How and Why to Write About Chinese Medicine to the Public, Part One
By Brian Carter, MSCi, LAc
I've been writing to the general public about Chinese medicine since 1999. I've reached more than 200,000 readers all over the world. I have a website (www.pulsemed.org) that gets 30,000 new visitors per month, and I've written more than 200 articles for these readers.
I don't claim to have the right way; writing is too personal to be fully rule-bound. My efforts are a work in progress, but I have learned a few things, and thought a great deal on this topic, and I would like to share my experience and ideas so far.
First, Why Write About Chinese Medicine to the Public?
Before we go into how to write about Chinese medicine to the public, we have to ask: Why would anyone want to? In other words, what will you, the professional acupuncturist, get out of it?
Building your practice. You could start a patient newsletter (postal or e-mailed), or write a column for a local newspaper or magazine. Public visibility and positioning yourself as the local expert will increase your new patient visits. Patients are more likely to see an acupuncturist who demonstrates written expertise than a random name in the phone book or on a website. It's an endorsement from the editor that you are an expert, and it reassures patients that you'll be able to communicate with them in the office.
Saving time and getting more referrals. Improve your message. What do you want patients to know about Chinese medicine and your services? If you can't write it, you don't know it. How many times have you been asked what qi is, or how acupuncture works? Is your answer comprehensive and accurate? Do your patients get it? Could you say it better, or in less time? Writing organizes and clarifies your thoughts. This will improve the efficiency of your practice and increase the likelihood of referrals.
Continuing your education. You will have to do research and learn new things if you write regularly. I've become quite familiar with MEDLINE (the National Library of Medicine's online database of published research), and have learned a lot of biomedicine and basic self-care tips for different diseases I might never have known otherwise. It's good to know four or five times more information than what goes into your final written piece. What readers see is just the tip of the iceberg. You hint at the depth of knowledge below.
Learning before you see patients and attracting new kinds of patients. Many acupuncturists first learn about a disease right after a new patient query, with the concurrent anxiety that, "I don't know anything about (fill in the disease)!" That's unavoidable - but you can be proactive, look into a disease that interests you, and write an article about it. That may attract the patients who have the disease to your practice.
Fostering public understanding of Chinese medicine. There is a vast sea of ignorance surrounding Chinese medicine. Many people don't know basic bits of information, such as that herbs are better in formulas, Chinese medicine is as much a medicine as Western or chiropractic medicine, and acupuncture treats more than pain. Some of them think acupuncture is more like massage than medicine! Remedying this ignorance will increase the credibility of all Chinese medicine practitioners.
How to Best Write About Chinese Medicine to the Public
Now to the "how-to." Here is a list of observations I've made and things I've learned about writing in general, and specifically about writing about Chinese medicine to the public. These are guidelines I try to follow when writing for my website. I'll cover three major topics: public vs. peer writing; writing is work; and where to write.
Writing for the Public is Different from Writing for Your Peers
The general public doesn't know the basics. I know there are patients who want to learn Chinese medicine, but most of them have no idea how big an endeavor that is. It took us licensed professionals four years to learn the basics. Fifteen minutes of office-visit talk a week is too slow; at that rate, it would require about 240 years to get a master's degree in Chinese medicine (I calculated it). Also, consider how many pages you read about Chinese medicine in those four years. Let's say it would be about 4,000 pages ... so after reading 2,000 of your articles, your patients would be up to speed.
My point is that your patient is not going to learn everything you know about Chinese medicine. Don't expect your everyday reader to learn that much, but on the other hand, if they don't know the basics, how can you talk about it? There's no common language, and a minimal understanding of concepts like yin and yang.
How do you answer questions like, "What's the difference between xue and western blood?" or "Why are herbs in formulas?" or "What is a pattern?" You can teach some of this, but doesn't it take time? It's true: the word doctor means "to teach," and we should teach patients and lay readers what Chinese medicine is, and how they can better balance their lives with it. But never forget that they don't know the basics, and teaching them all of it is unrealistic. It's better to guide them toward an office visit. That's a major reason for the success of Western medicine. They (Western MDs) don't try to make an evaluation or explain anything outside of the office.
Jargon is a mistake. Your major goal is to get readers to understand your point, and to take the actions you advocate. To achieve these goals, you must keep them with you throughout the article. Jargon (terms specific to a culture or profession) is one of the surest ways to turn off, frustrate and alienate your readers. As soon as they read a word they don't understand, they are disturbed, and they lose confidence in themselves and you. You have less of their attention, and you may lose them.
Jargon is a major problem with writing about Chinese medicine for the English-speaking public, because there are many terms you need to know in order to understand it. I use several strategies to overcome the jargon juggernaut:
Use English approximations of words or paraphrase the ideas. For example, qi equals "energy," and xue equals "blood." The problems with this are that you may get all kinds of grief from translators and other academics who prefer other words, and that you may be inaccurate. However, I think here we must accept progress, not perfection. If we get our readers closer to understanding Chinese medicine, great! We can clear up the fine points later. I often describe Spleen qi as "digestive energy," even though that doesn't include the Spleen qi's mental and vascular activities. If I talk about its mental activities, I say, "The brain digests things too - ideas, experiences - and this mental digestion is related to physical digestion in Chinese medicine." Always include this approximation or paraphrase with the Chinese word; don't assume they've learned it yet.
Use analogies. In an early article I wrote on yang, qi, yin, and xue (www.pulsemed.org/whatisqi.htm), I used an automotive analogy. Everyone has been in a car and knows that gas makes it go, and that oil keeps the engine from seizing. So I compared gas to qi (the explosions being yang), and described oil as a yin substance that balances out the yang activity of the engine. The analogy I use for a scientific explanation of how acupuncture works (inspired by the work of Zang-Hee Cho at UC Irvine) is that the brain is a computer, and the acupoints are like keys on a keyboard. We enter instructions by needling the right points, and the brain (CPU) makes changes throughout the body via the immune and nervous systems.
Find a way around it. The point you're making may not require you to risk turning the reader off. For example, instead of discussing specific patterns, you can just say, "Everyone is different, and Chinese medicine groups people into specific categories based on common symptoms, emotions and tendencies. You can find out yours one-on-one with a CM practitioner." This is a general way to address personalization without confusing the reader.
We will address styles of writing, where you can write for the public, and other issues in the second part of this article.
Click here for previous articles by Brian Carter, MSCi, LAc.