Public Health Writing and Deliberate Practice

PHX Perspectives | March 27th, 2018

What is public health writing?

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 in my experience this is far from true.

Improving our writing and that of our students is one of the most important things we can do as public health professionals. 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.

At those times when inspiration, clarity, and eloquence elude you, it’s critical to keep going, write frequently, get feedback, and revise.

Effortless reading almost always involves hours of toil, revision, and self-doubt for the author.

Of course, the degree of toil, revision, and anxiety depends on what you are writing and who is reading it. Helping public health students and colleagues improve their writing and doing a lot of it myself over the past 13 years has convinced me that easy reading indicates a large investment of time, energy, and revision.

How is public health writing different from other types of academic or professional writing?

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. “Public health writing” is actually a misnomer. There is not a 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. Clarity and brevity are critical and must be balanced with accuracy and the needs of our readers. Lazy or muddled language can have real world consequences.

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, utilizing formulas, but being equally ready to set aside your outline when you receive detailed instructions.

We write for policy-makers, researchers, donors, specific communities, the general public and many other audiences.

Often, a single document will have several types of readers. Academic writing provides a helpful example. Public health is comprised of many disciplines that range from the biological sciences, medicine, and epidemiology to anthropology, political science, economics, and education. So, when we are writing for academic journals we need to do so in a way that makes sense to someone who is highly educated but in a completely different field.

Someone who specializes in primary education should be able to read and easily grasp medical journal articles reporting on randomized control trials. An epidemiologist should be able to read and easily extract useful information from journal articles about economics. Though we might not admit it, we often struggle to understand one another’s work. In academic writing, the onus often falls on the reader to make sense of a piece of writing. This dynamic is backward. Authors are responsible for doing the hard work to make sense of their work for their readers.

About teaching writing

I came to public health by way of English literature and composition studies. I started teaching freshman composition on my first day of graduate school in 1991 and have been teaching writing and helping students and colleagues improve their writing ever since.

Working with hundreds of students and reading thousands of pages of their writing on public health topics has given me an incredible education. It has made me a committed generalist and taught me that public health writing is indeed quite different from other types of academic and professional writing. Bit by bit, it has also made me a better writer, though I still find writing daunting and frustrating, and I’m always convinced that “this time” will be the one where I expose my incompetence. I’m telling you this as a way of stressing that I know where you are coming from and I empathize.

Key highlights of the Public Health Writing Guide include:

  • General strategies for writing and revising
  • Specific types of public health writing
  • Finding, using, and citing sources

Go to Public Health Writing Guide


Jennifer Beard is the Associate Editor of Public Health Post and a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Global Health at Boston University School Public Health.