Medical writing: Tips to avoid burnout when starting out

Last month marked the first anniversary of two very important milestones in my career in medicine: I began training as a physician and started writing about medicine.  Although perhaps not equally as demanding, both of these new activities in my life required overcoming steep learning curves and involved constant self-reflection and personal change.

Writing medical humanities pieces for different media outlets has been and continues to be a source of personal enjoyment and provides an incredible sense of community with those who take interest in reading and writing about medicine.  You should try it, seriously.

But beware.  On occasion, the time-intensive activity of medical writing can feel like a huge burden to those already dedicated to a profession infamous for high stress and long hours.  The metaphorical burnout that physicians are known to experience during the workday also applies to physician writers who consume odd hours outside of an already overbooked week to practice this additional passion within their field.

In order that new emerging medical writers avoid a similar sense of burnout early on in the writing process, I have listed just a few of the many mistakes I have made during my inaugural year of shameless rants that would behoove one to avoid.

1. Writing about something I was uninterested in. The first few pieces that I put together for friends and family essentially wrote themselves.  This was in part due to the sheer excitement exploring a new creative outlet and otherwise due to the simple fact that I had something to write about that I personally found interesting (e.g. male-pattern baldness! genital warts!).

As sporadic writing transitioned to scheduled publishing and random cafe hopping turned into dedicated blocks of research and typing, it became increasingly difficult to organically come up with topics that deserved to be published.  During a few of such sessions, I found myself writing about issues that, although relevant to the time or to my level of training, were not something I would normally be super jazzed about.

I soon discovered that these forced written pieces not only took much more time and effort to write but also were poorly received.

The solution to avoiding this writing trap is obvious but worth stating: write what interests you and don’t write when you don’t have anything interesting to say.  Your readers will take time to check out your pieces because they have the same curiosity about medicine that you do, so no pressure to guess what the next big topic will be and how you need to cover it to stay relevant.

2. Writing about something that I had little expertise in. This concept is tricky. One the one hand, a physician in any stage of medical training has already endured many years of medical education by nature of the process of procuring a medical degree.  Therefore, he or she is able to provide at least some insight to a variety of medical topics that the public can learn from regardless of the intellectual depth of the written work.  Moreover, taking time for a quick review of current literature on the issue of interest and appropriately citing this material into one’s article is a completely acceptable method of strengthening and validating its message to the public.

Therefore I do believe it is appropriate for anyone with any level of medical training to be able to educate and provide opinions on medical topics that he or she is exposed to during the training process.  This concept of course extends to other medical writers who are not physicians but work and study in the medical field.

Things get muddy when controversial medical opinions are published that go way beyond the level of training of the writer.  Not only is this unethical but may also be a danger to the public.

How does one know when it gets this bad?

Two events occurred during the few times that I felt I was writing content well beyond my level of expertise.  First of all, I found myself repeatedly wondering if the piece I was about to publish was appropriate.  Although I think it’s important to push boundaries of comfort when writing, those few articles that set off blaring alarms of personal dread shortly after publication should probably have not been published in the first place.  Secondly, the readers did an excellent job of letting me know that I was out of my element.

Take home point

Writing about medicine is really fun.  It also turns out that people like to read about medicine.  It is one of the few win-win situations in my life.  So if you’re on the brink of writing your first medical essay relating to your crazy day in the hospital or regarding a new drug or disease that you find tantalizing, just do it.

But when you do, remember the personal accountability you must assume by becoming a public voice in the field of medicine.  Use your words responsibly, and, above all, be sure to write for your personal enjoyment.

Brian J. Secemsky is an internal medicine resident who blogs at the Huffington Post.  He can be reached on Twitter @BrianSecemskyMD.

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  • Ronan Thomas Kavanagh

    This is great Brian. And for me, very timely indeed. I caught the writing / blogging bug about 2 years ago and have kind of run out of ideas. I think its time to stretch myself into areas of medicine that interest me but which are a bit outside my area of expertise. It would be nice to bring the fun back into the writing again.

  • David Gelber MD

    I have been writing fora bout 7 years now. I started with fiction and then my suggested I write about something I actually know about. Thus, two books about general surgery were born and I have been writing and posting regularly on my blog. I enjoy writing about topics in surgery, but I really enjoy using my imagination to create fiction.