What’s true of medicine is true of writing. We practice to improve. We lean in to learn from each other. And in the process, the work goes from good to great, or at least from meh to clearly better-than-meh.

It’s why I recently attended the Everything: Content Digital Summit in Minneapolis. These folks are living and spreading content best practices in the pursuit of better. (If you get the chance, catch a conference.) I took home some choice tips and combined them with insights from 20 years of writing professionally, much of it in strategic health care marketing.

Here you go: Five strategies for better writing—with tactics to test, and a dose of purpose to contemplate. Let me know if it helps.

1. Listen to their language

“Knowing thy audience” is the classic, first step for writing, speaking or selling anything to anyone. How? Spend more time asking patients and colleagues how they actually talk about things. If you discover a trend, bingo!

For instance: What are people saying in the waiting room, on the bus or in social media forums? How are patients, families and colleagues talking about the topics that matter?

It bears repeating: the only way to know people is to listen to them. If that means making some strategic rounds from time to time, so be it. No matter what your role in a hospital or health system, getting out to observe is your golden ticket to relating to—and writing for—the audiences you serve.

{Aside #1: It’s why we’ve asked literally thousands of health care consumers about their experiences over the years.}

2. Make time for face time

This is vital when you’re collaborating with experts on a project or citing them as sources. Think surgeons, CEO or a researcher on the verge of concocting the next wonder drug.

“But everyone’s too busy to meet,” you say. “Doesn’t email work?” Email sucks, says Amanda Costello, content strategist and editor at the University of Minnesota, and I agree. When developing great subject matter with content experts, Costello stresses the need for face time—even if it’s on screen—whether you’re working together in a discovery, discussion or refinement phase.

Time is precious, and showing up also builds goodwill, she says. That matters for health care marketers fostering working relationships for the long haul. And for the immediate project at hand, I’d add that direct communication gives you a fuller feeling for the topic, a chance to ask follow-up questions and get to the heart of the matter much faster.

3. Use accessibility tools

This isn’t a lesson from Strunk and White. It’s about creating greater access to your wonderful content—in the digital realm and beyond.

Tools like these can help you identify easier ways for anyone to read, understand and use your communications:

Why write clearly? Why be inclusive? As strategist Amber James notes:

  • Writing with accessibility guidelines in mind makes the experience better for everyone—particularly as part of a digital strategy.
  • Accessibility is a necessity for people with disabilities, including more than 40 million Americans.
  • Avoiding the guidelines can put you in legal or PR trouble.
  • Less accessible content is less relevant, particularly for people with mobile-only or poor internet connections.

So try testing your communications with some of these tools. Invite feedback from people with disabilities. Compare the reading and listening experience on different screens and devices.

{Aside #2: This is just the tip of the iceberg for a topic that deserves more attention. How are you making accessibility a strategic priority?}

4. Invite (brutally honest) feedback

People hate reading boring crap. But we have to write it sometimes, right? Depends. One person’s stale bread is another’s sustenance. Still, the majority of your audience is usually on to something. (Yes, fresher is better.)

It’s why content specialist Alennah Westlund crowd-sources feedback—specifically from “the haters.” As an internal news manager at 3M, she recruits colleagues she’s identified as legit long form readers (not “30-second skimmers”) to review a story and then explain why they read it and whether they’re invested in the topic. She then asks them to explain the sample story’s highlights in their own words. The results: a treasure trove of interests and language she can bake into her next blog. That’s vital when you’re writing about less than scintillating topics like compliance, employee benefits or, in Westlund’s case at 3M, abrasives (sandpaper!).

Sound familiar, health care marketers? I’m guessing certain terms and topics that are magic to an administrator’s ears may be falling on deaf ones for staff in the trenches—or the people who come to you for care. Smart focus groups can move the “hate” needle closer to “like.” 

5. Remember your mission

Even the most insanely engaging topics can get stale if you’re doing the same thing, too much, in much the same way. (Yes, even writing for health care.)

If you’re questioning why you’re doing this at all, embrace a common purpose. This is about saving lives, right? If the topic is boring, consider the underlying motivation.

Maybe the idea of writing about insurance policies or employee benefits sounds terrible. Flip the focus to helping people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. Or imagine living in a dystopian future ruled by machines and roving packs of wolves. Whatever it takes to get the words flowing.

Sure, much of it gets deleted. But it’s a clear way to see what works and what doesn’t. It goes beyond AB testing your social ad content. It’s about experimenting, adapting and evolving.

Which leads us to the bonus round. Wait, what? There’s a bonus round?

BONUS: More writing, less agonizing

“More making, less planning” is what strategist Craig Pladson advised at the Digital Summit as one way to make the most of your content marketing spend. The adage applies to creating as well.

Let’s call it “More writing, less agonizing.” Sometimes you need to see what happens. Discover how it sounds. And push the limits to see what reaches other people, or just to see what it sparks in you.

The alternative can be grim. Ever started at a blank screen wondering how to begin? Ever felt stuck in the mud with a complex topic, or gone down a conceptual rabbit hole and gotten totally lost? Then you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t just sit there. Get it out. Then throw it out later and move on to the stuff that sticks. Writing can be a smooth flowing conversation. It also can be a series of fits and starts, edits and reimaginings. Getting past all that by generating more can allow you to “get there” sooner and less painfully.

So let go of fear. (Because we know where that leads, as Yoda says.) And be adventurous. Because admit it: you had no idea you liked Korean food, Zumba or carving sticks into keepsakes … until you tried it. The new flavors, the freedom of movement, the methodical crafting.  And frankly, neither did your readers. They won’t always like your experiments, but that’s what steps 1­–5 are for. This one’s all for you.

Find this useful? Terrible? Let me know in the comments section. If you ever want to talk about writing and strategic communication, please get in touch.