Writing well is a skill every professional can benefit from
Here are 5 tips to improve your writing
Healthcare providers — physicians chief among them — are often mocked for their handwriting. The demanding schedule can certainly be blamed, but the necessity of good, clear writing goes beyond the risk of medical errors. I am not discrediting the potential harm misunderstanding the specific dosage of a medication can cause. Much of the medical system uses electronic medical records and systems of checks and balances to counteract the potential for those errors. They still occur, but they are not a symptom of poor writing.
Poor writing in healthcare extends far beyond the neatness of handwriting. As a physical therapist, I have witnessed my fair share of poor writing, some of it from my own hands. Much can be blamed on the lack of education in writing following the completion of freshman English. But we can’t blame it all on the education system. We have to take responsibility.
The simple fact is many professionals do not believe writing well is a necessary skill for their job.
The importance of writing well in healthcare
As a researcher and leader of a physical therapy orthopedic residency program, I now find myself in my mother’s role of reviewer and editor with my residents occupying the student role. While not red ink, red text from the Microsoft Word review feature has littered many of the papers I have returned.
Over the past couple of years, I have come to realize how ill-prepared healthcare providers are for any form of required writing.
Physical therapists do not write scripts, but we do write treatment notes, emails to colleagues, marketing material, and thank you notes. Some will write research manuscripts or blog posts, and most will engage on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Writing is part of our lives.
For many people, however, writing is most frequently completed in the form of a Tweet or a text. Bad habits are formed, and they translate when trying to write something more formal. Handwritten thank-you notes are powerful when written well, not so much when written like a common Tweet.
The need for good writing expands across all professions. Writing is how we express ideas. Good writing allows us to convey messages in a way spoken language cannot. We have time to think and reason. Our messages, whether through email or a formal presentation, become far more powerful. Writing well is not reserved for journalists and authors.
I merely point out healthcare as I witness the indifference towards writing well on a daily basis. Let’s say you are convinced, or at least open to the possibility, that writing well is important for your career. Where do you begin?
The four classes of writers
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes a pyramid of four types of writers:
· The base: The bad ones
· Second level: Competent writers (may be published, like to read and write)
· Third level: Really good writers
· Top level: The geniuses (Shakespeare, Faulkner, Yeats, Shaw, Eudora Welty)
King goes on to explain two simple theses that comprise his philosophy on writing:
- Good writing requires mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) prior to layering on your individual voice
- It is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one or a really good writer into a genius. It is, however, possible to turn a competent writer into a really good one, provided substantiation hard work, dedication, and timely help are involved. Basically, the only movement possible on the pyramid is from levels 2 to 3. If you are on levels 1 or 4, get comfortable.
Of course, not everyone will agree with this philosophy. Perhaps the movement from level 1 to 2 is so rare that it is not worth mentioning to King. The level of work necessary is so substantial that for many the notion would be false hope. In addition, we may have been poor writers as a child but find our voice later in life through experiences, voracious reading, and practice. This is how I have developed as a writer.
By no means, I am a great writer, but I believe I am on the path to the third level. Currently, I count myself a competent writer, but it has been a challenge. As a kid, I used to devour Magic Tree House books. Then at some point in late elementary school, reading lost its appeal. Why read when I can watch the scene unfold on the magic that is a television? Naturally, my writing suffered.
I would still flirt the A/B line in English class in school, but my enjoyment and confidence were never stellar. My mother, on the other hand, was a voracious reader and a magazine editor (she even just published her first book, Paper & Ink, Flesh & Blood). Before completing an essay, I would ask her to review it for me (not write it for me, I wasn’t that kid). One essay in particular — summarizing The Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae — came back looking like she took the title too literally; there was more red than black on the paper. At the time I was crushed, looking back on it, I realize just how big the gap in our writing abilities was.
So, how do we improve our writing? Here are 5 tips:
1. Read more
Books, scholarly journals, magazines, or blog posts will do. I recommend leaning towards work that has been edited, as you want to read material that will improve your grammar and expand your vocabulary, but blogs are still superior to watching TV. For books specific to writing, I have four recommendations:
i. On Writing Well by William Zissner
ii. The Elements of Style by William Strunk (Includes the most valuable writing lesson I have ever received: Rule #17 “Omit needless words”)
iii. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
iv. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
“Learn to write by reading the men and women who are doing the kind of writing you want to do and figure out how they did it.” — William Zissner
2. Write every day
You don’t have to follow the Stephen King routine of 2000 words a day — no matter the quality — but force yourself to write something. This is another benefit of journaling
“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.” — Anne Lamott
3. Your writing will often suck. That’s OK.
Crappy first drafts are part of the game. That is what a rewrite is for. Type out a thank you note before writing it. Review your emails. Rewrite work proposals and potentially get feedback from others.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” — Anne Lamott
4. Focus on the basics.
Good writing is succinct. Limit the use of adverbs. Avoid the passive tense. One of the most valuable books you can read is The Elements of Style by William Strunk.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” — Stephen King
5. Write what you want, not necessarily what you should.
Your writing will improve more rapidly if you write something you are passionate about. You could write short stories, poetry, summaries of your day, letters to friends, book reviews, or a rant about your frustrations with work (maybe handwritten at home). The options are limited by your imagination. Any writing will do as long as you make a purposeful effort to improve.
“We don’t have time to waste not writing because we are afraid we won’t be good enough at it.” — Anne Lamott
Writing well takes practice
My writing journey has only just begun. Some days I feel I could write nonstop for hours while others are a struggle to remember the topic of the article. I am comforted knowing I am not alone in this experience. Even the most prolific writers struggle. Like any skill, writing takes effort and practice. It requires refinement. We will only improve if we practice.
My encouragement is for you to start writing today. Something. Find a consistent platform to practice. This could be a personal blog, Medium, a journal, or compiling Word documents on your computer. It doesn’t matter. Learning to write well will positively influence your life. It has certainly benefited mine.
This article was originally published at zacharywalston.com, where you can sign-up to receive a biweekly newsletter containing his latest blog posts, recent research, and articles on critical thinking and healthy living, and recommended books
I am a Certified Specialist in Orthopedic Physical Therapy and the National Director of Quality and Research at PT Solutions Physical Therapy. My mission is to improve knowledge translation from research to clinicians and patients and reduce medical and health misinformation.