Reflective writing for physicians: The 55-word story

JL Lycette, M.D.
3 min readFeb 5, 2019

I came across this tool, the 55-word story, when I researched my recent post on narrative medicine. I liked it so much, I made this blog post all about it.

In From Doctors’ Stories to Doctors’ Stories, and Back Again by Marcia Day Childress, PhD, in the AMA Journal of Ethics, the author explains how we can all accomplish and benefit from writing a “55-word story,” as follows:

…the 55-word story is a powerful tool for busy clinicians’ reflective writing… As a literary form, it is simple. As an assignment, it may or may not be written to a prompt. As a task, it is blessedly brief — also game-like, distractingly, even addictively, so. Here is the trick: the story must be 55 words exactly, no more and no fewer (not counting an optional title). There are no other rules…The story may be written fast (in under ten minutes) or slow (take a week); it need not use complete sentences; it may be arranged on the page any which way; its word count may be edited down or built up to the magic 55; in topic and tone it may be dark or droll, silly, sweet, or stunning…
The 55-word story has long had a place in my literature and medicine course, where senior medical students write to remember significant moments from their clerkships and then share their narratives with classmates…Here are two, by two of the story project’s leaders.

Don’t Forget
The resident you (almost) followed into the bathroom.
All the times you felt completely clueless about where you were supposed to go or what to do.
The physics equation you couldn’t remember.
The residents who made you feel like part of the team.
All the incredible patients you had the opportunity to take care of.
(© 2017 Claire Montaigne, class of 2016)

An Avocado Tree in Monterrey
In his CCU bed with a failing heart, he told me about when that now sickly organ had driven a farm boy from Virginia to Monterrey, where he sat beneath an avocado tree with Elena. I plied him for more each day, treating his heart as he treated mine, unsure who was the greater beneficiary.
(© 2017 Lee Eschenroeder, class of 2017)

I encourage you to consider this tool as a short writing exercise to help process your emotions after a difficult patient encounter or a challenging day. 55 words, we can all do that!

Here are two that I came up with:

Three Yeses and a No

He asked if we thought we could help him and we said
He asked if he had a chance to be cured and we said
We asked colleagues to coordinate to save his life and they said
We asked his insurance company to approve the plan of care and they said


I push for tests to get scheduled,
Then I push for them to get resulted.
I push the hospital to accept my admissions,
Then I push back against the too-early discharges.
Push, push, push, push.
I am tired of all this pushing.
But what would happen to the patients if the doctors decided to stop?

I guess it isn’t too hard to guess what kind of day I had and what challenges I needed to vent out about! (see also my prior authorization help page)

Now it’s your turn! Send me your 55-word story! I’d love to post it here.

Submit it to me in the comments box, or email me at, and I’ll consider your submission for publication in this post.

Originally published at The Hopeful Cancer Doc.

JL Lycette, M.D.

Physician & Author. THE ALGORITHM WILL SEE YOU NOW out 3/2/23. PREORDER