Advice on academic writing for medical students
I first wrote these notes for medical students at Newcastle University (in the UK) in the early 2000s. I’ve lightly edited them for this website — and because, in a couple of places, my views have changed.
Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.
Above all, show that you are thinking.
If you have a view on something, commit yourself. You’re entitled to an opinion and, if you can back it up, you are an expert. Confident, thoughtful and justified conclusions are often what turn an adequate piece of work into an excellent one.
It is never wrong to show empathy for patients, even in formal writing.
When criticising research papers, remember that good, methodologically sound research on people is hard to do. You can criticise even dreadful research with balance and courtesy. Being scornful looks less wise.
Formal writing is not pompous writing. Formal writing is fine. Pompous writing is a pain to read and doesn’t look clever. The most professional and sophisticated documents can be written in plain English. One suggestion is not to use long words (e.g. advantageous, beverage) and phrases (at the present time) when there are good short ones (helpful, drink, now), especially when the long word is misused (simplistic doesn’t mean simple). Another is to keep sentences simple and clear. Clichés (thinking outside the box, low-hanging fruit, not rocket science) were evocative when first coined but have become stale and inelegant. (To be fair, some clichés are hard to avoid completely.)
You may know the rule that academic work should be written in the third person and the passive voice, rather than the first person and the active voice. So: ‘The patient was visited in her home’ rather than: ‘We visited the patient in her home’. This is, of course, bollocks. Third person passive voice is harder to read, and there’s nothing professional about being unclear. But if you’re going to break this rule, do so with care, as it has its followers. On the whole, people expect academic writing not to have much I, me, we and us in it, unless you’re writing about yourself.
Avoid contractions like they’re, he’ll and it’s unless you are trying to sound informal or you are quoting.I no longer agree with this, and now use these even in formal writing when they make sentences more natural. But, if you choose to too, be aware that some may disapprove. Readers give you more leeway when you’re no longer a student.
Avoid rhetoric (‘the sample size was ridiculously small’) and hyperbole (‘incredibly difficult’). (It’s worth knowing how to pronounce hyperbole, too. It doesn’t rhyme with Super Bowl.) The word ‘very’ rarely adds anything: run a search and delete it. The same goes for ‘extremely’ and ‘incredibly’.
Don’t muddle e.g. and i.e.. E.g. means ‘for example’ and so signals that you’re about to offer one or more non-exhaustive examples of what you’re saying. I.e. means something different. It stands for id est, which is Latin for ‘that is’, but a better translation might be ‘in other words’. Write i.e. when you’re about to restate and clarify what you’ve just said, i.e. provide further definition. ‘Healthcare professionals, i.e. doctors and nurses’ doesn’t make sense, because there are other sorts of healthcare professional.
Don’t use unnecessary jargon.
Layout and presentation
Double-space anything submitted for marking, editing or publication. Use headings and bullet-lists liberally. Put clear breaks of white space between paragraphs. Don’t underline anything.
Make sure you know how to punctuate. Don’t use commas to separate sentences. Don’t confuse its with it’s, a colon with a semicolon, there with their or they’re, or doctor’s with doctors or doctors’. Endnote references come after punctuation,1 not before2. (Most academics get this one wrong.)
There’s no space before a comma, full-stop (period), colon or semicolon, and one space after, unless followed by a closing parenthesis or closing quote-mark. One space, not two, after a full-stop (period), unless your essay’s due in the 1950s. There’s space before an opening parenthesis or opening quote-mark, but none after, and the other way around for a closing parenthesis or closing quote-mark (but no space after if followed by punctuation). Be sparing with ellipses (…).
Quote-marks used to highlight or modify words or expressions are called scare-quotes. They are ‘annoying’, rarely add ‘anything’ to the writing, and are best avoided.
Don’t capitalise anything except abbreviations and the first letters of sentences and proper nouns. Even in headings.
Follow the conventions for citing references. Endnotes are usually better than footnotes: if it’s important enough to be on the same page, it probably belongs in the main text.
Spell-checkers leave embarrassing errors. Proof-read, ideally on paper and a few days after you last looked at the document.
Laser-printing is easier on the eye than inkjet-printed text. (But submitting printed work sounds a bit twentieth-century now.)
Strategy for work which is being marked
Read the question, instructions and marking schedule. Read them again more carefully. Then do the work, with the instructions next to you, making sure you meet each requirement (and always aiming for the distinction criteria if you’ve got the marking schedule). Finally, go through the question, instructions or marking schedule again to check you’ve done exactly what was asked of you.
If you know where the marks are, or if you can guess, make them jump out. Headings are one way of leading bored examiners to your marks.
And finally …
- Get fired up about whatever you’re writing about. It will spill over into your writing and make it worth reading. There is no topic about which there isn’t something interesting to say. Students’ work is a fertile source of new and original ideas. Be ambitious.
Written January 2003
Edited September 2021
The best book I know on non-fiction writing is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Allen Lane, 2014). It’s well worth reading.
Other books on non-fiction writing that I’ve found useful include:
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Pantheon, 1994).
George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, which is easy to find.
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (St Martin’s Press, 1995).
Philip Lopate, To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013).