Have you thought about submitting a blog post to a website like Healthy Debate or KevinMD, but aren’t sure where to start? Have you written a few blogs and want to know how you can improve? We love receiving blog submissions (you can submit one here!) and we often get asked what makes for an engaging and effective blog. We give all of our bloggers editorial feedback, and after editing more than 250 posts, I’ve found that many of our bloggers struggle with the same challenges. So to help new bloggers get started and experienced bloggers hone their craft, here are the five most common editorial suggestions I give to our writers.
1. Identify your audience
When sitting down to write a blog, I find it helpful to think about who my primary audience is. Am I writing for the general public? Patients? Doctors? Decision makers?
Identifying who you want to reach can help you shape several important elements of your blog. First, it helps you figure out how much background knowledge about your subject you can take for granted. If you are writing a blog about post-graduate medical training, for example, you can take for granted that doctors will know what residency is, but if you are writing for the general public, you can’t make that assumption.
Different audiences also require different approaches. While decision makers may respond well to blogs that focus on cost and other policy issues, patients are often more interested in how your blog relates to their care.
Identifying your audience also helps you select the best venue for your blog. If you want to reach doctors, you may want to publish on KevinMD. If you want to reach decision makers, a Longwoods essay may be your best choice. For the general public, an op-ed in a major newspaper may be most appropriate.
2. Hook your readers
There are a lot of health care blogs on the internet. To stand out, you need to hook your readers from the very first line. If you can capture a reader’s interest in the first few seconds, there’s a much better chance they’ll read all the way to the end.
One effective tool for hooking your audience is to make a bold or provocative statement right at the beginning. Some of my favorite examples on Healthy Debate are from Yoni Freedhoff about the harm the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program is causing children and Michael Law on the price of generic drugs. Their opening lines suck you in and make you want to keep reading.
Another powerful hook is a well executed anecdote. The right story can immediately draw an emotional connection between the reader and the subject, which can carry the reader right to the end. Two of my favorite examples from Healthy Debate are from Ritika Goel on raising the minimum wage and Farrah Shwartz about health literacy. Both of these stories are very effective because they connect readers to the problem emotionally, and humanize what could otherwise be an inaccessible or academic issue.
You can still write a very good, engaging blog without using one of these devices, but it’s important to avoid starting off a blog with “I read an interesting report recently” or “I went to a talk the other day.” An interesting report or talk may indeed be what inspired you to write, but don’t let this be the first thing you tell your reader. Instead, find the idea in the report that you found so interesting, and share that with the reader, so that they get engaged the same way you did.
3. One idea, one blog
When you write a blog, try to have a tight focus. It’s tempting to cram everything you know about a topic into a single blog, but the result is almost always confusing or unengaging.
Let’s say you want to write about genetic testing. There’s a lot to write about here! There are the ethical challenges around reporting incidental findings, the difficulties in interpreting results, costs of the tests, and the tension between the hype around personalized medicine versus the realities of what can actually be achieved with genomic information. It’s easy to feel like you have to address all of these if you are going to engage in the issue at all, because they’re interconnected. But if you try to take all of these on at once, you’ll run the risk of either writing something the length of a master’s thesis or creating a superficial survey of the area. Instead, you need to focus on a single dimension of the area that you can cover well in 500 to 700 words. You can acknowledge the other issues and their interconnectedness, but pick one issue and make that your subject. Gagan Dhaliwal’s Healthy Debate blog on personalized medicine does a very nice job of this. If you find you have important things to say about the other issues you didn’t cover, that just means you should write a few more blogs!
Following this rule can be tricky when you want to draw connections between two or more issues. It’s tempting in cases like this to ignore this rule completely. However, it’s worth keeping the rule in mind, even if you can’t follow it to the letter. In pieces like this, keep your central thesis in mind, and make sure whatever additional issues you are raising are directly relevant to your overall point. If something doesn’t serve your central thesis, cut it out. I tried to do this in this piece that draws a connection between the overprescribing of anti-depressants and the lack of publicly funded, evidence-based psychotherapy (I’ll leave it up to you to judge how successful I was in keeping the focus tight enough).
4. Plain language is essential
When you write a blog, you should always write in plain language. Blogs aren’t the right venue to show off your impressive vocabulary or your command of the acronym soup that plagues our health care system. Blogs are about communicating quickly to a (hopefully) large number of people. Complex sentences and technical jargon just create barriers between you and your readers.
Even if your target audience is primarily members of your own profession, you should still write in as plain language a way as possible. People are in a hurry and time they’re spending processing overly long, complex sentences is time they’re not spending reading the rest of your piece. On average, readers spend only 2 minutes reading a Healthy Debate blog. That’s not a lot of time! If you want to be understood by busy people speed-reading your blog, best to make the language as clear as possible.
One handy tool for gauging the accessibility of your writing is the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test. It measures the number of syllables per word and the number of words per sentence, and calculates a score out of 100 (the higher the score, the easier to read). You can copy and paste your blog into a free online readability test to get a quick snapshot of how accessible your blog really is. In case you were curious, this blog scores 65.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test, equivalent to a Grade 9 reading level.
You can find several good examples of plain language blogs on Healthy Debate, but some of my favorites are Ishani Ganguli’s piece about writing condolence letters after the death of a patient and Steve Morgan’s blog pointing out the gaps in Canada’s health care system.
Some quick tips to help you write in plain language:
– Never say with one long sentence what you could instead say in two short sentences. If you are using a semicolon, it’s probably because you are linking two shorter sentences. Don’t.
– Never use an obscure word when a common word will do the job. Say feverish, not febrile. Say painkiller, not analgesic.
– If you absolutely must use a technical term, define it for your readers. Same goes for acronyms.
– Ask at least one person you know who doesn’t have technical training in the area to read it and give you feedback about parts they found difficult or confusing.
Sometimes people confuse making a blog accessible with dumbing-it-down. Grade 10 reading level doesn’t mean Grade 10 level of analysis. You can still write about sophisticated issues, just do it with short sentences and without jargon.
5. Find the personal in the policy
While most of the blogs on Healthy Debate address health care policy, many of the best blogs we’ve published include a personal element. Including the personal can help your readers engage with what you have to say, by humanizing a policy or system issue that they might not otherwise care about. Caring is key. Including some element of the personal is a way of showing the reader why you care about an issue and, by extension, why they should care.
Sometimes the personal comes in the familiar form of the patient anecdote, which can bring an issue to life, establishing for the reader why an abstract policy problem matters to real people. Naheed Dosani & Adam Whisler do this nicely when they put a human face on the link between homelessness and mental health.
Sometimes the personal comes through an author’s reflections on their own experience with the health care system, and how it helped them see the system differently. Craig Roxborough’s search for a long-term care home for his father is perfect example of this.
The personal can also come through discussing your own role in the health care system. Harvey Chochinov’s piece on end of life conversations is powerful because it gives the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to provide care to people at the end of life. For a moment, the reader can imagine themselves in Harvey’s place, and struggle to imagine how they would act in his stead.
Sometimes, including the personal is as simple as just telling your readers why you care about an issue. Chris Byrne does this effectively when he states plainly that he’s a Windsor native whose community will be negatively impacted by an ill-conceived decision by government.
If you’re not sure how to include the personal in a specific blog, I find it often helps to simply ask yourself, “Why do I care?” The answer often follows.
Go forth and blog!
Not every great blog has to follow these rules. We’ve certainly published some excellent blogs that break more than one. However, if you’re relatively new to blogging, mastering these tips is a great place to start. As you get more experienced, you’ll start to develop a sense of when you can bend the rules, and when you can’t.
I hope you find these tips helpful, and I hope you’ll use them to submit your own Healthy Debate blog soon!