You Need Me . . .You Really Do!

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.

11 Responses to “You Need Me . . .You Really Do!”

  1. Deb Gordon

    Good point, Mark!!

  2. Mark

    Thank you!! When I'm describing what I do to people and explaining the need for medical writing, I don't emphasize that doctors are often bad writers. I say, even if they are good writers, writing a journal article is days or even weeks of work as a writer. Do you really want top researchers spending this amount of time writing papers or do you want them doing their research and treating patients?

  3. Deb

    Thanks, Pat!!

  4. Pat French

    Thank you so much for writing this, Debra. The people who ask “You charge that much just to WRITE?” truly don't understand what we do. We help researchers and others get complex information across in the most succinct, accurate, and effective ways possible, allowing the information to be incorporated into practice when warranted. And isn't that the point?

    Let the researchers do what they're trained to do, let the communicators do what we're trained to do, let's all be open about it, and everybody wins.

  5. About me:

    Jaclyn, you are most definitely NOT the only one; the only thing we can is remain professional, refuse to accept rates that don't fairly compensate us for our experience and expertise, and wait for them to realize the true cost of hiring based on dollars.


  6. Jaclyn Landon

    As a fellow freelance writer, I can totally relate to people's reaction of “You charge that much just to WRITE?” It's been a frustrating obstacle that I didn't expect to encounter when I entered the freelance world two years ago, but it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who experiences it.

    -Jaclyn Landon

  7. Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS

    Re: Toni Goldfarb, Nov. 23, 2009; 12:56 AM:
    In circumstances like these, it’s helpful to follow the money by asking, “Who is paying whom to do what?”

    There’s a big difference between a politician’s hiring a ghostwriter to prepare speeches and a pharmaceutical company’s preparing a ghost-authored article for the signature by a guest author.

    A politician’s hiring a ghostwriter to work closely with the politician to present the politician’s opinions is analogous to hiring a medical writer to work with the researchers to present their results and conclusions. Each relationship is ethical. The ethical concern about medical ghostwriting arise when a pharmaceutical company, often through a medical education and communications company, develops (ghost authors) an article and then shops the article for signature by a key opinion leader (guest author), leaving concealed the roles of the pharma and the MECC.

    Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS
    Intensive Care Communications, Inc.®

  8. Anonymous

    Debra, I just posted a comment but the only way I could get it to be accepted was to enter it as “anonymous.” I'm still getting that hang-up with entering a name/URL.

  9. Anonymous

    Debra, I just posted a Tweet similar, but shorter, than your comment here. The real issue people have been reading about in the news is the implication that any researcg reoirt prepared by a freelance medical writer is slanted to favor some predetermined favorable outcome. For example, a drug company or researcher wants to “push” a new drug or new finding, so they hire a medical writer to prepare a dishonest favorable report. Wrong! Ethical medical writers try to determine “the truth” and work with the actual researchers to explain that truth clearly and honestly in accepted journal format.
    Politicians who have complained about ghostwriting that fails to credit to the “ghost,” should look to themselves first. Many politicians never think twice about hiring ghostwriters. Even Presidet Obama, a talented, eloquent writer, often delivers ghostwritten speeches.
    –Toni Goldfarb

  10. About me:

    You are so right! Thanks for posting!


  11. Andy T

    It takes time and effort to get respect as a medical writer! 🙂

    I'd like to add two things:
    – the term writer does not really cover all the extra value that an experienced medical writer can provide (backgrond research, statistics, verifying citations…)
    – a second pair of eyes is ALWAYS useful.

    Good luck with the blog!


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