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Writing Pearls

Brief selections from written works or interviews with established authors featuring short, sometimes aphoristic advice on improving our writing are below. They are not meant to be definitive or canonical, but a source for meditation and ideas.

Many healthcare professionals draw inspiration for their writing from interactions with patients.  However, writing about these experiences can be dangerous, since we are required by law and ethics to protect our patients’ identities whenever we discuss them publicly.  In this article (full text available free through Pubmed), authors William Rafelson, Jane Bruno, and Don Dizon provide guidelines for determining if your narrative properly attends to the principle of patient confidentiality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519768/

One of the primary justifications for the study of Narrative Medicine is that by applying ourselves to the careful study of narrative, we can better learn understand and communicate with other people.  In this article, published in Science, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano provide experimental evidence that “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” https://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377

In his justly famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell provided a list of six rules for clear and effective writing.

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

While these rules are widely applicable and often quoted, they fail to fully capture the heart of his essay.  Orwell’s main concern was that writers seemed to have lost the capacity for original expression; instead of actually writing, they were merely reassembling existing cliches.  He argued that this failure in expression both reflected, and perpetuated, laziness of thought.  His essay calls upon the prospective writer to avoid this error, and utilize her own mind.  It is well worth reading in its entirety: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/

(8/20/2020) Albert Camus on writing, from “Reflections on the Guillotine”:

As a writer, I have always loathed avoiding the issue; as a man, I believe that the repulsive aspects of our condition, if they are inevitable, must merely be faced in silence. But when silence or tricks of language contribute to maintaining an abuse that must be reformed or a suffering that can be relieved, then there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.

Camus, Albert. Committed Writings (p. 39). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.