becoming technologically adept and by using YouTube, an office can connect with patients extremely affordably. Unlike price tags that accompany television, radio, and print advertising, YouTube can be posted for free and reach millions of people. An office can upload, share, and comment on a large database of videos.5

Examples of social media6


a blog publishing system ("Web" plus "log")


a social bookmarking or social tagging Web service for storing and sharing Web bookmarks


a social news Web site allowing users to submit Internet links and stories, vote, and comment on submitted stories


a social networking site


an image and video hosting Web site


a social networking site

Google groups

a service from Google allowing discussions about common interests


a social networking, microblogging service


a business-oriented social networking site


a blog publishing system


an online social networking site that facilitates group meetings and allows members to find and join groups unified by common interests

Open Diary

a blog publishing system


an image and video hosting Web site


a social photo and information sharing Web site


an online address book and social networking service


a social networking and microblogging service


a video sharing Web site

Yahoo! groups

an electronic mailing list and Internet forum


a social networking, microblogging service


a blog publishing service

a network of channels for live video streaming of online events


an Internet site for forums and community blogs


a social networking site that supports video sharing, video storage, and user comments


an open source blog publishing application


a social networking online opinion site for user reviews


a video sharing Web site allowing users to upload and share video clips


a Web site for sharing digital photos and text messages

Learn more about Twitter6

These websites present how businesses are using Twitter:

• Brogan C. "50 Ideas on Using Twitter for Business"

• Brooks R. "How to Use Twitter for Business."

• King R. "How Companies Use Twitter to Bolster Their Brands."

• Pogue D. "Twittering Tips for Beginners."

Some ideas for dental offices on YouTube are presentations, announcements, health-related news releases, pre- or postoperative care for procedures, patient questions, marketing of new products with pictures, office celebrations, how to use products, and more.

Obviously, the video must be something that people want to watch. Here are some guidelines:

• Title the video using appropriate subtitles periodically in the video.

• Include the practice's name and contact information such as phone number and URL.

• Use onscreen graphics to enliven the video.

• Edit a longer video into short segments. YouTube allows videos 10 minutes long.

• Keep focused on your strongest message and avoid trying to cover everything at once.

• Avoid plagiarism by creating your own content. Remember that if you use copyrighted images, music, articles, television and movie clips, you need to get permission before using them.6

Besides, blogging and YouTube, tweeting is another tool to add to your digital armamentarium. Many businesses and celebrities are taking to Twitter and tweeting. Twitter is a free service that lets people subscribe, share, or follow as many messages as they like. Twitter is popular because a person does not need a browser to access the service. Instead subscribers can receive tweets, or messages, in a number of ways. By subscribing to programs such as Twitterific, Feedalizer, or Twinkle, your followers can get updates on their smartphones as text messages or, for iPhones, people use PocketTweets, Tweetie, or iTweet. In addition to public tweets, one can send private direct messages that only one follower sees. Dental offices can use public tweets to direct people's attention to dental and health news, promote and market their business, show the human side of the office (what are staff members doing, and how the business is participating in community events). Offices can use personal tweets for appointment reminders.

If an office uses Twitter, don't send tweets all day while at work. Also, don't use Twitter solely for advertising or people will quit following. If you want to post personal or fun content, separate business from fun by setting up separate friends and family accounts. As with other digital communication, don't Tweet in anger - stay positive (see sidebar titled, "Learn more about Twitter").

In addition to other social media sites, businesses use Facebook for communications and outreach. The reason businesses use Facebook is because it has a large and diverse demographic. With many potential clients, a practice can use Facebook as a central location to market products and service, create brand recognition, recruit employees, and connect personally with people. Businesses can host their blogs, provide access to Twitter, post YouTube videos, show employee photographs, provide access to discussion forums, upload PowerPoint presentations, conduct polls, and more.

When using Facebook, keep it fresh, add links, and create responsible conduct policies. Consider the following guidelines:

• Always write truthfully about yourself or the dental practice.

• Do not disclose confidential information.

• Post photographs that represent employees in a professional manner.

• Avoid links to unprofessional, inappropriate, or personal sites.

• Post videos that are short and professional.

• Respond to public inquiries on the site immediately (within 24 hours).

• Update work-related information frequently.

• Avoid wasting work time with frequent personal postings.

• Avoid endorsing other people or companies unless your employer approves.

• Do not post other people's writing without permission.6

All digital communication, such as hard-copy writing, requires adherence to ethical standards. Failure to consider ethics can be very costly, resulting in dissatisfied clients, large legal judgments, anti-trust litigation, loss of goodwill, fines, and bankruptcy. Email and text messages present opportunities for unethical behavior. Because these are so easy to use, many employees use them too frequently. While people know not to abuse metered mail by using company envelopes and stamps to send their utility bill, these same people might abuse the company's email system or text messaging on company time by writing messages to friends or family. Additionally, respect the audience's privacy. Since so much of today's communication to coworkers, colleagues, and patients takes place online and through smartphones, consider the ethical dilemmas presented. When writing email, texting, or tweeting, consider confidentiality and courtesy. Ethically, avoid the temptation to read someone else's email or access data about an individual without consent unless confronted by performance or personnel issues. Businesses should inform employees that company email could be monitored. Since email is not as private as one might believe, know that whatever is written in email can be read by others, especially if you hit the "reply to all" button. Be very careful of inadvertently forwarding email sent to you in confidence.

When using social media for business, be ethical by observing the following:

• Follow the employer's rules regarding Internet conduct.

• Never publish negative, confidential, or proprietary comments about your employer.

• Be accountable for your actions - to your employer, patients, coworkers, and yourself.

• State only what you know is true, distinguishing fiction from fact.

• Be clear about who you are, who you are representing online, the identity of bloggers, email authors, and other social media authors.

• Make sure that what you are posting is relevant to the audience, the context, and the business.

Dallas Lawrence from Levick Strategic Communications sums it up best: "Monitor, engage, and be transparent; these have always been the keys to success in the digital space." RDH

Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD, is a professor of English at Cosumnes River College where she has designed a course in technical communication. Prior to her current position, Dr. Muñoz was interim director and professor of dental hygiene at Sacramento City College. She has written numerous articles and columns and is a frequent contributor to RDH. Dr. Muñoz can be reached at [email protected].


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2. Gerson SM, et al. Core competencies. Survey. Prentice Hall Publishing Company, 2004. Print.

3. Ray R. Blogging for business. Sept. 2004. Web. Oct. 4, 2014.

4. Wuorio J. Blogging for business: 7 tips for getting started. Microsoft. Sept. 9, 2007. Web. Oct. 4, 2014.

5. Zahorsky D. YouTube for business with online video. April 20, 2009. Web. Oct. 4, 2014.

6. Gerson S, Gerson S. Technical communication: process and product. 8th ed. Pearson: San Francisco. 2014.

7. Avoiding heterosexual bias in language. American Psychological Association, Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns. American Psychologist. September 1991;46(9)973-974. Web. Oct. 6, 2014.