Read and Become a Better Writer

In our opinion reading and writing go hand in hand. They are 2 sides of the same coin. We’ll even stick our necks out and state that we believe that to be a good writer, an exceptional writer, one must read–a lot.

We read a lot.We’re not talking about the clinical study reports, journal articles, and other publications we read to do our jobs. We’re talking about reading for pleasure.

We always have a couple of books on our nightstands and a list of books we want to read in the future, a list to which we add all the time. Some books are medically related, like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Others are just for fun, like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

The point is that is doesn’t matter what you read, just that you read. Whether fiction or nonfiction, books tell a story. Authors hook us from the beginning and build interest and anticipation as they present information in a logical progression. As medical communicators, we need to be able to do the same, especially with the trend toward more patient-centered communications, a trend that is not going to go away. We learn how to do it by reading and observing how other authors craft their stories.

And it’s always about telling a story. Regardless of what type of deliverable we’re writing–sales training, manuscripts, slide decks, scripts–we need to be able to craft a story that makes sense and resonates with our target audience, whoever they might be. We need to do more than simply present dry facts and figures.

If you’re stuck in the weeds with your current project and can’t figure out exactly what to say and how to say it, we recommend you take a trip to your local library. Browse the stacks and find something you want to read just for the heck of it. Nonfiction is a good place to start, simply because that’s what we write. We like the way author Erik Larson tells stories. Cyndy’s currently reading Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, his account of the 1900 Galveston hurricane that devastated the city. He’s also written Dead Wake about the last crossing of the Lusitania, and The Devil in the White City, which highlights serial murders that took place around the time of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

When you read, pay attention to the authors’ word choices and phrasing and how these affect your attention and comprehension. Read sentences aloud. Are they active or passive voice? Which sounds better? Consider plot development. Do you have enough information to understand where the story’s headed or are you going back and rereading previous pages? Does the author write in such a way that you care about what you’re reading? As you read more, you’ll assimilate techniques that will help you to become a better writer.

So if this sounds like a pitch to dust off your library card, it absolutely is. It’s not enough to know the mechanics of writing, to understand statistics, to be able to pour data into understandable figures and graphs. Each of us needs to be able to tell a story, and reading others’ stories shows us how to do that.