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How to be a medical writer like Ben Hippen

Here's another in my periodic reposting of archived interviews from Be a Writer & Be a Better Writer(An updated edition is out now.Catch up on the series here.

Steve (l) and Ben

When Steve first met Ben Hippen, Ben was very active in the arts, especially music and filmmaking (listen to Ben play). For a long time Ben wrote music, fiction and pieces about music and other performing arts. He founded and successfully exited a music technology company with Steve. Then he set out in a new direction and enrolled in medical school. He spent most of his time studying and training to be a doctor, as well as working in a laboratory doing cell biology research—and it turns out that all of these activities involve a lot of writing. Somewhere in there, he took a break long enough to be the best man at our wedding.

Be a Writer Like Ben Hippen

1. What kind of writer are you?

I’m a medical and scientific writer. I didn’t realize this when I started medical school, but language—and, in particular, writing—is a very important part of medicine and medical research. It’s been said that the average student learns about 18,000 new words during four years of medical school, which means that learning to be a doctor involves, in a sense, learning a new language. And, like any other new language, you don’t just need to learn to speak it; you also need to learn to read and write it.

2. Why do you write?

In medicine, we write to accurately record a patient’s experience in a way that we can use to help the patient get better. Whether it’s a single phrase describing a small cut or dozens of pages amounting to a detailed medical biography spanning decades, it’s not very useful unless the important information is recorded on the page in a way that other people can understand easily.

The goal of writing in medical research is similar. Modern science involves investigators in laboratories all over the world performing experiments and sharing their findings in scientific journals. It’s a very collaborative process, and a vital part of it is the ability of researchers to provide clear and complete descriptions of their experimental procedures and results that other researchers can use to expand the body of humanity’s scientific knowledge.

3. What made you want to be a writer?

When I decided to start training to be a doctor, my goal was to be able to provide the best possible care for my patients. During my training I’ve become more and more aware of how important writing and language skills are to becoming a skillful doctor. So, if I want to be a better doctor, I need to be a better writer.

4. What advice would you give to a writer who is starting out?

The most important quality of writing for a doctor or researcher is precision. For example, it’s not enough just to say that a patient is feeling pain. To treat it, the doctor needs to record a precise description of the pain: is it aching? burning? throbbing? stabbing? Is it “tummy pain,” or is it “tenderness that starts in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen, radiates to the navel, and worsens when the patient inhales?”

Being able to write precisely is important not just for doctors but for all writers. A well-written description pulls the reader in and makes the reader able to visualize what was in the writer’s head, whether it’s the correct location for a surgeon to make an incision or the beauty of a landscape that is home to a character in a novel. This doesn’t mean that every sentence in a novel (or a clinical report) needs to be bursting with adjectives. But it does mean that, when you need to, you’ll have the ability write a description that puts the reader in the scene.

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