Guidelines for New Writers

by Daniel Coleman, Medical Student Editor of in-Training

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, the first in a series of guides aimed at refining your articles, stories, and poems before they even hit the in-Training server.  We hope you take them as gentle nudges or challenges to elevate your craft and bring in-Training to an even greater level of excellence.

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, when a submission comes in with dozens of typos and obvious grammar mistakes.  In short, it is difficult for an editor to be an advocate when the writer doesn’t seem to value his or her own work.  So here are some simple strategies for ensuring your article is up to snuff:

  1. Pay attention to red squiggly bars.  Technology is great.  Computers are smart.  So when they highlight a word like “strategery,” they aren’t trying to make you feel bad.  It’s just that there’s a really obvious spelling mistake. These are the easiest errors to fix, so at the very least, give your work a quick one over to identify any issues.
  2. Read it out loud.  This is the easiest way to pick up mistakes by giving you a different perspective on your work.  Reading out loud forces you to slow down and take a look at each word, rather than sliding through those preformed patterns you have in your head.  Lastly, 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.  Speaking of which…
  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 they should be able to screen for obvious spelling or grammar errors without making you cry.
  5. Read it backwards.  Of all the options, this is the most onerous, albeit the absolute best at catching subtle mistakes.  This method short circuits your traditional pattern recognition, forcing you to take a close look at each word taken out of context.

You don’t need to do all of these, but pick out two or three for a pre-submission ritual. Eliminating these easy-to-fix mistakes gives your piece that professional polish and 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 writers.  You can have the great ideas and beautiful prose, but without structure, your message will be lost amongst the rubble.  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.  In short, es muy importante.

So structure.  How do we do that?  Well, remember that essay you wrote in high school?  Intro paragraph with thesis, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion?  That is structure.  A strict structure, yes, but structure nonetheless.  Here on in-Training you don’t need to lock yourselves into such a format, but you do need to have…something.  Here are three easy ways to add structure to your work.

1. Have a clear thesis.  To put it another way, 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 you story beat by beat.  Just, you know, outline.  Go ahead and have topics and subtopics and then subtopics to those subtopics if that makes you happy.  An example of a simple outline 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.

Now, if you do outline, do it for Johnny and do it 100%.  Don’t fall into the trap of outlining half the story and then assume the rest will fall into place when you start writing.  Because if you can’t figure out a way forward in your outline, you’ll probably run in to the same problems when you start writing.  If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention to that feeling and address the problem before you dig in too deep and have 1000 words already on the page.

3. Use imagery.  Peppering images throughout your piece not only reminds readers of things they read earlier, but allows them to link your arguments together in a visual way. For example, if your essay is about how difficult medical school is, you can use the image of a prison.  Throughout the essay, you can use phrases like “locked up in the library” and “doing four years to life as a doctor, with no hope of parole.”  Refer to the students as inmates; your teachers as correctional officers.  You don’t need to inundate, just sprinkle lightly, like you were seasoning a nice piece of squab (no, I don’t know what squab is).  And consider resurrecting those images in your concluding statements.  Bring them together and show the reader how those images — and your arguments — are interconnected.  Just like a good episode of Seinfeld.

Part 3: Transitions

“Transitions are the life blood of your story.”
— Anonymous

Okay, so that’s not actually a real quote, but transitions are still super important.  These guys govern 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.  It’s an extreme example, but there are 50 shades of poor transitions, and we should all do our best to avoid them.  But how?

Well, there’s a rule in improv comedy that says “never say no.”  You take the thought that someone gives you and run with it.  Have that attitude with your writing — never say no.  Your thoughts need to run seamlessly one into the other; they shouldn’t feel abrupt or out of the blue.  Take a look:

…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.  Like so:

…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, because, just like in improv, you want each idea to flow right into the next.  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 “by comparison.”

Of course, transitions are easier said than done.  It might take some time to figure out how bring two thoughts together.  Up front, you can make things easier on yourself by creating an outline.  Identifying the core idea of each paragraph may produce an obvious connection, but if it doesn’t, you have some work to do.  Because if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s not going to make sense to the reader.  That means you might need to take a step back, reassess your content, and maybe, just maybe, become better friends with that “DEL” key in the top right corner of the keyboard.