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Writer’s on Writing: On Inserting Yourself into a Story
Eric Kort, a physician and mindfulness coach, uses his own expertise and anecdotes as glue to hold the research and reporting together
Welcome back to Writers on Writing, in which I interview writers about their craft, to inform and inspire all of us on our writing journeys.
Eric Kort, MD, is a pediatrician and founder of Real And Present, a coaching program to introduce mindfulness as a practice and a way of life. He writes regularly on Medium about mental health topics (Full disclosure: I edit articles by Kort that are published in Wise & Well).
Robert Roy Britt: Describe the type of non-fiction writing you do?
Eric Kort: For the most part, I write about topics related to mental health, mindfulness and meditation. However, I also branch out into other areas of health and healthcare as events warrant. The intention is to help interpret emerging research, challenge conventional wisdom that might be wrong, and also bring multiple perspectives—both expert and personal—on difficult aspects of personal health.
RRB: What motivates you to write?
EK: I have multiple motivations. I have a desire to provide accurate information about health and wellness that is free from bias and mere conjecture as much as possible. There are a lot of people talking about health on the internet, and much of the information being provided is either incomplete, hard to understand, or just plain wrong. And that can be hazardous to your health.
I also write to build my platform. I am a firm believer that mindfulness is the key that can release a lot of people from a lot of suffering. But I perceive a shortage of people who are talking about mindfulness in a way that is on the one hand completely secular and on the other hand acknowledges the full spectrum of life transformation that a sincere inquiry into the nature of reality can provide. That is a gap I would like to help fill, and that requires building an audience.
Finally, and by way of full disclosure, I have bills to pay. Writing helps me pay those bills. My primary goal is to provide value to people. But there is nothing wrong with getting paid for doing so, and getting paid allows the providers of value to have time and energy to provide that value.
RRB: How does your professional experience inform your writing?
EK: For the most part I lean on the expertise of others, using my own knowledge and experience to help me navigate. While I am a physician, I am not trained in psychiatry or other mental health disciplines. So my intention is not to speak from authority on these topics, but I use my training in medicine and research to know what kinds of questions to ask, where to look for reliable information, fact check, and recognize the scent of hype and misinformation when I get near it. I do have significant personal experience with mental illness and meditation, so I draw on that in an effort to enliven my writing with real-life anecdotes when research and data start to make the room feel chilly.
RRB: How do you decide when to insert yourself in the story or let other experts or citations do the heavy lifting?
EK: I see myself as the glue that holds all the other pieces of the story together. As much as possible I let others do the talking. Then I speak up where needed to direct traffic on the flow of ideas, fill in some gaps, and sand down any rough edges.
RRB: What’s your worst writing habit, flaw or weak spot?
EK: I really struggle with the blank page. I spin my wheels a lot before I get the first sentence down. Think a little while. Check my email. Get more coffee. Think. I need to learn to just get going. That first sentence is going to get rewritten eventually anyway so no need to overthink it.
RRB: Where do your story ideas come from?
EK: I keep an eye on EurekAlert for late-breaking news releases related to my areas of interest. But a good deal of ideas arise organically from my work, conversation with family and friends, or things I am reading.
RRB: What do you know about writing now that you didn’t used to know?
EK: On the technical side, since getting an editor, I have learned a lot about punctuation, grammar, and structuring paragraphs and articles for maximum impact.
On the stylistic side, I have learned how to do a better job keeping my readers in mind. I craft a lot of sentences that are super clever if, and only if, you happen to have the exact same context as I do. Even a reference that is familiar to half my readers will be confusing or boring to the other half of my readers. That stuff has gotta go. (Even if it still pains me sometimes.)
RRB: How much time and effort do you put into a typical article?
EK: I have never tallied it all up, but I would say about five hours for a 1,500-word article. About half of that is spent researching, reaching out to other experts, and interviewing. The rest is spent writing—or staring off into space waiting for the words to arrive.
Writers on Writing is a regular feature in the Writing Guide, in addition to weekly guides and essays. Paid subscribers also get additional, exclusive writing guides each month plus a complimentary editing and coaching session with me (learn more here).