Becoming a Public Health Writer

Writing for a particular audience, to fulfill a specific need, and using clear, concise language that is easy to read and understand. These are the hallmarks of public health writing. Or maybe I should say they are the goals, the things every public health writer should be thinking about and striving for when they sit down at their keyboard. But being a clear, concise writer who engages reader interest while providing necessary information and analysis, is not simply a matter of sitting down and starting to type.

Most of us need to write many drafts, revising as we go, seeking feedback, and then revising again.  This is true for all writing, but public health writers face the particular challenge of translating complex topics, science, and numbers in a way that is clear, concise, and engaging. This is not easy. The source documents we use are often so packed with jargon, abbreviations, and long passive sentences that making sense of them requires specialized training, extraordinary patience, and focus.

I say all of this to comfort rather than scare you away. As you embark on your journey as a public health student, you may find yourself struggling to understand a research article and write about it in a way that makes sense to you and will be useful to your reader. You are not alone. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the challenges we all face in our role as public health communicators into stark focus. The words we use matter as do the nuances and details we choose to include.

The constant critiques of Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are a useful case in point. In the first couple months of 2022, Americans were frustrated with Dr. Wolensky, the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and President Biden for the rapid spread of the omicron variant, for the quick change in isolation guidelines from 10 days to 5, for the shortage of self-testing kits, for the new focus on surgical-quality masks, for what some see as the broken promise that vaccination will end the pandemic.

It’s easy to throw stones at other communicators for falling short, and there are many ways in which official messaging might have been executed more strategically and with a better awareness of the cognitive biases that drive human behavior. The communication coaching Dr. Walensky promised to engage in seems to have helped. You may remember that she shifted her messaging about masks: taking a break when risk is low, setting them aside, but keeping them nearby so we can reach for them again when needed.  She has made her messaging more nuanced than it was in the past. But the balance between nuance and confusion is delicate. No matter how crystalline her messaging, she was in a no-win communication situation. Could she and the federal government have done better? Certainly. Will anyone attain perfect communication about a constantly changing virus in a fraught political context. No.

Most of us will never have a global platform. And we can take some comfort in that relative anonymity. But it doesn’t mean that we can justify lazy or haphazard writing. Covid put all public health professionals and researchers under the microscope. Now more than ever, we all need to approach our writing with a fine balance of confidence and humility. Confidence that we have something useful to contribute. And humble acceptance that we will always be in the process of trying to get it right.


We’re revamping the Public Health Writing Guide. Watch the Public Health Writing Blog for new sections every week.

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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