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Writing is Hard— And Here’s Why You Should Do it

If you are in academia, you are likely familiar with the “publish or perish” mantra. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is absolutely valuable, both for researchers and for clinicians. It’s a robust way to develop and share knowledge. It can help you get promoted. It can raise your profile in your field. But for people with competing demands (teaching, clinical practice, the rest of your life), it’s not always accessible.

Don’t worry— there are other reasons to write and other ways to publish. In navigating what kind of writing and publishing is valuable, it’s crucial to understand your goals. One size does not fit all. The best approach for you depends on your professional trajectory. If you have an academic appointment and you are pursuing tenure and promotion, then yes, data-based and peer-reviewed publications are your priority. But perhaps your role is different, or broader— maybe you see yourself as a public educator or advocate, a clinical expert, or a mentor. Writing is hugely valuable in these roles as well, but it doesn’t necessarily look the same. Or, to put it in other terms, writing is like medication admiration. You need to check the “5 rights”: What’s the right drug (topic), dose (length), route (venue), time (frequency), and patient (author)?

If you are not (or not solely) pursuing an academic career in the sciences, think outside the box, and consider:

  • Writing about science and medicine for a popular audience— think of influential physician and nurse authors like Theresa Brown, Atul Gawande, Lisa Sanders, or Jerome Groopman.
  • Write for a clinical audience— in my field, Journal for Nurse Practitioners or American Family Physician, for example, publish articles on clinical topics.
  • Writing creatively, in health humanities publications (or some medical journals publish poetry on occasion). Or write to nourish your life outside of science and medicine (the poet William Carlos Williams was a physician).
  • Writing for a blog. Blogging is a great way to share ideas and influence rapidly and less formally.
  • Writing as a personal practice. Many highly successful people practice some form of journaling as a way of working out ideas and thoughts that later serve as the basis of important work. A writing routine– even if it’s ten minutes a day– can be a catalyst for creative and productive work.

If you want to write more, no matter what the content and context, consider:

  • Never “just” give a talk— can it also be a paper? A poster? Explore it fully, and expand the potential audience for your work by considering different venues and angles. Get more mileage from each project you take on.
  • Say yes. . . and say no. Take on projects and accept invitations that allow you to develop an idea— but only ones that align with your goals and interests. Don’t say yes if you truly don’t have the bandwidth, or if the offer doesn’t advance your progress in some way. But DO say yes to things that are outside of your comfort zone. You might expand your expertise and influence in valuable ways.
  • Join (or start) writing groups: accountability & feedback are invaluable. Colleagues who will read your work and give you mock reviews are precious. Develop these relationships early in your career and they will serve you well.
  • Look at author guidelines for publications you read (whether these are high-impact journals or tiny blogs). Could you make a contribution?
  • Think about your unique skills and experiences. What is it that you have that no one else does? What do you have to say that you haven’t heard said before? You have a unique voice and you should use it. I have heard many writers say they created work they wanted to read but couldn’t find. The novelist Barbara Kingsolver says, “don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.”This is great advice to produce writing with a strong point of view.

 How will you include more writing in your professional life?

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3 Tips for Incorporating Coauthor Feedback

When we review a paper, we often forget how we feel in the role of author. Along the same lines, when we read over drafts coauthors’ send us, we forget how we act in the role of editor.

Suggested changes seem personal.

 

Tip #1: Get your head right

We often have coauthors at different institutions and finalize manuscripts via email. Receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise, is never pleasant but receiving criticism over email opens the situation up to miscommunication.

Why?

When we write or read an email, our current mood influences how we perceive it.

Incorporating coauthor feedback is a key step in the science writing process, and seeing it as an integral part of the final product and not a burden to be borne can help you orient yourself. Approach the process constructively and with an open mind.

“You cannot grow if you are not willing to change, to accept new perspectives on life or to change your habits.” – Steven Aitchison

 

Tip #2: Consider the type of feedback

So, you’ve taken a deep breath and opened up the document with coauthor feedback. Plan to make several sweeps through the document. If you have comments from several people in one document, consider isolating each author. If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can do this by going to the Review pane, selecting “Show Markup”,
and then “Specific People”.

As you read through feedback, I’d like you to think about them as 4 types of feedback.

  1. Clarifying content
  2. Modifying style elements
  3. Correcting grammar
  4. Changing wording

Simplifying wording often leads to clarifying content. Modifying style elements, such as use of “First,…” “Second,…”, “…; however…”, or by changing passive to active voice, often modify writing style but may also increase or decrease writing clarity.

Kristin Sainini teaches the online Coursera course “Writing in the Sciences” and uses assignments like “Give a short word that means the same thing as “utilize””. Here’s a table of words that can be simplified.

Instead of… Use…
Accordingly, So
Address Discuss
Afford the opportunity Allow
Advantageous Helpful
Due to the fact that Due to, since
Determine Decide, figure, find
Demonstrate Show
Evident Clear
Evidenced Showed
In lieu of Instead
In regard to About, concerning
Magnitude Size
Notwithstanding In spite of, still
Numerous Many
Preclude Prevent
Provided that If
Provides guidance for Guides
Represents Is
Similar to Like
Subsequent Next
Subsequently Then
Sufficient Enough
Therefore So
Utilize Use
Viable Practical
Warrant Call for

CAPTION: Not all of them involve fewer words. Some are just more common in spoken language, and so better understood. [Source]

Correcting grammar is often straight forward, but may be stylistic. Double check with a style guide or online grammar guru like Grammarly. If you’re both right, feel free to keep your own. Consistency throughout the manuscript – both in writing style and grammar choices – is important.

If they are suggesting a change in wording, think about why. Is it a simpler word? Is it more correct?

If you write with the same coauthors frequently, you may find certain people predominantly provide a certain type of feedback.

Then, think about the purpose of an edit. Why do you think the coauthor made that suggestion?

If the suggestion is a stylistic change that doesn’t clarify content or simplify wording, then it’s an edit that shifts your writing style towards their own. These are edits that, in my opinion, you are not “required” to make. But if you know your writing could benefit from some streamlining, look at what these edits are. Are they moving the main subject from the end to the beginning of the sentence? Adding transitions? Cutting out unnecessary words? These are changes you can make in your own writing style to improve communication.

However, keep in mind when you are providing feedback on someone else’s writing that these comments aren’t always helpful. Instead of trying to mold someone’s words into your own, assess writing for clarity and purpose.

If a coauthor changes a word that changes the meaning of a sentence – that’s a big problem. Definitely don’t change anything that results in a false statement, but acknowledge that if someone on the project didn’t understand what you were trying to say, a reader definitely won’t. That sentence needs to be clarified. Spend time on these edits to make sure what you’re trying to say is coming across.

 

Tip #3: Stand up for yourself

Hopefully you have a great group of mentors, and at least one is in your coauthor group.

Don’t hesitate to have a frank conversation with your mentor about manuscript editing. They have much more experience than you, and have encountered many different frustrating situations. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten is to “choose your battles”. Not only does that mean to let some things go, but think about what you’d like to stand up for.

Being able to edit someone’s writing without replacing their writing style is difficult. Not all coauthors, no matter how senior, are able to do so.

Recently, a colleague in my lab group asked for advice on how to handle conflicting coauthor feedback. My mentor brought up a good point: many times, in academia we don’t feel like we are “doing our job” if we don’t come up with a suggestion. As the “commenter”, we feel satisfied with ourselves for contributing. But as the recipient, we consider all feedback and suggestions as changes to make.

Having straight forward discussions about what changes benefit the paper as a whole not only improve your communication skills, but your independence.

What challenges have you encountered in this area?