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.

Communicating research to a broader audience

Research is all about increasing knowledge. Everyone should have access to that education. Unfortunately, research findings often remain trapped for years in academic circles. Science graduate programs train students to speak to other scientists, with manuscripts and talks usually targeted to professional audiences. Although this is critical for driving research programs forward, it does not allow the general public to access new research information. One reason for the breakdown in communication from academic science to the public is the lack of training in effective public engagement. During the past decade, scientific writing and presentation courses have been added to graduate curricula. Equal attention should be paid to fostering communication outside of academic circles. Most science training programs do not include opportunities for public engagement. Only with practice can scientists actually learn how to convey their research in a meaningful, interesting, clear and concise manner that is relevant to a general audience.

In the absence of established activities, students can work with their advisors to seek out opportunities to write for public audiences. This could include sharing research through school newsletters, blog posts, or social media. Professors can also integrate lessons focused on speaking or writing for the public into existing courses and seminars. Simple assignments could include writing lay abstracts and general research summaries or presenting brief public seminars about a specific research project. Students can work with mentors to develop a 1-minute elevator pitch of their research to clearly articulate the intention or impact of their work. Remember that storytelling and analogies are highly effective ways to communicate complex information. Keeping the message simple with 1-3 main teaching points will reduce the chances of getting lost behind your words. Colleagues from writing and communications departments can be invited to review and critique students’ written summaries or public presentations. Outreach activities will also provide students with unique opportunities to speak at middle schools or community events, which will improve skills in public communication.

Bridging this gap in communication positively impacts academia and the public. Educating a wider audience imparts deeper meaning and purpose to the everyday work of scientists and graduate students. Most importantly, improved access to research findings empowers the public to advocate for their needs. As an example, patients should be privy to research news that may help clarify treatment decisions. Receiving a medical diagnosis is frightening and confusing, often because of the unknowns. Education is one of the biggest weapons we have to combat those fears, ask informed questions, and be proactive about our own healthcare. The academic community has a responsibility to disseminate research to the public in a timely manner. Science graduate programs should prioritize building skills in public communication and engagement to facilitate broader access to research advances and education.

Heading towards a better preclinical model of uterine leiomyoma

Uterine leiomyomas, which are also called uterine fibroids, are non-cancerous tumors arising from the smooth muscle of the uterine myometrium wall. The lifetime incidence of fibroids is estimated to exceed 70%, making these the most frequently diagnosed benign tumor of the female genital tract. Fibroids represent a major cause of heavy uterine bleeding, pain, and reduced fertility.

The biology of fibroid development is poorly understood, although its growth is largely thought to be estrogen-dependent. Currently, the only reliable curative medical option is hysterectomy. Other treatment options, such as uterine arterial embolization and hormonal therapy, can alleviate symptoms and reduce tumor size, but typically do not resolve the condition.

A major challenge with studying fibroids is the lack of physiologically relevant models in the lab. Evaluation of myoma tumor tissue ex vivo is complicated by eventual overgrowth of tumor-associated fibroblasts. Two recent papers published in Endocrine Related Cancer and Journal of Biological Methods report a method for developing patient-derived uterine leiomyoma xenografts (1,2). The investigators used tissue from the most common genetic subtype of uterine leiomyoma, the MED12-mutant subtype. After the tumor was surgically removed from the patient, the tissue was digested and cultured for 1-3 days. Cells were mixed with collagen and grafted into the subrenal capsule of ovariectomized mice. PDX uterine leiomyoma growth was documented in mice supplemented with both estrogen and progesterone. Removal of estrogen and progesterone resulted in a rapid reduction of tumor size of about 60%. Limitations of the model include differences in the hormonal and microenvironment of the kidney vs uterus.

Development of models that more closely mimic human uterine fibroids will allow us to gain increased knowledge about the biology and molecular mechanisms driving the development and growth of these tumors. These models may also be suitable for evaluating new treatment approaches for this common and debilitating condition.

(1) Serna VA, Wu X, Qiang W, Thomas J, Blumenfeld ML, Kurita T. Cellular kinetics of MED12-mutant uterine leiomyoma growth and regression in vivo. Endocr Relat Cancer. 2018 Jul;25(7):747-759.

(2) Serna VA, Kurita T. Patient-derived xenograft model for uterine leiomyoma by sub-renal capsule grafting. J Biol Methods. 2018;5(2).