How Public Health Students Can Develop a Deliberate Writing Practice: Part 3/3

Read Part 1:  Public Health Writing as Deliberate Practice

Read Part 2: Stretching Your Attention and Ability: Deliberate Practice 

To apply the concept of deliberate practice at a student level, I can offer my experience in learning how to write for my public health classes. All my academic training before I arrived in the MPH program at Boston University was in English literature. I wrote a book-length dissertation on the mid-twentieth-century author, Barbara Pym. And I wrote dozens of meandering 20-page papers interpreting the writing of other people. I had no idea what a literature review was (though it turned out my English lit papers were a type of literature review). I had to search for examples and online guidance to figure out what a policy brief was.

Aside from the email and newsletters I wrote for my program coordinator job in the Center for the Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, I had never consciously written with the goal of conveying useful information to a specific reader. But I had a vague idea it would be easy. Much easier than writing my dissertation, where I was never sure what I would put on the page until I sat down to write.

When I started my MPH classes, I quickly discovered just how much work I needed to do. I needed to learn to read the usually detailed instructions and keep consulting them. I needed to write an outline and stick to it, or revise it as the draft developed. I needed to convey correct information (not just creative interpretation), and I needed to do it in a way that was easy and pleasurable to read.

Knowing that someone would read what I wrote because they wanted to learn something, was completely new to me. I realize that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I had never done any formal writing with the goal of being useful. I quickly discovered just how difficult writing clear, concise, accurate, and engaging documents could be. So, every paper I wrote during my time as an MPH student was a form of deliberate practice. I didn’t have that language then or for a long time.

I joined the BUSPH faculty in 2005 as an assistant professor and “writing specialist” in the Department of Global Health. I was eager to take the job because I knew I had a lot of knowledge I could share about the writing process and revision. Even though I was often at sea with my own writing, I had been teaching undergraduate composition classes while working on my MA at Ohio University and my PhD at UNH. During those years, I was immersed in a world where we talked about composition theory and pedagogy all the time. I was trained to help students work their way through a multi-draft writing process. And I had empathy and patience when giving other people feedback on their writing. But the “writing specialist” part of my title always made me nervous.

Who is a writing specialist? Alice Walker, Stephen King, James McBride, Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Sedaris, Celeste Ng. Famous people who make their living by their pen. None of them walk around talking about how they have mastered writing. So who was I? An erstwhile English PhD pretending I knew how to write public health documents on critical, complex problems for readers who would use my work to inform and guide their actions. We all have our imposter-syndrome demons, and that was one of mine.

The concept of daily, deliberate writing practice – even for just 15 timed minutes a day – completely changed my relationship with writing and provides a daily bulwark against self-doubt.

My first challenge was committing to that 15 minutes at the keyboard Monday through Friday. It didn’t come easily, and I’m always resisting urges to skip, to focus on other things (like responding to the 30 emails that came in overnight). Once I developed a successful track record over the course of a year (even if I only wrote a sentence or two) I was able to attend to the mechanics of my writing style. I became more deliberate while revising (rarely while writing the first draft—more about that later). I created time and room to deliberate about words and flow. What a gift.

Writing strong, clear sentences where, as Strunk and White say, “every word tells” has been central to my daily deliberate practice for the last couple years. I tend to write long sentences containing multiple thoughts and many unnecessary words. I was always vaguely aware of this habit and thought of it as my natural style, the source of my voice and creativity. Then, when writing proposals and articles with colleagues, I started to notice that they often broke up my long sentences. They also excised words that contributed little to the meaning. I was fascinated by their ability to cut through my fog of words to the nugget of meaning with small edits and punctuation changes. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing the same for other writers. My challenge is to be able to do it for myself as I revise. It’s a path I know I will be on for the rest of my writing life.

As you develop your daily practice, you can decide what’s important to you. You can make sure all your subjects and verbs are strong, or read your work out loud as you write and revise to hear places where wording is awkward, unclear, or overly wordy. For me, these choices depend on where I am in the writing process and what kind of document I am writing.

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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