by Michelle Guillemard
Dark chocolate is good for your heart.
The overconsumption of carbohydrates, sugar and sweeteners is chiefly responsible for the epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Fad dieting leads to orthorexia.
In health writing, it’s a relatively huge no-no to make these types of claims without backing them up with evidence.
These claims need proof or validation.
And, I’m not talking about dressing them up with ‘research suggests’ and calling it a day. Quite often, that approach can feel like, well, a bit of a cop out. (Research suggests drinking two pints a day helps to prevent stroke. Really. Now run along to the pub.)
I’m talking about adding more detail to your claims – beyond ‘research suggests’. Enough detail to at least help your readers pinpoint the study in question.
Claims without evidence may not necessarily be wrong, but they do lack value and depth.
Plus, as a health writer, you have a responsibility to elaborate on what that evidence found and consider it critically. If you don’t fully understand it, you risk spreading misinformation and losing your readers’ trust. Both of which can lead to all sorts of harmful consequences.
Adding more detail – even just one other sentence – is a small yet significant tweak that helps to improve the quality of your writing.
Rule #1 – identify the study
I don’t know about you, but I find it frustrating when I’m reading an article about new (or old) research and there’s absolutely no way of identifying the study in question.
All I need is a hyperlink to the PubMed abstract!
But, in many cases, I’m left in the dark, because there just isn’t enough detail.
If something piques my interest, I want to learn more about the findings. Or, maybe I just want to know the journal title, the number of people studied, or the author affiliations.
Now, I appreciate not every reader wants to know these things – but your savvy (and dare I say, cynical) readers do.
Others who are less interested in the detail may not even care about the study. Still, by including more facts, you have an opportunity to enhance these readers’ understanding and show them why they should care!
What’s wrong with ‘research suggests’?
Nothing’s wrong with ‘research suggests’ – but, when used in isolation, the phrase can raise more questions than it answers.
As I mentioned, even the simple act of including hyperlinked text to the original study (as in the abstract, not a press release or other news article about it) helps to build reader trust and confidence.
Beyond linking, though, ‘research suggests’ is simply too vague and doesn’t address questions like:
- What type of trial was it?
- Who conducted the research?
- Which journal published it?
- When was it conducted?
- Who sponsored it?
- How many people were in the control and treatment groups?
- What were some of the confounding factors?
Answering just a few of these questions is a highly effective way to enlighten your readers, heighten their understanding, and give them confidence in your writing.
Beyond building trust, the detail also helps to teach your readers about scientific evidence – and, ultimately, give them reasons why they should care about it.
If your readers don’t know a lot about research, you have an opportunity to educate them about the processes involved in conducting trials.
And, who knows – perhaps providing more detail will help your more sceptical readers to understand why they need to have more faith in scientific evidence.
When readers can truly appreciate how much time, effort and funding go into trials – and why the results are therefore so important – evidence is (hopefully) less easy to dismiss.
So, when you’re writing about research, use this as an opportunity to educate your readers about the process – as well as inform them about the findings.
Providing detail enhances the credibility of your arguments
Taking the time to explain about the research also means you’ve read it, understood it, and can easily explain it to someone else.
You don’t have to be able to pick apart the study in detail or consider how the design could be improved.
But, you should be able to understand who conducted the trial, what has been investigated (and by whom), what the key finding was, and how it fits in the body of evidence.
There are no rules about exactly what detail you should include, though – because every piece of writing is different.
You need to make decisions about the most suitable facts to include in your stories based on the overall purpose of your writing – as well as who you’re writing for, and who your target audience is.
So, this is not a checklist-style approach to writing – it’s more about helping you to begin to understand the variety of ways you can enhance your writing through providing more detail.
Beyond ‘research suggests ‘– tips to help you add more detail
Here are some strategies you can use to add extra detail next time you’re writing about medical research.
1. Link out
I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again – linking out is a simple yet effective strategy to enhance your health writing. The savvy reader who wants to learn more can easily read on. It still surprises me that articles on mainstream science websites summarise studies without even including a link to the paper!
2. Talk about the authors
Where are the authors from, which institutions do they represent, what is their role and what does this have to do with the finding?
3. Talk about the study design
Is it a ‘gold standard’ trial or an experimental one, and therefore how your readers should interpret the results?
4. Explain the study design
In addition to stating the design, give some detail about what the design entails and why your readers should care.
5. Explain how many people were in the study
Listing the number of participants has the power to change the way your audience will view the results.
6. Talk about demographics
Beyond numbers, you can also discuss other demographics like age, culture, gender and health status.
7. Bring up the journal
Link to the journal – and, if it’s a highly-regarded journal with a high impact factor, mention this.
8. Discuss the hypothesis
Don’t just write about the finding, write about the researchers’ original intention which you can find in the introduction.
9. Discuss how the theory fits in the broad health condition
Tell the story behind why researchers are investigating this condition at a deeper level.
10. Mention how the study fits into the body of evidence
Do the results support existing findings, or is there something new and noteworthy about this research?
11. Ask for an expert perspective
If you’re unsure what the study means, ask an expert or researcher for their thoughts on the significance of the results.
12. Include a quote from the paper
The discussion and conclusions are great places to find useful quotes.
13. Email the author for a unique perspective
You can usually get author correspondence details on the main journal page, and authors are often happy to be contacted (this is also a good way to get yourself a copy of the paper if it is behind a paywall!).
14. Juxtapose the findings with a similar recent trial
Are they comparable or different, and what does this mean?
15. Look to the future and consider next steps
Could clinical recommendations be made from the results of this trial one day, or is much more research necessary?
16. Look at a historical trial and explain how the issue has evolved
The research could be changing what we previously knew about a treatment or condition in new and exciting ways – there could be a story in the evolution of the theme.
What do you think?
Do you have any other tips to add more detail to your evidence-based writing? Share them below.