There’s been a lot of debate about the role of the medical writer in world of journal articles. The “g” word (ghostwriting) has been tossed about like salt on a Rachel Ray set. I’ll get into that debate in a later post, but for now I just want to say something about medical writers and why doctors need us: Doctors. Can’t. Write.
Ok, before you start lobbing your stethoscopes at me, let me explain. I know there are some doctors out there who are not only wonderful at writing journal articles and other medical pieces, such as CME programs, but also fiction and nonfiction. Two of my favorite authors–Perri Klass and Abraham Verghese–are physicians.
But let’s be honest here: you didn’t become physicians because of the narrative power of your pen (or keyboard). You haven’t spent 8 or 9 hours a day for the past 25 years turning a blank computer screen into a 4,000-word article or a 60,000-word book. You probably don’t have an AMA Manual of Style holding down a stack of papers on your desk, Endnote reference database on your computer, and carpal tunnel from misusing a mouse for too many years.
I know this because I just finished a first-pass edit on several articles written by physicians, very, very outstanding physicians in their field. These articles are part of a CME program I was originally slated to write (with the doctors’ guidance, of course), but the doctors decided that they could write it themselves. The client wisely hired me to, at the very least, go through the six sections (each written by a different doctor) and make them sound as if they were written by one person. She told me to expect them in early August. I got them in late October, and even then two of the six parts were missing.
Now you’d think that after all my years as a medical writer I would have been in this position before–editing copy that doctors wrote. And sure, once or twice a doctor or PhD has hired me to whip their copy into shape because they knew they couldn’t write.
Normally, however, I work with the doctor to determine the direction of a piece, including any specific references. I do additional research, write an outline, send it to the doctor for approval, then start writing. I send the first draft to the doctor for review and approval, integrate their changes, get it reviewed again, etc. This way the doctor is doing what he/she does best–providing clinical expertise and judgment–and I’m doing what I do best–writing. I’ve written entire books for doctors in this manner.
Let me tell you; it’s a process that works a lot better than the one I’m in the midst of. After struggling to bring clarity to these articles, including adding numerous comments such as: “Do you have a reference for this?” “Can you also tell me about the side effects of this medication?” “Can you provide a P value for this result and what’s the confidence interval?” rewriting run-on sentences, explaining studies, reorganizing the document, identifying discrepancies, and trying to remain true to the learning objectives identified for the program, I understand more than ever why medical writers are important.
My message here is that it’s OK to admit that writing is not your strength. Listen, I admitted a long time ago that diagnosing and treating a heart attack was not mine :-). It’s also ok to admit, as too few people (doctor or otherwise) do, that writing is not only hard, it’s hard work! It is not something that comes to naturally to many people and it is not something that most people enjoy. If I had a dollar for every time someone came to me with a project and then, when I told them what it would cost to have me do it, muttered, “I can’t believe you charge that much for writing! I’ll just do it myself!” only to return in a few weeks and gladly pay my fee, I could take that Mediterranean cruise.
One other thing and then I’ll step off my soapbox. In the long run, giving a writing project to someone who is not a writer (or who is a bad writer) will not save you money. Remember: money is time. The time you spend trying to fix what you get can get quite expensive, not to mention the cost of the stress from missing your deadline.
So what do you think? Whether you’re a writer or a physician or someone else who hires writers, join in the discussion.