How to Write Your Own Health Articles

Writer's Guide


Omit needless words.
(William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style)

If you find yourself saying the same thing to everybody, then write it down.  It is intimidating to sit down to "write a book."  It is a lot easier to sit down to write a page.  Of course, if you write enough pages, you will pretty much have a book eventually.  I've authored books both ways, and I greatly prefer to go an article at a time. 

So, my first rule is to try to limit your idea to just one page.  There is no speech, sermon or writing that would not benefit from being shorter.  President Calvin Coolidge is remembered not for his presidency but for his brevity.  I lived in Vermont for a couple of years, and it is amazing how few words some of the old-timers used in a full year.  If your article spills over to another page or two, that is only OK if you really have something to say. 

My second rule is, then, to really have something to say.  Always address subjects you know well.  If you don't know, then don't. 

Keep it short; have something to say.  Tastes great, less filling. As with comic Father Guido Sarduchi's "Five Minute University," you now have to make the idea stick.  His one-sentence course in Economics is "buy low and sell high."  I saw a sign in a store window when I was a kid that put my father into near hysterics.  It was: "Free legal advice: Stay out of trouble."  If I were to reduce all knowledge of medicine to one sentence, it would be "Be a vegetarian, exercise daily and take vitamins." 

That, alone, is not quite enough.  You have to sell it with style.  If you do not yet have a literary style, good.  Just keep it short and to the point.  That alone is good style.  When Will Rogers began his career as a columnist, his terrible spelling and grammar "became" his style.  He was also brief and to the point.  A president delivered his Gettysburg Address in three minutes; the speaker before him spoke for two hours.  Which speaker's name do you remember? 

Health is certainly a big subject, so do not even attempt to cover it all.  Who could?  There is no need to reinvent the wheel, or to rewrite Gray's Anatomy.  But patients need simplification and clarification.  Don't YOU appreciate short meetings and short commercials? 

Next rule: never use a big five-dollar word when a short word will do.  There is a hidden benefit here.  The shorter your word, and the shorter your sentences, the less education the reader has to have to understand you (Fry Readability Graph, Journal of Reading, December 1977, p. 249).  Using this principle, I deliberately wrote my masters thesis at the fourth grade reading level.  There are over 30 million functionally illiterate Americans out there, and some will be patients of yours. 

You have noticed the use of some examples and anecdotes to illustrate my points in this article.  I've been writing and speaking for a living for 20 years, and it seems to help.  My students of all ages, literally from first grade to post-doctoral, have told me that they appreciate my stories.  Try to keep your illustrations on the subject, or at least promptly return to the subject if you digress. 

Don't be afraid of simplification.  Any idiot can take a plain idea and make it complicated; just look at Congress.  It takes real talent to take a complex idea and make it simple.  It is a gift for the writer, and a relief to the reader.  Always go for the bottom line.  When in doubt, summarize. 

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner said that all learning is the mastery of a very large number of very small steps.  Professor John I. Mosher, whom I studied with for over two decades, reminded me a long time ago to put myself in the student's seat and deliver the kind of presentation that I myself would want to listen to.  When you write your articles, put yourself in the reader's position and keep asking yourself what is most important.  Then put that down on paper. 

References and quotes add to your credibility as an author.  Dr. Mosher described this in terms of baboons.  Sometimes a potential rival challenges the leadership of the troop's dominant male.  The issue is generally decided by a form of majority vote.  If more of the baboons stand behind the challenger, he takes over.  If most stand behind the current leader, he remains in charge.  Dr. Mosher said it is about the same with bibliographical references: try to get as many baboons as you can to back you up

Proof read and edit your work.  Oh, how I love word processors.   In the old days, we had to white out, cut and paste, or redo entire pages.  Now that corrections are so easy on a computer, they are all the more essential.  Re-read your work for style and flow, not just for typos.  Have your family read your articles.  Go out of your way to have your kids read your articles.  If they get the point, you made your point. 

Try to shorten your article wherever possible.  You may never know just how many words and phrases I deleted editing the very article that you are reading now.  You may well see where I could have done better. 

So try it!  Surgery residents have often been taught, "watch one, do one, teach one."  Now its your turn. 

Taken in part from the book FIRE YOUR DOCTOR, copyright 2005 and previous years Andrew W. Saul.


Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Andrew W. Saul


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