OH professionals have useful information to contribute to others in their
profession, but writing for publication can be a daunting task. Regular
contributor and professional journalist Nic Paton offers some useful tips
As a professional journalist, I normally write three or four features a
week, so being asked to put together an article is my bread and butter, it is
what I do. But if you are not used to putting pen to paper (or finger to
keyboard), it can be a daunting prospect. This is even more so if what you are
writing is going to be read by your peers, or if you are publicising a piece of
So, where to start? The first point is to be clear about what sort of feature
you are writing and for what sort of publication.
If you are, for instance, outlining original research in a peer-reviewed
professional journal, you will probably need to follow a strict structure of
abstract, methodology, discussion, conclusion and copious references. Most
health professionals will be more than familiar with this type of format.
However, if your article is for a more informal magazine or newspaper, you
need to be clear what is expected of you. Are you being asked to write an opinion
piece where the point is to bring your own expert knowledge to the fore and,
perhaps, be controversial? Or are you instead being expected to pull together
opinions from a range of commentators, which is described in the trade as
You will also need to know the tone of the publication; how long the article
should be; and critically, when do they want it by?
The commissioning editor should answer most, if not all, of these questions.
It is often a good idea to get a written brief (or at the very least, send the
editor an e-mail of what you understand to be the brief). This means, in
effect, you have a written contract.
It also helps to avoid the chance of having your carefully-crafted article
thrown back at you late in the day with the words ‘that’s not what I asked
Doing the research
Once the brief is set, it is time to get down to the research. Obviously,
this is easier for opinion pieces than for straight journalism. But even here,
it is worth spending time formulating where you want your argument to go and
giving it some structure.
It is worth sketching out a plan on a piece of paper and running through the
key points you want to make so that: a) you don’t forget anything, b) you don’t
run out of things to say halfway through and start repeating yourself, and c)
you don’t go off on long-winded tangents (not that this stops some
The essence of straight journalism, at least within features, is that the
writer normally takes a back seat, distilling a range of expert opinions into a
single, logical argument. Research here is vital. Usually when I am writing
features, between half to two-thirds of my background material does not make it
into the finished article, but it is vital to have it because it gives you the
confidence to know you are on the right track.
So, where do you get your information? Other experts are probably the best
primary source, but interested organisations, other papers or journals and,
increasingly, the internet, are useful secondary sources of information.
The internet does, however, come with a strong word of caution. There are
many sites containing dubious, untrustworthy and even potentially libellous
information. A good rule of thumb is to go back to original sources whenever
possible and only use information from reputable, recognised organisations. It
is also worth remembering there are laws covering plagiarism that extend to the
internet in the same way as the printed word.
Once you have started to build up your material, a picture should begin to
emerge of what the feature is going to say.
Knowing what to put in and what to leave out is one of the hardest parts of
any writing assignment, and often leads to writers submitting 3,000 words when
they have been asked for 300 – something all hard-pressed editors absolutely
Of course, however much research you do, there comes a time, normally the
night before the deadline, where you cannot put off writing the piece any
longer. So, if you are sitting in front of a blank screen with the cursor
winking at you and feeling more and more desperate, what can you do?
Here are some useful tricks of the trade. If the introduction is just not
coming, try starting somewhere else and working outwards. Often you can write a
feature in blocks of information and then simply slot them together at a later
Having something on the page is always better than having nothing; if you
are stuck, try making your point out loud and just put that down – at least you
will have started. Going for a short walk can also help sometimes.
Another common form of introduction is to use an anecdote, a piece of
personal information or a quote that can then be expanded to illustrate your
wider point. I recently wrote an article for the Guardian on people who have
had to change industries to stay in work. Starting it with the words:
"Stuart Lawton-Davies has switched industries three times since being made
redundant from oil and gas business Trafalgar House, and has never looked
back", was the obvious way in and meant the rest of the feature almost
The author Samuel Johnson once said, "what is written without effort is
read without pleasure", and it is often the most seemingly effortless
prose that has been written, rewritten, scratched out, sweated over and
rewritten again. But it does not have to be perfect. If it makes your point, is
accurate and clear, whether it is sparklingly written does not really matter.
It is also important to try to write as yourself, not as Ernest Hemingway or
Donna Tart. And don’t try to be funny – 99.9 per cent of the time it will not
If you are feeling swamped by information and don’t know what to put in or
take out, try sitting down and writing the feature without any of the notes you
have gathered around you. It is remarkable how often the salient points will
just rise to the surface in your head. You can then go back to your research to
flesh things out and check you have got your facts or quotes right. But do
remember to include references for further reading (see box, page 22).
Do you have a piece of lovingly-crafted prose you think is particularly
clever and are really pleased with? Take it out. Nine times out of 10, once you
have got over the wrench, you will find you have got a much better article for
Can’t keep to the length? Go back to your original sketched out argument and
take a hard look at your feature. What is vitally important to say? What would
be nice to get in if there is room? What is not, if you are brutally honest,
really adding anything?
Another pair of eyes
Once you have a draft written, it can be worth printing it out and reading
it on the page. Text – or copy as it is known to journalists – will often read
differently on the screen than on the page, and you will sometimes spot glaring
mistakes or a clumsy structure that you missed before. If you have the time,
sleep on it and take another look at it in the morning. The best tweaking or
editing can take place after a break.
It can help to let someone else read a version, although it is important you
trust their judgement. Sometimes it is worth giving it to someone who knows
nothing about the subject you are writing about, because if they understand it
and get something from it, the chances are your peers will too, as long as you
haven’t talked down to them.
Do not get too hung up on spelling and grammar. You can always go back to it
with a dictionary or a spell check (although most are not infallible and some
can make things worse). I tend to find that if I am stumbling over a sentence,
it is often because I have put in too many commas and clauses – less
punctuation and shorter sentences will normally make for an easier read.
Much like flower arranging, it is important to know when to stop fiddling
with your article. You can always find something to change or move about,
however many times you read it. If the essence is there, don’t spend too long
hacking it about.
So, it is finished; you are happy, or at least happy enough with it. Once
you have sent it in, how do you make sure you keep your commissioning editor
happy? There is a simple checklist to follow: have you kept to the brief? Have
you delivered it on time? Is it approximately the right length? If the answer
to all these is yes, well done.
As a freelance journalist who has to rely on repeat commissions, I find it
is a good idea to simply grit your teeth and patiently, without protest, make
any subsequent corrections and amendments that are wanted. It may appear the
editor is being pernickety and a pain, but it is their publication and they
know what they want (most of the time).
But, believe me, once the article is there on the page in front of you, and
friends and colleagues are admiring it or quietly reading it with interest, the
hard graft will have been more than worth it.
In the case of Occupational Health
and many other peer-reviewed journals, references should be given at the end of
the article and listed numerically, in order of appearance in the text. They
should include all relevant information and be set out in the following style:
1. Safer staff, better care: RCN
manual handling guidance and competencies, RCN, 2003, publication code 001 975
2. Evidence-based patient handling: Tasks, equipment and
interventions, Hignet S, Crumpton E, Ruszala S, Alexander P, Fray M, Fletcher
B, 2003, London: Routledge
Suggestions for further reading,
useful websites or organisations that can provide more information are also