On needs surveys, our faculty at University of Nebraska Medical Center consistently requested help developing writing skills. Given that the peer-reviewed paper is the coin of the realm, you might think that all training programs would include this skill. You would be wrong.
Research degrees include lots of writing (although more of a sink-or-swim approach is the rule), but your average medical school faculty member has not had to write anything more technical than a patient discharge summary.
A few years back some of us on the faculty development committee put together a workshop on manuscripts. Nearly 100 faculty participated, and they wanted more. The next workshop attracted nearly the same number of participants. We had a successful program on our hands.
The problem with success is that you are asked to repeat it, and the message here was pretty basic- write a lot. Keep writing. Get people to critique your writing. Never give up. Keep writing. Write some more.
Sometimes a message needs a different messenger. For our next effort, an expert will deliver the keynote. Paul Silvia, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology and author of How to Write a Lot. His research interests include motivation and goal setting, making him a perfect expert on faculty writing.
Before the workshop commences in 2010, I loaded up his book in the Kindle Reader in my iPod and used some airport time to read it (yes, I am reading the book before the speaker comes). The information is nothing new; its delivery includes enough humor to make it a quick read with a lighter feel than the usual writing manual.
So far, I have only found one portion I take exception to:
Sometimes, rejections are unfair, mean, and poorly reasoned. Sometimes you can tell that the editor or reviewers didn’t read your paper carefully. Resist the urge to complain to the editor. I have heard of people writing the editor an angry letter that denounced the reviewers as lazy incompetents. Those letters never work, probably because the editor is often friends with one or more of the reviewers. Some people recommend writing this embittered letter but not mailing it. That’s even more irrational—why waste your scheduled writing time with fruitless venting? Spend your time revising your paper instead. The world is unfair (p<0.001), so take what you can from the reviews, revise your paper, and send it somewhere else.
In general, this is great advice. You never want to send “that letter.” You should always make some revisions after a review, even if it just clarifies points the first reviewers missed. After all, they may be tapped to review the next version by the next journal editor. I know people who, upon receiving a request to review a completely unrevised manuscript for another journal, have submitted the content of all reviews from the first journal (so that pesky author can’t figure out which initial reviewer is repeating) and merely added “please revise as above.” Ouch.
No, my beef concerns not wasting time writing “that letter.” Sometimes authors get hung up and need to vent. If an hour or so putting these negative thoughts on paper (including your assumptions about the parentage of the reviewers and the quality of their eyesight) gets you over the hump and back to work, I say it is time well spent. [Of course, I usually just go shoe shopping as my stress-buster, but we all have our personal vices.]
If you need some help with your writing, or a book to recommend to your students, How to Write a Lot will likely fit your needs. I suspect Dr. Silvia will provide a motivating, mirthful workshop for us next spring.