I hate learning things the hard way.
But that’s exactly what I’ve done as I’ve built up my writing chops over the years. The funny thing is that none of these lessons is new. In fact, writers have learned these lessons the hard way for centuries. It’s a sort of rite of passage.
But I like you, and I don’t want to find you slamming your head into your desk anytime soon. So let me share some of my favorite lessons, but in the words of famous authors. Maybe they will save you some heartache. They will most certainly make you a better writer.
Heads up: there is a little profanity below. In my view these quotes don’t have the punch without it, so I kept it in. Nothing wrong with a well-placed swear word – used sparingly and not in letters to your grandmother.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King
Of all the lessons I have learned, this is the most valuable. It turns out writer’s block isn’t nearly as common as we would like to think. What we commonly refer to as writer’s block is too often a lack of preparation, mainly from not reading. It’s important to read medical journals and keep up with the news. But it’s also important to read fiction and non-fiction from other fields.
Think of writing as your sport. Athletes who don’t crosstrain are more likely to sustain injuries in their sport of choice. Writing is the same way. Of course you have to read about your primary subject area, but you also need to cross-train. It’s true – reading about space travel or financial markets will make you a better medical writer. It keeps your mind nimble, it helps you make connections between ideas, and it keeps you from considering thoughts in a vacuum.
Gustave Flaubert read five hours per day while he was writing Madame Bovary. Immanuel Kant read three hours per day. Life was different then, and not all great writers have that kind of time to devote to reading. If you aren’t living the life of a gentleman scholar, don’t sweat it. Just don’t undervalue the impact reading has on your writing.
If you don’t have time to read, make time. It’s that important.
The first draft of everything is shit. –Ernest Hemingway
This is truth and most of us know it. But everyone gets lazy or in a hurry once in a while and something leaves their desk that never should. Plan your projects so you have time to draft, re-draft, edit, and proofread. Your work will shine and you will feel good about it.
Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you. ― Neil Gaiman
Okay, okay. I know you aren’t a fiction writer, you’re a medical writer. But still there are two take aways here. First, stories are still a great way to get a point across – even if it’s information about the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine.
Second, you are the only you. So let your voice come through in your writing. Dry writing that could be written by anyone anywhere is no fun to read. It’s okay to let a little of your wit, your sarcasm, or your even your crazy come through when you write.
I get into this topic a little more in depth in Different is Better Than Better. Take a look at it and start working on letting your voice come through in your writing.
Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass. –David Ogilvy
Here’s what you need to know about this quote: You are probably doing this and you don’t even know it. When you dig so far into a subject that you are now the one who writes about it, you know the jargon. You’ve gotten used to the jargon. And you forget that other folks don’t know the jargon.
So go back over everything you write and look for those two dollar words. Come up with a simpler word. You can do it!
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