The Public Health Writing Umbrella

Writing Clear, Direct, Succinct Prose Is Rarely Simple or Quick

Public health writing is deceptively difficult. At its best, it is simple, clear, and succinct. It gives the impression of having been effortless to write. But the opposite is usually true. A piece of writing that is concise, clear, and a pleasure to read is usually the final of many iterations, revised over time (and often with a certain amount of angst). Writing prose that others appreciate, willingly read, and learn from is deeply gratifying. But, just as often, writing can be a frustrating, lonely, tedious, time-consuming process.

You might be thinking, all writing is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating, so public health writing is no different. That’s true. Writing demands focus, courage, discipline, humility, patience, and more time than you ever want to give it. The difference, as introduced in an earlier post, is that public health writing can be especially daunting because we are writing for a reader who is looking for information packaged in prose that is clear, concise, accurate, and engaging. We need to be vigilant about not wasting words and paying attention to how our message is landing.

Taking Care of  Your Bewildered Reader

Does the reader understand easily? Does she want to keep reading? Does she feel like the time she spends reading will be a worthwhile use of her time. The answer to these questions takes root in our sentences, how we structure them, and the words we use. Lazy or muddled language can have, as we have seen again and again with messaging about Covid prevention and vaccination, real-world consequences.

For me, this quote from E.B. White’s introduction to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style says it all. He is writing about William Strunk — White’s professor, colleague, and the original author of this timeless guide: “Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least throw them a rope. . . . I have tried to hold steadily in mind this belief of his, this concern for the bewildered reader.”

The other complication is that those of us who work in public health have no single genre, audience, language, or voice we can pinpoint as ours. Rather, we must be able to write many types of documents for many types of readers for a wide variety of purposes. The types of documents we write include: policy briefs, peer-reviewed journal articles, scripts for health campaigns, proposals for funding, protocols to get institutional review board clearance to start a research project, literature reviews, email, Tweets, Instagram posts.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every time I host a workshop on public health writing, I ask participants what type of writing they do most frequently in their classes or jobs. I hear about all the genre’s listed here, and I inevitably learn about one or two I’ve never heard of.

So how does one set about mastering the many different types of documents that fall under the umbrella of public health writing. My answer is simple (again belying the very real challenge):

  • Learn by doing;
  • Read the instructions — again, and again, and again;
  • Ask questions — When in doubt about any aspects of the instructions talk to your professor, teaching assistant, supervisor, grant coordinator/program officer, the person most knowledgeable about the project you are working on;
  • Talk to colleagues — ask if they have written the type of document you are working on, ask them for their writing tips, ask about their writing process;
  • Use the internet to find descriptions, guidelines, and sample outlines then adapt as needed — The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) has extensive resources for professional and technical writers that are relevant to public health.
  • Start early to give yourself time for revision
  • Share your draft with peers, writing coaches, or even friends for feedback on clarity, readability, etc.

And here we are, back at deliberate practice.

Each type of document has some standard expectations about language and organization and, over the course of our careers, we get familiar with some of the basic formulas. But we are never on completely firm ground because reader expectations differ, sometimes dramatically. For instance, a policy brief can look very different depending on the subject matter, purpose, and audience expectations. You, the author, are always adapting outlines and formats typical to the genre.

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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