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If you have something to say, blogs are a pretty good way of doing it. They are regularly amongst the best performers on the BMA website, and our doctor contributors have won the leading award for medical journalism both last year and this year.
But what are they, when should you be blogging instead of communicating in a different way, and what’s the best way to do it?
There are so many different types of blog that there are no longer rules or reliable definitions as to what they are. The word comes from ‘weblog’, the idea being a ‘log’ of experiences which the author regularly updates online. Back in dial-up days, blogs were amongst the first winners of the internet, because they were text-based and easy to download, but more fundamentally because they offered mass publication to anyone who wanted it for the first time in history. Of course, most of them were awful.
Our blogs (which are, in contrast, great) tend to be a mixture of experience, on the one hand, and reflection or opinion on the other. The distinction is whether they’re ‘experience-led’ or ‘opinion-led’. I’ll explain.
Experience-led blogs start with a story. Sometimes they are firmly rooted in the everyday – ‘The consultant walked in with a face like thunder…’, on other occasions they’re about something extraordinary.
The best ones describe, describe. Not just the clinical details, in fact very little of that, but what the environment and the people involved looked, sounded and perhaps smelt like. Every detail is a new way for a reader to hook into the story. While the description comes first, the reflection is weaved in – nothing so wooden, hopefully, as ‘I conclude from that…’ but some kind of processing of the experience.
Secret Doctor and Live and Learn blogs tend to be experience-led, as they major on formative events. The BMA blog, in contrast, and some in our Work and other channels, are opinion-led. The author sets out a view and argues its merits – often drawing on their own experiences, but marshalling them to support the argument made.
So the first thing you need to figure is whether you’re mainly in the business of telling a story or giving a view, while remembering that a mixture of opinion, experience (and not forgetting fact) is needed in just about any blog. It’s just a question of how you decide to balance that mix.
Then – and here we resort to a blogging staple, the list of top tips – consider the following:
1 First, decide what you want to say. What do you want to make the reader think or feel? Once you have worked out what you want to tell them, tell them. Admittedly, some writers don’t have a clue and get brilliant results, but if you’re doing this for the first time it’s a reassurance to have a basic idea of where you want to go.
2 Write it like you’d talk to a group of colleagues at the end of a busy day. They’re receptive, but they’re tired and they want to go home. So get to the point, be brief and keep them engaged. No frilly language as it will just annoy them. And when you have written your first draft, read it aloud. Is it how you talk? Does it sound authentically ‘you’?
3 Give the readers a chance to get involved. The best blogs tend to be a conversation rather than a broadcast. If you drop in a couple of questions then you have more chance of the blog being shared and attracting comments. Sometimes the best questions are straight – ‘what would you have done?’ – at other times they might be more rhetorical – ‘Surely, I’m not being unreasonable…?’.
4 No topic is too small, but plenty are too large. One of our best-read and award-winning blogs was, on the face of it, about tea bags. Its junior doctor author very skillfully immersed the reader long enough in the cost-cutting ways of NHS management to brew a highly persuasive case for declining morale. So start with something small and let it tell a wider story. It is much more effective than attempting a big, general overview because you just can’t see much that’s interesting from 20,000ft in the air.
5 Try to grab the reader early on. Your immediate family (or, in the case of consultants, your junior doctors) can be relied on to plough loyally through anything you write, even without the relief of a single good line. With everyone else, you’re in a crowded market for their attention. If the headline is decent (that’s our job and we do our best) they’ll give you about a minute to entertain or inform them or they’ll slink back to their cat videos.
6 Use short sentences. Not necessarily this short. But short. Again, it’s that attention span thing. And you can still do great things with short sentences. Ernest Hemingway’s sentences were notably short, shorter than this one, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Same goes for paragraphs too.
7 See how I backed up that spurious sounding claim about Hemingway’s sentences with a link to someone who has actually measured them? Links can add validity, utility and fluidity. It embeds your work in reality, at least in the reality of other people flogging the same topic. Don’t put too many in though, or the page looks a mess and you give the reader too many ways to exit.
8 Remember the GMC’s strictures on confidentiality if you’re writing about patients. Medical writers tend to get round this by blurring or changing details which aid identification. You still want that rich description, but it might well be a rich description of a patient with a different age, gender or even an amalgam of several you have seen. The same caution may well apply when you are describing colleagues, because while it might not be a GMC matter it could have implications for your career. If you’re being critical, and can’t successfully obscure who you’re talking about, you might like to use a pseudonym. We don’t encourage their over-use because otherwise every blog is by Dr X or Y, but there is sometimes good cause.
9 Keep it brief. Our typical blogs are between 450 and 600 words, and rarely more than 800. If you really can’t say it briefly and crisply in that word count, then perhaps you have two blogs or you need an editor (we can help). Speaking of editors, they’re all hypocrites because this blog is actually 1,200 words.
10 If you’re using a list – and lists are catnip when it comes to winning readers – and you only have nine points, don’t add a completely superfluous extra point just because ten seems like a neater number. The readers will see through it immediately.
So, why not have a go? Doctors have access to the most extraordinary stories and situations and only a tiny proportion of them are ever shared. The rest are lost to the wider world. Don’t be that story that was never told.
You can send your blogs, ideas for blogs, and questions about them to me. Remember that most of our contributors had never written in this style before they first sent their work to the BMA, and they will tell you that it’s rewarding (not financially – there’s no money in this business) and often cathartic.
More than that, they have discovered a way of connecting with other doctors that with all the time pressures and closed mess rooms, the profession seems to have lost. Only connect.
Neil Hallows is BMA content editor
The way of presenting and writing is good and also the author did not use the worthless information in this article. https://customedwriting.com
How can I write on this blog??