Write your way to clinical excellence, Cardiology News
Write your way to clinical excellence, Cardiology News 02/06/2010
We sometimes learn as much from our failures as from our successes â€“ often more so. But if we simply move on and never communicate these lessons, the value of these lessons will always be limited. This is why communicating is key to creating a culture of best practice that helps you to set benchmarks for your hospital. If weâ€™re not to limit that communication to a very small audience (those we can talk to), then that means written communication.
These days more than ever, any written communication has to compete with the literally millions of other messages that bombard us every day. Professional communications compete with an endless stream of news and advertising messages for mental â€˜bandwidthâ€™. So to get your particular message across, your reports or emails need to be concise and clearly show your ideas and recommendations. Your colleagues need to be able to see that you have a definitive viewpoint. And any documents you write for patients need to be easy to understand.
Time spent on this area should bring benefits beyond the harnessing and transfer of knowledge. As with most clichÃ©s, thereâ€™s more than a grain of truth in the mantra that you need to â€˜publish or perish.â€™ Perfecting your writing skills will make it easier to turn your hard-won knowledge into scientific papers for the literature, in turn helping to cement your reputation as a leader in your field, both nationally and internationally.
Yet the irony is that despite its importance, most clinicians have never been taught professional writing skills. In fact, using basic essay and report writing skills developed through academic study is akin to using GCSE biology to investigate sudden cardiac death.
Good writing takes practice. And even the best writers sometimes get bogged down in the finer details of their research and fail to deliver the main messages of their work. The secret is to have a checklist of writing tools to keep you on track.
If you consistently apply these techniques, youâ€™ll transform your writing and â€“ in turn â€“ your ability to influence your patients and peers.
Report writing made simple
Many people see report writing as a chore, and put it off until the last minute. Then, faced with a looming deadline, they cobble together something that doesnâ€™t differentiate the key points from other information. In doing so, theyâ€™ll probably focus more on the writing process than on the readersâ€™ needs.
Doubtless you rarely â€“ if ever â€“ have the luxury of time to set aside for thinking and preparing. But just sitting away from your PC and planning what you want to include and in what order can pay dividends.
Focus on your reader
Itâ€™s vital to ascertain your readersâ€™ level of knowledge when writing about it.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the document about?
- Who will read it?
- How much do they already know about the subject?
- What do they absolutely need to know?
- How important is the subject to them?
- How interested are they in the subject?
Map out your ideas
Decide what you want to include before you begin writing. (Do not be tempted to use the writing process to clarify your thoughts.) For longer, more complex documents, it often helps to write your topic in the middle of the page and use a mind map as a tool for brainstorming your ideas. Then use a pen to group together the ideas that have things in common. Next decide what order to put your groups in, starting with the most important group first. Cross out anything that is irrelevant to your reader: never be tempted to include information simply because you have it. And earmark non-essential detail for appendices.
Donâ€™t be tempted to shortcut this process by creating lists on your computer instead. Using a pen and paper can help to keep your mind fresh. It encourages the creative process, as it helps you to link ideas rather than thinking in a linear fashion. The messier you are now, the more ordered your thinking will be later.
Clarify your main message
Now that youâ€™ve decided what your most important idea is, your next task is to explore this in more detail. Take another sheet of paper and write the headings: What?, Where?, When?, How?, Why?, and Who? Keep writing down the answers to these questions until you get to the heart of what youâ€™re really trying to say. Then, with this main message in mind, decide on a final order for the rest of your points.
Following this process will help you avoid the temptation to cram every idea or piece of data into your report. Itâ€™s more important to have a clearly defined point of view than to give the reader â€˜value for moneyâ€™ with a jam-packed document.
Craft a compelling summary
An executive summary should highlight your recommendations right at the top, with your reasons second.
For example, if your report concludes that a type â€˜Aâ€™ personality is a huge risk factor for a cardiac arrest, this information needs to come first. The interesting finding that single men visit their GP less than married men is probably best left for the main body of the report â€“ unless you decide to make this your angle. The choice is yours, because the secret to great report writing is to have a definitive point of view, no matter what it is.
Donâ€™t forget that the world is suffering from information overload, and if your readers fully digested every document sent to them, theyâ€™d find little time to do anything else. Even if your writing is impeccable, it will still compete for your readerâ€™s attention with a mountain of other documents, including emails, texts and even Twitter updates. Keep this in mind with every sentence you write.
A new scientific style
To truly develop your writing style you need to bid farewell to the rules of academic writing. In universities and other educational institutions, the more knowledge, information and argument you display, the better the work is received. Itâ€™s also standard practice to write in the passive voice. And itâ€™s common to reach a conclusion only after a long period of argument and analysis.
But it is possible for your work to be scientifically sound and compelling. You can use short sentences and paragraphs and still present a rigorous clinical review. And you donâ€™t need to use jargon all the time, even if you are communicating to colleagues (but see below). Question your use of language and make conscious decisions about your writing.
Quick style tips
Apply the following tips to every document your write to make sure your work is clear, concise and compelling.
Avoid the passive voice
Use the active voice, where possible. So instead of: â€˜advances in atrial fibrillation ablation have been made,â€™ write â€˜we have made advances in atrial fibrillation ablation.â€™ Using the words â€˜weâ€™, â€˜youâ€™ and â€˜us,â€™ can also help you to connect with your readers.
Make sentences short and sweet
Keep your readersâ€™ attention by using an average of 15-20 words in each sentence. Prune your sentences by going through your document and cutting out meaningless phrases and non-essential information. Choose simpler words over more complicated alternatives. When writing for the public, for example, itâ€™s much better to write the phrase â€˜giving up smokingâ€™ than â€˜smoking cessation.â€™
Put only one idea in each sentence
The following sentence contains two separate ideas: â€˜Even though cardiologists play an important role in influencing the lifestyle choices of their patients, some experts are concerned that they need more focus in this work.â€™ Far better to split it in two: â€˜Cardiologists play an important role in influencing the lifestyle choices of their patients. Yet some experts are concerned that they need more focus in this work.â€™ Practise splitting up your ideas in this way to make your writing easy to read (and write, incidentally).
Jargon is not the bogeyman
Itâ€™s perfectly acceptable to use jargon if youâ€™re sure that your readers will understand it. Your fellow medical professionals will instantly know what the following sentence means. â€˜A review of the epidemiological literature has identified that psychosocial factors contribute to the onset of cardiac disease.â€™ But it would probably bemuse the typical layperson. If in doubt, underestimate your readersâ€™ level of knowledge.
Avoid management speak
In some workplaces, people have found it almost impossible to speak without using terms such as â€˜going forwardâ€™, â€˜utiliseâ€™ and â€˜pre-prepareâ€™. But while these words may get bandied about in board rooms, donâ€™t be tempted to use them in documents. Instead of â€˜going forwardâ€™ write â€˜in the futureâ€™; opt for â€˜useâ€™ instead of â€˜utiliseâ€™ and remember that thereâ€™s no such thing as preparing before you prepare. Ask yourself if what youâ€™re writing really makes sense, and donâ€™t be afraid to cull words and sentences if it doesnâ€™t.
Beware of abbreviations
Abbreviations are a great shortcut when you and your reader speak a common language. But donâ€™t forget that there may be acronyms and abbreviations that people outside your profession just wouldnâ€™t know.
Find your flow
If you find it difficult to get started, try writing in short bursts. Start by writing for 30 minutes and keep increasing this time until youâ€™re comfortable writing for up to two hours. Keep referring to your plan, and just aim to write very specific sections of information. No matter how long or short your final document, even squeezing in a 15-minute session can help you make progress.
Check your facts
It can be such a relief to finish a document that you forget to proofread it. But making simple spelling mistakes, typos and other errors can seriously undermine the validity of your work. Proofread extra slowly by stopping a pencil at each word to check that itâ€™s accurate. And ask a colleague to do the same. Itâ€™s easier for a fresh pair of eyes to spot any mistakes.
The art of article writing
Magazine articles are a powerful vehicle for communicating your ideas and opinions. There are lots of industry titles that you could contribute to â€“ including Cardiology News. Once youâ€™ve fully brainstormed and planned what you want to include (see the steps above in the report writing made simple section) there are three principles to follow.
Create a snappy headline
The headline is the most important part of your article. Itâ€™s the first thing people see and will determine whether or not they want to read on. So choose a striking headline. â€˜Patients celebrate return to health with alcohol and cigarettesâ€™ is better than â€˜Adverse lifestyle trends remain one year after cardiac arrest.â€™ The first headline is more interesting as it clearly presents the irony of choosing an unhealthy lifestyle when youâ€™re lucky to be alive.
Find an angle
Using the headline above, you could outline examples of patients whoâ€™ve reverted to their unhealthy ways and explain how, why and when they did this. Include facts and statistics to back up your findings. And make sure your article contains a definitive viewpoint.
Bite the bullet
As with report writing, you need to focus on making things simple for your reader. Include lots of bullet points and subheadings and use the important words that your readers will be looking for.
Becoming a recognised industry expert
Writing well-received articles and reports lays the ground work for being recognised as a leading medical expert. Even if youâ€™re happy doing your day job with as little fanfare as possible, itâ€™s still worth communicating with the media. Your articles can encourage other clinicians to adopt your best practice. And they give you the opportunity to extend to circle of influence to the general consumers by using your writing as a health promotion tool.
Start close to home by suggesting article ideas to medical magazines. The best articles to position yourself as an expert are ones where you give a new insight into existing issues. You could present a new take on the prevalence of heart disease or outline how a new piece of government legislation will affect cliniciansâ€™ working lives.
Send a synopsis of the article to the magazine first. Write a snappy headline and standfirst (the two lines under the headline). Then write an attention grabbing opening paragraph and a few bullet points about what your article will include. The magazineâ€™s editor can then give you further guidelines on content and style.
Letters to the editor
An easy way to begin your media campaign is to comment on relevant industry stories by writing letters to the editor. Use the SCRAP formula to grab readersâ€™ attention. The acronym stands for: situation, complication, resolution, action and politeness.
Begin by explaining the current situation (or â€˜where we are nowâ€™).
Introduce the idea that thereâ€™s a problem (â€˜why we canâ€™t stay hereâ€™).
State your resolution to the problem. The reader will perceive you as an expert because you have a ready-made way of fixing things.
Suggest what action the reader can or should take. Offer a viewpoint that is new and intriguing.
Finally, end with a polite, but thought provoking sign-off.
As in any profession, there are frustrating days when patients seem
Hell-bent on ignoring your advice, or hospital politics get the better
of you. Good communication is a step to resolving these issues and
learning to write clearly about them can help relieve your frustration.
Developing your writing skills can even help you communicate better with
your patients. The principles are the same: focusing on your patient,
clarifying your main message and using words theyâ€™ll understand. And
when you start to view your communication skills as being as essential
as your clinical skills; your new found abilities will begin to pay
Robert Ashton is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.