When Adam Kay’s best-selling book This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017, it definitely sent a ripple through my medical school. Everyone was talking about it and reading it. Everyone wanted to borrow my copy so they wouldn’t have to buy their own. For a little while, it seemed to me that medical students might be converted to the joys of creative writing. There was some hope that, having read Kay’s funny and touching account of his time working as a junior doctor, my peers might understand why I thought writing was so great.
But after the initial fuss had died down a bit, I was back where I started – faced with the fact that many medical students I know still tell me they don’t enjoy writing. For some, it’s a chore, and one they would rather avoid if possible. This is particularly disheartening for me because, as co-editor of the medical school journal Rums Review, I end up having to chase unwilling freshers down corridors begging for ‘just one little article’. The days when our journal inbox will be overflowing with submissions from keen young medical writers remain firmly the stuff of my dreams.
Despite the headaches caused to me and the Rums Review, I can understand where this feeling comes from. Medical school teaches us to be dependent on facts, NICE guidelines and Cochrane reviews. It favours order, predictability, and protocol. There’s less focus on creativity or imagination – the key ingredients of successful creative writing, even if it is non-fictional.
Start small – write down a thought a day.
Why I love writing
The funny thing is that’s exactly why I love writing so much. There are no right answers, no objective truths, and – despite what we might have been taught in our high-school English classes – very few concrete rules. I found learning medicine quite rigid at times, so writing was always my way of escaping. I want to share this liberation with other students, but even more importantly, I also think the freedom of thought that powers creative writing makes it a very necessary skill for medical students to practice.
I truly believe the creativity behind writing can help you to be a better doctor, both for your patients and for yourself. Reflecting on your experiences and writing them down can help both students and practising clinicians to make sense of the trials and tribulations of their chosen career, as well as considering patient safety concerns. In fact, the GMC recently published guidance on reflective practice for doctors and medical students, including tips and techniques, as well as considerations of some of the medico-legal questions of reflection. One of the suggestions is keeping a reflective diary, which provides a chance to regularly explore your thoughts in a creative way.
Where should I start?
My advice to those who want to pick up a pen and enter the world of medical journalism? Start small – write down a thought a day. Consider starting a diary, then take one particular thought and develop it into an article (and send it to your university student journal). If article writing isn’t for you, think about how you write the next time you tackle your CV, or an essay – try to approach it differently. Embrace the freedom, and then go from there.