Posted December 21, 2011
Robert Coram, award-winning journalist
Kyle L. Eskue, MD, FCAP, editor of NewsPath
C. Leilani Valdes, MD, FCAP, former editor of NewsPath
Numerous articles from medical journals are for the most part flat, sterile, and boring; sometimes even utterly devoid of style—lacking everything but accuracy. Even though they are written for a specific, technically oriented audience and are for reference purposes rather than for light reading, these articles do not need to be humdrum. Good science and good writing can coexist.
Of course, in medical writing as we report the latest news in pathology and laboratory medicine to fellow clinicians through NewsPath articles, scientific accuracy is paramount. But it’s up to you as an author to add style, individuality, and inspiration to your article while keeping it to a reasonable length of 300–500 words.
Mark Twain famously wrote: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” He knew that anyone can write long—you have to be good to write short.
In this article, we will briefly summarize the three essentials of good writing: 1) thorough research, 2) an enticing beginning or “lead,” and 3) the use of strong writing fundamentals, specifically clarity, objectivity, and the use of the active voice.
Let’s start with the necessity of thorough research. You cannot write an interesting article about a topic you do not fully understand. Writing clearly requires the ability to think clearly. Having strong knowledge about your topic will give you the confidence to write with conviction. Take the time to learn the latest about your subject before sitting down at the keyboard.
When you’re ready to write, your first job is to write an enticing beginning to your article, known to journalists as the lead. A good lead will give readers the key take-away information first. Entice readers with the “who, what, when, where, why and how”—the five Ws and the H—in the first paragraph or two of your article. John H. Irlam, DO, did a good job of capturing all five Ws and the H in the first paragraph of his article on West Nile Virus.
What: West Nile Virus is an arthropod-born Flavivirus that is Why: the most common cause of viral meningoencephalitis Where: in North America. How: The transmission of the virus to humans is due primarily through inoculation by an infected mosquito, When: with peak incidence of transmission taking place between July and October. Mosquito exposure is the most important risk factor, Who: with individuals greater than 50 years of age being at a higher risk for developing meningoencephalitis.
By placing the five Ws and H first, you will be writing in the journalistic “inverted-pyramid” style. Newspaper reporters began writing in this style because readers want the basic facts first. Less essential information—while adding depth and detail—is placed later in the article.
After writing your lead, concentrate on the fundamentals of good writing: clarity, objectivity, and the use of the active voice. It’s also a good idea to keep your inner critic in check. Concentrate on getting your thoughts into your document without being too self-critical about your first draft. During this initial phase of writing, don’t be afraid to be creative and expressive either—any imperfections can be fixed later.
Keep in mind the beauty of a simple declarative sentence—something Hemingway taught us all. And don’t be afraid to use well-chosen metaphors and similes—they can brighten even an inherently dull scientific article by enabling you to crystallize an issue or a problem in a simple, yet telling, phrase.
If your topic is controversial, report on all sides and give the pros and cons of each, but do not report your opinion. Remain objective, and let the reader decide.
Pay particular attention to active verbs that describe what clinicians or researchers do. Whether you’re writing in the past, present, or future tense, active verbs give each sentence life because the subject of the sentence was, is, or will be the agent of the action. For example, medical researchers demonstrated, pathologists analyze, physicians prescribed. In passive sentence construction, the subject of the sentence was, is, or will be the receiver of the action. For example, blood cells were analyzed, drugs are prescribed, and research will be performed. While not always avoidable, using the passive verbs am, are, be, being, been, is, was, or were can weigh down your writing; use them as sparingly as possible. When you spot a passive verb, try making the subject of the sentence the object and identify a new subject that is taking action. For example, rather than writing, “blood cells were analyzed,” instead you can write, “a pathologist analyzed blood cells.”
As you begin to edit your article in later drafts, seek clarity in every sentence. Move paragraphs around and work on paragraph transitions to ensure that your article has an organic feel and flows from the beginning, to the middle, and to the end.
As you put the finishing touches to your article, read it aloud. This tool will help you determine whether or not sentences are unclear or too long or if the rhythm of the article is off. If you find it difficult to read passages aloud, your readers will have difficulty understanding those passages.
NewsPath articles provide an opportunity for our Junior Members to get involved immediately in the College, receive a by-lined article credit, and have the opportunity to work with CAP members.
As a writer, you will be assigned both a NewsPath Editorial Board mentor and a scientific mentor from a CAP scientific resource committee. In return for your hard work, I promise that your NewsPath editor and scientific mentor will work with you to help you write an article that will make you proud. Articles are also recorded as five-minute podcasts available on cap.org/NewsPath and on iTunes.
We hope these tips will help inspire you to write a great NewsPath article. Please visit cap.org/NewsPath. We encourage you to become a NewsPath supporter by signing up for the RSS feed. Thank you for your interest. We look forward to working with you.