Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer

When I tell people I write stories for young people, they are inevitably pleased, but also sometimes surprised and bemused. Really, they ask. Why?

Part of the reaction to my writing life comes from the fact that I’m a practicing internal medicine doctor. I have the honor of being a primary care physician, which sometimes feels like being everybody’s mom. I take care of everything from stomachaches to headaches to heartaches, and I love it. I love medicine, I love my colleagues, I love my students, and I especially love my patients.

But I’m also a writer. I write because I have to. I can’t stop. I write because books have always been essential to me, my best friends. And I write for kids because the books I read as a child helped shape who I am today in significant ways. Plus, I might still have the mind of a 12-year-old.

To me, medicine and writing have a lot in common. And I’m not just talking about the long list of famous writers who happened to be doctors – Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese – the list goes on and on.

I’m talking about the similarities in process between medicine and writing. They involve flexing many of the same muscles…uh, brain cells.

The Years of Training Sequence

Think of your favorite hero movies. The best ones have a thrilling montage of the hero training to prepare for the big battle: Rocky punching frozen sides of beef and running stairs in Philly; Daniel-San painting fences and waxing surfaces and practicing crane technique; Katniss honing her archery skills and trying to learn to relate to other humans.

Medicine has a particularly long and not particularly glamorous Years of Training sequence. Four years of college followed by four years of medical school in which students essentially learn a new language and enough science to make their heads explode, all while trying to perfect taking a great medical history, performing an excellent physical exam, generating the proper differential diagnoses, and still relating to other humans. That earns the MD. But after that comes the grueling residency (yes, the root is the word resident, since they essentially live in the hospital) that lasts a minimum of three years but can extend to five or more, followed by fellowships for those who decide to subspecialize. Oh, and lots and lots of tests! It’s a very long road, not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those who don’t love medicine with every fiber of their being.

Writing has a Years of Training sequence, too. Great writers are made, not born, and it takes years and years of practice to hone one’s skills. Unlike medicine, this doesn’t necessarily require formal education – MFAs are great, but you don’t need one to write well, and you don’t need a license to write either. But good writing doesn’t just happen overnight, and it’s a myth that some people just “have it” and spit out best-selling, award-winning novels without working hard. Writers put in hours and hours perfecting the craft by reading, writing about reading, reading about writing, talking, reflecting, and just plain writing. We take classes, participate in critique groups, attend webinars, conferences, workshops, writing retreats … and we write. And write, and write.

Which leads me to another similarity between medicine and writing: the learning never ends. I’m required by my state medical board to devote a certain number of hours to Continuing Medical Education (CME) in order to stay up to date with the latest advances. Trust me, you don’t want your doctor to still be practicing medicine like it’s 1958 or 1998…or even 2008. Similarly, even the most accomplished writers I know are constantly pushing themselves to improve their craft every single day. Each book we write is written differently, and requires different skills. The learning really never ends. And that’s a good thing!

Which brings me to…

Science vs. Art

Everyone knows that medicine is a science. It’s also an art.

You can read all the books, take all the exams, and complete the training, but there’s nothing that teaches like experience. The best doctors listen as much as they talk, and take into account a patient’s body language and tone to elicit both what the patient is worried about, and what they care about – their values. This, more than anything, is what helps a doctor guide a patient through a difficult decision. Now that I’ve been practicing medicine for over 20 years, I find myself listening more, panicking less, and understanding my patients better than I ever could as a younger doctor.

Meanwhile, everyone knows that writing is an art. But it’s also a science.

There are plenty of ways to find inspiration, and sometimes writing is just about putting something (anything!) down on a page, but I love it when I devise or discover a strategy for getting my writing unstuck. This is not to say that writing is ever cookie-cutter, or one-size-fits-all…it never is. But to me, having a structure is extremely helpful. Classes and workshops and books have taught me practical approaches to developing an outline, deepening a character arc, or revising a scene. In the world of plotters vs. pantsers, I fall squarely on the plotter side…but it’s impossible for me to cut out pantsing entirely, and sometimes it’s absolutely essential! Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned. In any case, focusing on the structure and the science of storytelling can be a huge help when staring down a blank page. And sometimes, when I’ve worked on a piece forever and I can’t tell up from down, it’s helpful (and even fun!) to just focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of writing — like line editing!

And when things get tough, in medicine and in writing…

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Practicing medicine can be high pressure, perplexing, and emotionally exhausting. Sustaining a life in medicine would be impossible without my colleagues – everyone from other doctors to nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, and administrative folks. Not to mention the security guards, technicians, translators…without the whole team, we wouldn’t be able to take great care of our patients. And when I’m confused or excited, upset or elated, I can go to any of them with my questions/concerns/thrilling news, and they help. They always do.

Built into our system of medical education is a brilliant way of paying it forward: as a faculty member at a teaching hospital and medical school, I have the privilege of helping to teach and train the next generation of doctors, who go on to teach and train the ones who follow them.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care for our fellow human beings, to advise them as honestly as we can, and to tend to them when they need us.

I never thought I’d ever meet a group of people as brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, and generous as the medical community I’ve been fortunate to be part of.

And then I met writers.

I’ve met writers in person and online, in my hometown and across the country. They are published, pre-published, and almost published, women and men, young and old, newbies and mentors. And in them I’ve found another group of brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, generous colleagues. We read each other’s work and cheerlead each other and serve as confidantes and counselors and promoters in the best possible way. Writers are constantly learning from fellow writers, and they pay it forward all the time.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care about our fellow human beings, to tell our stories as honestly as we can, and to tend to each other when we need it.

Because people are at the heart of both medicine and writing. Beautiful, infuriating, wonderful, awful, glorious, ever-changing, transcendent people. People who make terrible choices. People who are braver than we can fathom. People who face impossible odds and keep trying. I’m so very lucky to care for real people who tell me their stories, and have these experiences inform the stories I spin in my mind. And fictional people, in the books I read and the books I write, inform how I take care of my patients. They make me a better doctor, and a better human being.

Stories matter. They always have. They always will.

So that’s what I try to do: write like a doctor, and doctor like a writer. Keep my chin up during the never-ending Years of Training. Keep my team close, and let them help me. Use science and art in my writing and my doctoring. And keep my heart open to all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. To listen to theirs, and tell them mine.

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Rajani LaRocca writes (middle grade and picture books), doctors (adults), and bakes (as much as possible) in eastern Massachusetts. Her home team includes her superhero husband, two brilliant kids, and the world’s handsomest dog. You can learn more about her at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter @rajanilarocca.

10 thoughts on “Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer

  1. Great article. It’s important to do what we love whether or not it falls under the same umbrella. Sometimes we forget that our brains are not hardwired to do just one thing. We are multi-talented beings.


  2. Such an interesting piece that offers so much insight into the medical profession, as well as the writing world. I am constantly amazed and impressed by the kindness and generosity of the people I’ve met in the children’s lit world. I consider myself very fortunate to be learning from these amazing individuals! Thank you for sharing a small part of your world! – Susan


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