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Perhaps you want to write an article about the importance of understanding why so many people are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but you worry your views may anger those who see such an effort as giving quarter to antiscience sentiments. The truth is that some of the best writing often arouses people’s ire by taking a stand for or against something that not everyone believes in—but that shouldn’t discourage you from making your point, according to Lisa S. Rosenbaum, MD, a practicing cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Rosenbaum also serves as a national correspondent for the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), where she often tackles controversial topics in her own writing, drawing on her own experiences as a physician, among other sources. In addition, she is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s Postgraduate Medical Education certificate program, Effective Writing for Health Care.
Conveying New Insights Inspired by Common Experiences
When an experience sticks with us or even nags at us, it may be because it gave us a new insight into a common problem or issue. Communicating these new perspectives effectively through essays, articles and other written or multi-media forms may help clinicians, patients, policymakers or the public gain new understanding, change their behavior or address entrenched problems in medicine or health care.
Most medical schools don’t focus on helping participants develop strong writing skills. Therefore, many doctors, clinical investigators and scientists may lack the tools for making their voices heard and moving others to action in some way, points out Debra Malina, PhD, Perspective Editor at NEJM, who is also on the faculty of Harvard’s Effective Writing for Health Care.
Tips to Improve Health Care Writing
Rosenbaum and Malina recently shared some tips for health care professionals who want to take their writing to the next level.
1. Select your format
Narrative writing is a popular option, which doesn’t always need to have an agenda.
“If you can tell a good story in narrative form and tell it well, and it’s unique in some way but universal so people can relate to it, then go for it,” Malina says. “But most medical narratives have an implicit or explicit purpose or point. It may be something you want patients to understand about medicine or physicians, something you want physicians to understand about patients or human nature, something you want to remind them (such as why they went into medicine) or something that needs to be changed in the health care system, among other ideas." And the same story, she points out, may have different meanings for different audiences.
Some messages may be better conveyed using a medium other than writing. “While writing might be best for some pieces, other points are better made as a video or a TikTok,” Rosenbaum says. She finds it helpful to study how the same message might be conveyed across a host of different media to figure out what makes a message compelling or persuasive.
2. Define your audience
“Understanding your motivation for telling a particular story will help you decide who your audience is, and you can then determine what context you need to provide,” Malina says. Defining your audience will also allow you to make some crucial decisions to guide your efforts. Some of the types of things that will change depending on your audience include:
- Diction (word choice and jargon)
- The need for background info and explanations
- Natural sympathies (where readers' loyalties may lie, and where you might need to persuade them)
3. Find common ground
If you put yourself in your audience's position, says Rosenbaum, you can figure out how best to bring them with you. For instance, if you want to write about clinician burnout, you need to know if your readers are health care professionals who have experienced burnout firsthand and whether they understand its complexities. Then you can write your piece in a way that resonates with their own frustrations, Malina says.
One way to test your premise and to stretch yourself when you set out to write a piece is to select two different audiences and write some notes on how you would approach each one and how the details and tone might change depending on who they are, what they know and what they care about.
Rosenbaum adds that if you have three possible groups you can target, you should determine which one has members who would be most amenable to changing their mind. “Pick the group you can influence most and focus on them,” she adds.
4. Perfect your words
“One of the things I’ve learned most in the time I’ve spent writing if that you’ll probably need to do 15 drafts,” Rosenbaum says. The first few drafts will usually be capturing your ideas, but in later drafts, you can hone them into something tighter and more effective.
Bear in Mind Your Goals in Writing about Health Care
Rosenbaum points out that she recently wrote about science denialism in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I tried to make the point that we should try to understand the other side,” she says, adding that at the end of the day, writers need to realize they will never please everyone.
“I’ve angered people with things I‘ve written. That’s a given. I realize I am never going to be able to say anything interesting on a topic and have everyone like me. But that’s okay,” she says. “It’s okay for people not to agree with your ideas. The art of writing is to help shift people a little in how they see the world,” she adds.
Written by Lisa D. Ellis