Oh, the stories we hold.
As physicians, we sit in the front row for many defining events in a person’s life. In our offices and hospitals, we bear witness: to whispered fears, hopeful moments, trauma unfolding, death, birth, and life events we could not make up. Whether that is a privilege or a burden depends on the instance or the telling.
And only one person can tell your story.
Many have expounded on the benefits of writing. E.M. Forster famously wrote, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” Writing for self-expression can be remarkably therapeutic – and help you hone the meaning of your experiences.
Take it one step further: once you know what you think, why not share it?
The perspective one gleans from a life in medicine confers the authority of intimate knowledge that relatively few can match. While social media allows any self-proclaimed expert to blog, we physicians offer an educated synthesis of information that can genuinely improve the lives of others.
We propose that physicians consider writing short articles both as an outlet for the practice of medicine and to extend the expertise they already offer. A well-written article can impact the general public and current or future patients.
Writing is an art form, so to get you started properly, we provide ten tips on how to craft your first article.
1. Start with a free write. Is something eating at you? Are you unsettled by a patient encounter, a work expectation, or a broader issue at play in your work or social environment? Give yourself 10 minutes to write about it. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation; try to get your words onto the page. No one else will see this version – it is just for you.
2. Walk away. This is hard but important. Come back to what you wrote the following day or later, and read it for meaning. Often free writing brings out additional thoughts you did not start with. Pick out what’s most important to you and develop the article’s scope.
3. Find a “hook.” Find a topic or a story that will capture your audience. This can be a patient story, personal experience, or other attention-grabbing topics, quotes, or facts. Telling a story and intertwining it with the body of your article is one of the most effective and commonly employed techniques in informative writing for public consumption. Atul Gawande does this regularly in his writing for the New Yorker, if you need an example.
4. Write a first draft (emphasis on first). Once you capture your audience with a compelling introduction, discuss the reason and purpose of your article, provide supportive information in the body of your article and then conclude with final thoughts or an action plan.
5. Fact check. Be prepared to defend any assertions you make.
6. Peer review. Run the article by someone you trust to give honest feedback. Even if you have extensive writing proficiency, you will benefit from a fresh look at the article by someone else. The hardest part of this can be receiving feedback with humility. We promise it is worthwhile.
7. Edit for length. Keep it under 1,000 words. Many people read in short bursts – waiting for a train stop or between obligations – and even an exceptionally well-crafted longer piece is unlikely to be read to completion. If you can’t say everything in 1000 words, you may have two articles on your hands!
8. Edit for grammar. If you ain’t write good, then you ain’t have readers. Don’t just rely on your college-level writing skills. Call in an expert, or use grammar software to review your work.
9. Find a publisher. Many online platforms will welcome your work, especially if you make sure it is polished, succinct, and engaging.
10. Share widely!
Remember, no one can tell your story for you. If you want your expertise to extend beyond those you know and establish relevance in the ongoing conversation of who doctors really are and what we know, it’s time to start getting your thoughts onto the page.
Your article may provide the inspiration and perspective others are looking for.
Aaron Morgenstein is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and founder, FlexMedStaff.com, a fully transparent and free marketplace for physicians to find new clinical and non-clinical opportunities to improve work-life balance. Contact Aaron here.
Claire Unis is a pediatrician and author of Balance, Pedal, Breathe: A Journey Through Medical School.