Commentary

Writing: Do Make a MEAL of It!

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Writing for publication fulfills a professional obligation to contribute to the body of knowledge. In the past decade, we’ve seen increases in the number of journals and in the number of NPs and PAs—providing more publishing opportunities and more potential authors. Yet many of my colleagues have little interest in publishing; perhaps they fear the writing process or believe they lack the skills to compose a manuscript.

How, then, do we cajole them into sharing their expertise in written form? Much has been written about why you should write.1,2 What is needed is guidance on the process to help overcome the common ­barriers to success in publishing. If it’s been a long time since you were in school at all—or at least since you took English Composition 101—allow me to offer a solid starting point for the journey of writing.

A manuscript, in essence, is a collection of paragraphs that follow a traditional flow. But to be sufficiently developed, paragraphs must (1) contain a main idea, (2) be structurally coherent, and (3) maintain a sense of unity around the idea.3 Once authors master the composition of a strong paragraph, the development of the manuscript comes naturally. Here are seven tips—four on content development and three on form—for compiling a manuscript worthy of publication and personal pride.

1. Start strong. Everyone understands the importance of grabbing a reader’s attention right out of the gate, right? A strong topic sentence does more than introduce the subject; it sets the tone for those that follow. A short sentence at the beginning of a paragraph establishes an understanding that a discussion will follow—and offers a preview of what the discussion will entail. But writers need not be limited; a topic sentence can take the form of a question or be placed later in the paragraph. Less experienced authors may prefer to open the paragraph with the topic sentence, however, as this allows for a quick assessment of whether the subsequent sentences follow logically. In other words, start simple—there is room to grow as you gain confidence with writing.

2. Use the MEAL plan. A paragraph should extend from the topic sentence. Collectively, the paragraph’s sentences should follow the steps outlined in the “MEAL plan,” a valuable resource conceptualized by the Duke University Thompson Writing Program.4 The “M” stands for the main topic; “E,” for the evidence that supports or refutes the topic sentence; “A,” for analysis and its importance; and “L,” for the link back to the larger claim (ie, the overall topic of the paper).

Using the MEAL approach is relatively straightforward. Picture yourself as the sender of a message; the reader is your recipient. You need to convey the information to your reader so that he or she understands it.

Limiting the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph may help. Exceedingly long sentences are cumbersome and threaten to muddle the author’s message. They also pose the risk for improper noun/verb agreement, irregular punctuation, and hindered readability. (But then, what are editors for?)

A paragraph presents a well-formulated argument; one that contains only two sentences is unlikely to support the author’s assertion. Novice writers, however, often go to the other extreme, which dilutes the point. As a rule of thumb, if you can speak the entire paragraph with a single breath, the length is adequate. Reading your work aloud also helps identify hidden hazards.

3. Make connections. The result would be confusing and nonsensical. Similarly, you wouldn’t conclude your paragraph before you’ve started it. Imagine if you tried to clean out a wound after applying a dressing. The key to a good paragraph is cohesion.

If you’re scratching your head at the previous paragraph, you take my next point: All sentences within a paragraph should have a natural flow. In a well-developed paragraph, each sentence directly relates to the one before and the one after; they work together to convey your point. If the topic sentence contains an assertion, the following sentences provide supporting evidence. In medical writing, this evidence comes from citations to published literature.

If you are using the MEAL plan, you have an outline for how to support your topic sentence in a logical manner. You can then link sentences by capitalizing on words or phrases to form bridges that carry the reader through the paragraph.5 These links are created through repetition of key words or through parallel grammatical forms.

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