Writing tips for physicians from a health care editor

Ever since I entered the publishing world as a bottom-feeder editorial assistant in 2001, I’ve gotten all sorts of questions about “how to become a writer.” (Spoiler: Pick up a pen.) As my career progressed, I’ve edited lots of physician-authored material. Over the last few years, I’ve become an avid consumer of physician-written books and blogs.

If that experience doesn’t sell you, I have received the distinct honor of engaging my own daughter at her fourth-grade career day.

If you are a physician who is not confident about your writing skills, you are not alone. If you possess many advanced degrees but no idea how to use a semicolon, you are definitely not alone. It can be our secret.

Therefore, in no particular order, I present my unsolicited writing do’s and don’ts:

Do embrace the mindset that first drafts are supposed to suck. Aim low. Lower. Don’t try to sound any particular way. When I tutored at the writing center of my college, I’d always ask students (most of whom arrived with a crumpled, blank piece of paper) to describe their thesis to me as casually as if they were explaining it to a friend. Next step: Write that down, word for word. That’s your lump of clay. We can do whatever we want to it later.

Don’t get too attached to all of the words you use in your draft, nor the order they’re in. A lot of times we editors will get the gist of what you’re trying to say, but see a whole bunch of opportunities to make it better. We see—not flaws, characteristics—in a manuscript that cannot be seen by those without a ton of practice. It’s kind of like holding a blacklight to blood spatter at a crime scene, which makes my job sound way cooler. Anyway, we know you put your heart (or what your PR folks’ strong suggestions) into every word. But once you’re handing it to someone else for sincere feedback, check your ego and all the acronyms after your name at the door. Loosen up and be willing to listen to the pros, and we’ll cross our hearts not to confuse Google with your medical degrees, ever.

Do read books about writing. The life-changers I can list off the top of my head include On Writing, by Stephen King; Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Get a Freelance Life by Margit Feury Ragland. On Writing was the first Stephen King book I ever read (teachers used to dump all over his novels and I believed them). You don’t have to adopt all of what you learn. For instance, Mr. King isn’t a big fan of thesauri; and I patently disagree.

Do not use any word that you don’t understand as well as the anatomy of whatever organ you specialize in. Even if you hear it used all the time, look it up if you know in your gut you don’t truly know what it means. One commonplace word I still can’t wrap my head around is “commodity.” The definition just seems to contradict itself. There are plenty of other words to just say what I mean, so I don’t use it. Other words that tend to be used incorrectly are “infer,” “aggravate,” and “presently.”

Furthermore, don’t use fancy words to sound professional, authoritative, or like you know what you’re talking about several degrees more than you actually do. If you find a nice-looking $64,000-word in the thesaurus, make sure every nuance of that particular word is necessary and accurate. Unless you are Pat Conroy—whose work, in my opinion, warrants reading the same sentence many times with a dictionary nearby—use the simplest word you can find that’s precise enough to make your point. Don’t use a bone saw when a Bandaid will do.

Do appreciate the difference between significant detail and “painting a picture” that is too cluttered to really see. If your memory from an event you’re writing about is a little fuzzy, fantastic. The bits and pieces that have stuck with you (a look, a physical sensation, something out of place) are the most significant details. These standout snapshots do exceedingly more to elevate your writing than big words.

Don’t judge your work while you are writing. My college track coach had similar advice: Don’t judge your performance while you’re in it. Run the race while it’s happening. Analyze the footage later. It’s very difficult to break the habit of evaluating as you go—and I’m not so sure you want to apply it to medicine—but it keeps you from holding yourself back. Some of my writing that has resonated with readers the most felt like the equivalent of vomiting all over the audience’s collective shoes while I was writing it.

Do read it backwards. This is another million-dollar trick gleaned from my state-school education. As part of every revision, read the last paragraph (or sentence) of your manuscript in reverse order, and see how they each hold up individually. It will help you craft better sentences. Backwards reading can also help you rethink the organization of your piece. But remember that moving stuff around usually results in needing to re-read from the beginning again a couple of times to make sure it still makes sense. For me, that often means checking to make sure each source’s introduction is still the first time he or she is mentioned in the piece.

Write on! (Dad jokes were very in at the time this post was written.)

Debra A. Shute is a journalist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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