As a professional working in the health care field, you have valuable information to share with your colleagues and patients—from reporting the latest scientific research and outcomes data, to developing compelling grant proposals, to promoting public health messages. But if your writing isn’t up to par, you could be missing out on important opportunities to convey your point successfully and move readers to action.
The Importance of Strong Writing Skills
Clinicians, researchers and allied health care professionals need strong writing skills in order to communicate effectively with their target audiences. Yet, most medical schools and other health care training programs don’t delve into the fundamentals of good writing that is necessary for professional success in a variety of settings. And even science writers and others who have a stronger writing background may not be fully strategic with how they approach their efforts to write for technical and mainstream publications, funding organizations and an array of different audiences. That’s why no matter what your role or your training level, if you communicate through the written word, it can be helpful to fill in the gaps in your knowledge so you can maximize your potential.
To offer some guidance, Thomas Jehn, PhD, Sosland Director of the Harvard College Writing Program, recently led a Zoom session for Harvard Medical School’s Effective Writing for Health Care program, a one-year certificate program designed to help medical professionals develop and communicate clear written messages for research articles, news and opinion pieces, digital copy and grant proposals.
Approaching Writing as a Process
“Whenever I work with professionals on the writing they do in their fields, I stress the importance of viewing writing not as a finished product in which we create one gem of a sentence at a time. Instead, I urge people to think of writing as a process of moving from a stage of interior monologue to a stage of communicating with your readers,” Jehn explains, adding that this means going from writer-based prose to reader-based prose. Such a process involves taking both a macro level and a micro level view.
“The macro level is a bird’s eye view of the big-picture elements of the article, report, proposal or whatever we’re writing,” he says. “This should involve thinking about what you’re trying to communicate and why, as well what evidence you’re presenting, the analysis you present, how you’re sequencing the most important points, how you organize your paragraphs and more.”
The micro level comes only after all of these larger details are arranged.
“The micro level requires paying close attention to word choices, cutting needless words, making a sentence clearer and fixing grammar, punctuation and spelling errors,” he says.
Jehn also stresses that it’s important to leave these micro level issues until the later stage of your writing, since focusing on these details in the early drafting phase can block your creative flow. “Worrying about the micro level issues too early in the process can also be a thorough waste of time since it might well happen that we realize a chunk of what we’ve written needs to be cut because it wasn’t making sense or it all needed to be re-organized, at which point all that time spent on perfecting a sentence or finding the right word was a waste,” he adds.
Other Writing Tips
Jehn also shares the following valuable writing tips to help you create a compelling final product:
Before you begin writing your first draft, try imagining your audience so you can determine what they care about and how to frame your information in a way that will resonate with them.
“I imagine a worst-case scenario for my readers. I picture them as tired, demanding, irritated and distracted,” Jehn says. “I also imagine that they’ll walk away from what I’ve written if I burden them with ineffective writing.” With all of this in mind, he tries to reduce the cognitive load by choosing words well and keeping his messages clear and concise so they won’t be too difficult to follow.
Consider your readers’ level of knowledge so you can write in the style and tone that will resonate best with them. If you are writing for clinicians or scientists, you can talk in their language. But if you are writing for a general audience that has little or no medical knowledge, you’ll need to talk in layperson’s terms that they will understand and avoid using jargon.
Think of your sentences as a way to tell stories to your readers. Even if you’re working with abstract ideas, think of how you can make them more concrete for your reader and engage the reader into the storyline. “For example, try whenever possible to make flesh-and-blood subjects do actions in your sentences rather than using needlessly impersonal and abstract constructions. Readers will be more easily able to visualize your ideas,” Jehn says. Also look through your work for nominalizations, which are verbs or action words that have been turned into nouns, such as turning “argue” into “argument.” Such constructions are passive and can weaken the impact for the reader. While sometimes a nominalization is necessary, whenever possible, try to write the sentence so you’ve changed the nominalization back into its verb.
Pay attention to patterns in your sentences and paragraphs and make sure you are varying things. Including some shorter sentences and paragraphs within your text can help break up information into smaller chunks that will be easy for the reader to absorb.
A Helpful Resource
Jehn says he relies on a book called Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, which is a user-friendly writing handbook that is geared to professionals, to guide his efforts. The book can be a valuable resource as you tackle your writing projects and make strategic choices to help you make your work as powerful as possible.
Written by Lisa D. Ellis