Defining success

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu

As we progress through school and the early stages of our career, the messages we receive from the outside world guide us more than they probably should. At some point, we forget to pause and carefully consider what we actually need and want. We forget to think about what’s in our best self-interest and that of our family, and not just about what’s expected of us. We forget to dream about the impact we want to have in the world and the problems we want to solve. Essentially, we forget to question and reflect.

But, most of us get to a time and place, where we turn off autopilot and realize that our definition of success may be different than what we were told. We start to understand that each person’s idea of success is highly individualized. No one can truly tell us what constitutes a successful existence; we define that for ourselves, and it is an iterative process, changing as we grow. Taking time to reflect on where you are, and asking simple questions about where you’re heading, and where you want to be, can be transformative. 

My current definitions of success are pretty basic, but drastically different from those I used to believe. I used to think that chasing the ranks of my career ladder would strengthen me as a professional. I now believe there is no single ladder that defines a career trajectory. I can create new rungs on this historical career ladder, take steps different than those of my mentors, and still grow exponentially in my work. I used to think titles mattered, and that they magically gave professionals more value. I now know that titles say nothing about the true impact an individual has had or their overall mission. Keeping close guard of my purpose, and continuously redefining what I view as my personal vision are far more useful for helping me achieve real impact than chasing a title. Internalizing external messages, I used to believe my career was about me. Today, I recognize that my career is about the people or issue I serve, and those whom I hope to positively impact or inspire. Success in my career would mean I created something good or made something better. It would mean I made someone’s path easier. Naively, I used to think that I had to make everyone happy. Today, I know that’s impossible. Today, success means that I remain true to my values unapologetically. It means I surround myself with joy, including people who keep me grounded, inspired and in a positive mindset. The real sign of success for me is when days flow with a sense of peace and fulfillment, and I am eager at dawn to get started all over again.

Take time to slow down, and reflect on what your deepest definitions of success truly are. Never stop asking questions, and be aware enough to design your career and life according to your unique definitions of success.

Five ways to improve your health writing skills

Health writing is a broad field, filled with a number of smaller niches. You may be focused on fitness, nutrition, women’s health, or cancer, just to name a few. Whatever your specific interest or specialty is, getting started as a writer can be intimidating. Here are a few simple strategies that can help improve your writing.

Read content from other health writers. Writing styles differ according to author, niche, and audience. Read a variety of content from health writers. Identify articles written for the same types of audiences you want to target. Note the structure and tone of the writing. Break the article down by paragraph, and decide what purpose each paragraph fills in the article. Effective nonfiction writing is usually centered on key messages, as explained here. Identify the main teaching points in the article you are reading. What is the overall take-home message? How does the author organize these objectives and messages to create a clear, concise story? Take note of research that is cited to understand the types and numbers of sources you may need as supporting evidence to write a piece of similar length or style. The tone and voice will vary more than structure when you start comparing articles; that’s what makes each author unique. Still, there are some patterns to notice. For example, if a piece is written for a patient, how does the writer maintain a positive, helpful message, even when discussing a serious condition? What reading level does the piece appear to target, and how does that affect word choice? If a piece is written primarily for healthcare professionals or researchers, how does the author make the article interesting and engaging, rather than purely academic? Annotate each article as you go through this exercise. You’ll begin spotting patterns in health writing articles that are targeted to similar audiences. You can apply these general patterns in structure and voice to your own outlines as you build your health writing practice.

Keep up with news from your niche. This is critical. Health research moves at a ridiculously rapid pace. Understand what constitutes a credible source in your field, and read these sources regularly. For example, if your focus is oncology, read abstracts from the top-tier oncology journals on PubMed each week to identify new articles. You can set up automatic alerts based on keyword searches. Follow blogs from the major oncology associations and reputable oncology news websites daily. Many of these sources offer e-mail newsletters that can automatically be sent to you. Also, mine abstract databases from major annual oncology conferences to stay in touch with breaking news. Health writers must stay up-to-date, or their content risks becoming obsolete and irrelevant, and possibly filled with errors if something new has been learned.

Write regularly and listen to feedback. Write as many different types of content targeted to your primary audience as you can. As long as you practice consistently, you will improve. Seek feedback from clients, colleagues, mentors, and writing groups. Feedback is most effective when it highlights your strengths and weaknesses, so you know exactly what’s working, and what needs to be improved. Don’t be afraid to try new types of deliverables. There are so many possibilities in health writing; articles, blogs, book chapters, abstracts, news summaries, and medical needs assessments are just a few examples. Research and read other writers’ work. Then, try writing something new, and ask for feedback; it’s the only way to learn and become a strong health writer capable of writing diverse types of content.

Join classes and professional organizations. Formal courses, online writing programs, and professional organizations often provide resources to help improve health writing skills. Identify health writing groups or classes online or in your area, and see if they offer feedback, specialized teaching, books, or certifications that will help you grow as a writer. In addition to medical and science writing associations, there are freelance health writers who offer online courses. Check out this link for additional advice.

Write for your audience. Health writers are educators. Your content is designed to teach an audience something new about a specific health topic. Keeping your reader in mind as you write will automatically focus your attention and improve your writing. Imagine your audience as you write. What concerns do they have? As you practice writing for the same general audience a few times, you’ll learn how to address their major needs and anxieties. Targeting your writing to help your audience is one of the most effective ways to improve the tone, clarity, and quality of your health writing.

These are just a handful of easy tips to help you on your way to becoming a strong, impactful health writer. It’s a continuous process, and regardless of how senior a writer is, there is always something new to learn. Be kind to yourself, and approach writing with a growth mindset, so that you are open to learning and evolving even when new challenges present themselves.