Course Syllabus

Narrative Medicine

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Complete Syllabus

This class will guide all types of medical professionals (doctors, nurses, researchers, aides, social workers, etc.) through the various skills needed to write and publish narratives—personal stories of their experiences in health care (and those of others in the field). We will cover every step in the writing process, from brainstorming to researching to writing to revising as well as the steps needed to pitch and publish an article or essay. Our instructors—experienced writers of health care narratives and creative nonfiction—will communicate with participants through a combination of written lectures, written feedback, and email. In addition, the class will include phone conferences with guest lecturers Theresa Brown and Manoj Jain.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 4,000 words)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: What is creative nonfiction? 

This week we’ll explore the basic questions that drive this genre of writing: What is creative nonfiction? What are medical narratives, and why do we need them? Hospitals and medical schools around the world are beginning to recognize the power of narrative to inform, motivate, and teach. Every medical study has its own story. How do we find the difference between the story and the study? How do we make this story into a compelling piece of writing? Students will jump right into writing with a quick 500-word assignment.

Week 2: Reading like a writer 

Most writers read for pleasure a great deal, and medical professionals read to keep current on the latest advances in medicine. But reading like a writer is a different skill, one that will allow you to take a piece of creative writing and understand how the author constructed it, then apply that knowledge to your own work. During this week we’ll dissect two different types of medical narratives: short pieces, such as might be found in a national newspaper, and longer, more involved narratives such as those featured in Creative Nonfiction, The New Yorker, and other long-format magazines. Participants will learn the basic structure and components of these articles and how to weave them together.

Week 3: Shaping your narrative

You may not know how to take the experiences from your career that have affected you deeply and shape them into a defined narrative—a story or plot that drives your writing and keeps a reader’s interest. A good narrative must be more than a series of facts, and even more than an interesting series of events; it must encapsulate some larger idea or meaning that will move the reader to emote, think, and act. The materials from this week will guide participants in next week's assignment to turn one or more personal experiences into a narrative piece of writing.

Week 4: The people at the heart of the narrative

Medical narratives are usually first and foremost stories about people, so helping your readers to care about the people in your writing is an important element of creating an effective narrative. During this week we’ll discuss writing techniques to help portray the complexity and humanity of the subjects in your writing. During this week participants will also submit their second assignment, a newspaper article or essay of 1,000-2,000 words, to the instructor and classmates for review.

Week 5: Incorporating Research

While you want your writing to have a strong narrative drive, you’ll also want to make use of your expertise and include medical, scientific, and/or professional information in this larger narrative structure. This week we’ll talk about how to incorporate scientific studies, statistics, scholarly quotes, and your personal knowledge into your narrative writing. We’ll also discuss how to find additional information through research, either by contacting expert sources or by looking for reliable information on the internet.

Week 6: Using detail effectively

Using specific and evocative detail is the key to creating a narrative that feels “real” to the reader, and that therefore holds the reader’s interest. During this week we’ll discuss how to use detail to create more convincing and moving writing. We will also explore ways to describe the more technical processes of the medical world in layman’s terms. 

Week 7: Ethical and legal concerns

Ethical concerns about accuracy, privacy, and bias apply to all creative nonfiction writers, but are particularly important in medical writing where patients’ rights are a special concern. In this class we’ll review HIPAA and other legal guidelines for writing about patients and clients. We’ll also discuss some of the common ethical quandaries that arise when writing about other people and various ways to present the lives of these people in your writing.

Week 8: Your writing and revision process
The process of taking a piece of writing from initial inspiration through drafts to a finished product differs for each writer. This week we’ll discuss some approaches to brainstorming, drafting, and revising that will help participants craft a plan for their own best practices. We will also briefly discuss how to work with an editor after you’ve created a polished draft. Participants will submit a revision of either of their previous assignments.

Week 9: How to write in medicine without losing your job
Sometimes we as writers feel bold as we put our initial thoughts down on paper, but lose courage when it comes time to share or publish a piece. In this class we’ll focus on methods for writers who need to feel more comfortable with publicizing their opinions. We’ll also consider ways to write about controversial subjects without infuriating your opposition or jeopardizing your professional integrity.

Week 10: Pitching, publishing, and marketing your work

Taking the first step toward publication can be intimidating, so during this week we’ll tackle that challenge as a group. The class materials will discuss how to write a formal pitch for a nonfiction piece that can be submitted to an editor, and then how and where to send those pitches. We will also discuss steps for building a presence as a writer and marketing and publishing your work, through traditional print media as well as websites, blogs, and other methods. Each student will write a pitch that can be submitted to an editor for consideration at the end of the week.


Ellen Ficklen is a career writer and editor who has held a number of editorial positions in the Washington, D.C., area and been widely published. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Weekend, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education,  Saveur, and Preservation. Ellen also has produced editorial projects for the National Geographic Society, American Rivers, NASA, and National Public Radio. She was the author of a "My Turn" column in Newsweek and a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Ellen is a coeditor of Narrative Matters: The Power of Personal Essay in Health Policy, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. For eight years, she was the editor of "Narrative Matters," the first-person essay section of Health Affairs, the nation's leading health policy journal, where she also was a senior editor of the journal. She has a B.A. from Connecticut College and an M.A. in writing (nonfiction) from Johns Hopkins University.

Guest Lecturers

Manoj Jain, MD MPH is an infectious disease physician, a writer, and a national leader in healthcare quality improvement. Dr. Jain writes regularly for the Washington Post, and the Commercial Appeal (Memphis newspaper). His writings also appear in the New York Times and the Times of India. He received his engineering, doctorate, and public health degree from Boston University. He has served as a consultant to the World Bank on HIV, and has been interviewed by CNN, and National Public Radio. Over the past 15 years Dr. Jain has given over a 150 talks, and published numerous scientific articles, chapters and books.

Theresa Brown, RN, is the author of Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between (HarperStudio, 2010). She received her BSN from the University of Pittsburgh and a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. Brown is a regular contributor to the New York Times blog “Well.” Her essay “Perhaps Death is Proud; More Reason to Savor Life” is included in Best American Science Writing 2009 and Best American Medical Writing 2009. Theresa is a Board Member of the Center for Health Media and Policy at the Bellevue School of Nursing at Hunter College. She is also an Advisory Board Member for Scrubs Magazine, which won the 2010 Maggie Award for Best New Publication from the Western Publishing Association.


Past Guest Lecturers

Sayantani DasGupta, MD, MPH is an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and a core faculty member of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She also teaches in the graduate program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College, and is a prose faculty member in the summer writing conference Writing the Medical Experience at Sarah Lawrence College. Dr. DasGupta is author of Her Own Medicine: A Woman's Journey from Student to Doctor (1999), and co-editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies (2007). Her work has appeared in journals including The Lancet, JAMA, and The Journal of Medical Humanities, and her essay “Intern” is included in the anthology Becoming a Doctor. She is an associate editor of the journal Literature and Medicine.

Jason T. Lewis directs the Writing and Humanities program at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. He is the managing editor of the university’s medical narrative publication, the Examined Life Journal, and the author of the novel The Fourteenth Colony. Lewis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or contact Sharla Yates at yates[at]