Guidelines for New Writers

Part 1: The Basics

In all likelihood, none of us are professional writers; however, as medical students, we are enrolled in professional programs. The quality of the pieces submitted to in-Training should reflect that. In this spirit, we offer you, a new writer, a brief guide aimed at refining your articles, stories and poems before they hit the in-Training server.

In this installment, we’ll cover a few editing strategies to eliminate spelling and grammar errors before your writing ever crosses an editor’s desk. “But isn’t that an editor’s job?” you ask, “To fix mistakes?”

Yes and no. An editor’s job is to ensure your piece is ready for publication (fixing mistakes), while also pushing you to explore new avenues and expand on ideas that will ultimately strengthen your writing. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to focus on these “big picture” items if a submission comes in with typos and grammatical mistakes. The more polished a piece is when an editor reads it, the more they can focus on the content, structure, and flow. So, here are some simple strategies for ensuring your article is as good as it can be:

  1. Use spellcheck. Obvious typos are the easiest errors to fix, so, at the very least, go through your piece to catch any simple mistakes.
  2. Read it out loud. Reading out loud forces you to slow down and take a look at each word, rather than sliding through preformed patterns you have in your head. If you can’t make something sound right when you say it out loud, there’s a good chance it won’t read correctly when someone else looks at your work.
  3. Have someone else read it out loud. This works for many of the same reasons listed above with one crucial difference: You read your words with preconceived notions of pacing and rhythm. But, someone else reading your work is coming at it with a blank slate, so if they start tripping over complex sentences or start losing rhythm in the fourth line of that run-on, you might consider changing things up to enhance the flow.
  4. Have someone else look it over. Give your finished product to a friend or family member to read. It can be difficult to ask for constructive criticism, but it’s also on of the best ways to get honest, helpful feedback before submitting.

You don’t need to do all of these, but pick out two or three for a pre-submission ritual. Eliminating easy-to-fix mistakes  allows the in-Training editors to focus on the really important aspects of your work. Now break out that dragon quill pen and parchment and show us what you can do!

Part 2: Structure

Okay, let’s talk about structure. A body without structure is an amorphous mess; a building without structure is a pile of steel and glass and concrete. And it’s the same for writing. You can have the great ideas and beautiful prose, but, without structure, your message will be lost. Structure enhances the flow and logic of your piece, but also allows the reader to remember what they have read and anticipate where you’re going with your argument. 

The classic five-paragraph essay format–with an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion–is an extreme example of imposing structure on writing. Although it’s a good starting point for developing writers, this format isn’t necessarily the ideal way to structure all writing. Important steps in making sure your writing does have some structure include:

1. Have a clear thesis. What should people to get out of your essay, your story, your poem? Provide a clear direction, because this is the trunk onto which you append all of you arguments, evidence, and imagery. Everything is in service of your thesis.  Examples:

— Medical school should be three years long.
— Medicine is really the art of listening to your patients.
— Doctors need to be politically active if they want to effect real change.

And use that thesis to keep you honest.  So, if we’re arguing that medicine is really the art of listening to your patients, we can talk about open-ended questions and how patient satisfaction increases when they feel like they’re being heard and how prognoses improve if treatment is in line with a patient’s lifestyle and beliefs. But beware of “scope creep.” If you start talking about how listening to classical music makes you a better doctor, you might be taking things in a different direction, one that may not mesh with the reader’s expectations, even if it makes sense in your head.

2. Make an outline. Make any outline. Outline the topics of your paragraphs, outline your arguments, outline your story beat by beat. Go ahead and have topics and subtopics and then subtopics to those subtopics if that makes you happy.  An example of a simple outline in five-paragraph essay format might be:

— Intro, discuss doctor-centered medicine; thesis: medicine is really the art of listening to your patients. Medical school should be three years long.
— Body 1, discuss the link between patient satisfaction and patient outcomes.
— Body 2, patient satisfaction is based on perceived engagement by their physician; use the Gabriel article here.
— Body 3, make the connection between physicians practicing patient-centric medicine and improved outcomes; reference Turntable and concierge practices.
— Conclusion, bring it all together.

The beauty of outlining is that, when done well, it makes actually writing feel effortless. The ideas are already there–you just need to fill in the space between them. In addition, when you turn to revise your piece, it’s often much easier to move ideas around in an outline–where you can do so quickly and can visualize the potential product–than in the fully-written format.

Part 3: Transitions

Transition governs how your piece flows from one thought to another. They need to be crisp, to the point, and, most importantly, they need to make sense.

Now let’s take a second to talk about frogs. See, that’s an example of a bad transition: talking about one topic, and pulling a complete 180 to talk about something unrelated.

Take the following excerpt, for example:

…Popular sentiment suggests we stop complaining because we will be part of that rarified medical class, and our loans will eventually be paid.

Despite the ever worsening shortage of primary care physicians in the United States, medical students are not adequately incentivized to pursue primary care as a career…  

The first paragraph is discussing the burden of medical school debt and the next paragraph discusses poor incentives for medical students to pursue primary care. Both points might be relevant to the thesis of the piece, but, right now, the transition between these ideas needs to be a little softer. 

…Popular sentiment suggests we stop complaining because we will be part of that rarified medical class, and our loans will eventually be paid.  This argument is meant to be consoling, but it really just drives us towards higher paying specialties, and makes our loans everyone’s problem.

Despite the ever worsening shortage of primary care physicians in the United States, medical students are not adequately incentivized to pursue primary care as a career…  

Adding a transition statement brings the two ideas together by explaining how medical student debt affects the greater population (by driving them away from primary care). Try to create similar transitions between all of your paragraphs.  Combine similar ideas using words like “and,” “furthermore” and “in addition.” If you’re examining two sides of an issue, your transitions might include “but,” “whereas” or “in comparison.”

Ideally, a transition statement helps connect two ideas that are already logically related. That’s why it’s often best to structure your ideas in an outline, and then use transitions to weave your thoughts together in written form.