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.

Organizing nonfiction writing around learning objectives

As nonfiction writers, we strive to educate our readers. Our goal is to communicate interesting ideas clearly and concisely. Sometimes the early stages of nonfiction writing are overwhelming. Sifting through all of our research, and trying to convey our ideas in a meaningful way can be challenging. One strategy to help organize your writing in the early stages is to create a set of learning objectives. Try to limit these to 3-4 per chapter or article. For smaller pieces, such as blog posts, 1-2 learning objectives is sufficient. Objectives should capture the main points that you intend for the reader to learn from your writing. It’s most useful to create these before you develop an outline or first draft. These objectives will provide you with a structural framework, around which you can build your entire work of nonfiction. 

One common system used for developing educational learning objectives is Bloom’s taxonomy (1). Using this system, you can create goals based on whether you want to increase a reader’s knowledge or comprehension of an area or their abilities to apply, analyze, evaluate, or synthesize something new based on what they learn from you. Helpful sites that explain in greater detail how Bloom’s is used for curriculum development are found here and here.

Knowledge-based objectives are the most straightforward to create. These focus on what you want your reader to remember. Think of objectives that use verbs, such as recognize, list, or recall. Let’s look at an example. If you are writing an article about breast cancer therapy for medical students, one of your objectives may be for your readers to be able to list the names of drugs used to treat specific types of breast cancer. Having this first learning objective in mind will help you know what kind of research to do, and what content to include as you build your outline and first draft. If your objective is to improve a reader’s comprehension or understanding of a topic, structure your writing around objectives that help the reader explain, compare, or summarize. Using the same example of an article about cancer therapy, you may include an objective for a reader to be able to explain how chemotherapy affects cancer cells. Deeper learning goals equip a reader with the abilities to critique or design specific endpoints. Sticking with the example of a breast cancer therapy article, your deeper objectives may be for readers to be able to apply facts about cancer therapy to predict how normal cells will be affected, or to be able to design an individualized treatment plan for a patient. Having these goals in mind before doing your research will ensure that you include enough information for readers to make evidence-based predictions and conclusions.

Once you have a set of objectives for your article or chapter, you can further develop each to build a detailed outline. The best part of creating learning objectives is the clarity you will gain regarding the goals and purpose of your article. Clarifying exactly what you want to communicate to your readers is a critical early step for keeping your writing focused and organized. Ultimately, taking the time upfront to develop clear goals will help your writing flow and enrich your reader’s learning experience.

(1) Bloom, B. S. (1956). “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain.” New York: David McKay Co Inc.