Love it or hate it, writing is the currency of academia. Grants, protocols, and manuscripts are all types of writing that the successful academic surgeon must produce, both in high quantity and quality. A busy or unpredictable clinical practice can make it difficult to write well. Below are some practical tips for academic surgeons to increasing the quantity and quality of their writing.
Increasing the Quantity
- Put it on your calendar. For writing that requires creative or critical thinking (like the Specific Aims page or Research Plan for a grant, or the Discussion section of a manuscript), you may need several hours of uninterrupted writing time. The best way for a busy surgeon to have this time is schedule it, and protect that time the same way you would a clinical obligation or important meeting. If you always leave writing to leftover time, you’re unlikely to be as productive as you would like.
- Use idle patient care time for technical writing. We spend much of our clinical days waiting—for an OR turnover, for a clinic patient to arrive in a room, or on call waiting for the next emergency. While these short and unpredictable segments of time are not ideal for creative writing, they are often enough for the less thought intensive writing found in grants or IRB protocols (Biosketch, Facilities and Environment, Budget Justifications, etc.). Email to yourself or save on a network drive the most current version of a document so you can work from wherever you find yourself with an extra 15-20 minutes of time.
- Have others write for you. Some writing can be delegated to students, residents, or administrative staff. Even if this writing needs to be heavily edited, it is a great opportunity to help develop the writing skills of learners, and it gets words on the page. If you pursue this strategy, you must be clear about authorship status upfront, and make sure any relevant deadlines are clearly communicated. Using a shared file like Drop Box or Google Docs can facilitate multiple authors contributing to a document while allowing the first or senior author to stay update on the content and progress.
- Re-use your own writing. Start a new manuscript by opening an old manuscript that is similar in clinical topic or methodology and save it by the name of the new manuscript. Obviously the writing has to be heavily edited or replaced entirely to avoid duplication, but a prior well-written manuscript can provide the necessary writing cues and structure to efficiently draft your next paper.
Increasing the Quality
- Read others’ good writing. Read articles published in your target journals on similar topics to get a feel for the writing style the journal values. The highest impact journals have a particular writing and editing style that is either explicitly stated in the Author Instructions or evident in their published articles. For grants, read funded grants from the same agency or organization.
- Start early. For writing that is deadline driven and thought-intensive (grants) it’s important to start early to allow time for adequate and thoughtful revisions. For manuscripts, draft as you go. Write the Introduction and Methods sections before data collection and the remainder of the manuscript during data analysis and interpretation. By the time you present an abstract at a meeting, aim to have the manuscript drafted. Be prepared to incorporate feedback from questions or the discussion immediately after when the topic is freshest in your mind.
- Seek feedback from good writers unfamiliar with your topic. Not everyone who reads your work will be an expert in the clinical topic or methods. While how you got from fact A to conclusion D might be clear to you and your co-authors, someone who is unfamiliar with the topic or methods may miss the connection altogether, or may not understand the relevance. Look for feedback from writers with a tangential association to the topic or methods to see if they clearly understand the rationale, methods and conclusion.
- Look to simplify and shorten your work. Great writing tends be concise. During the revision process set a goal of reducing the word count by 10-25% by removing redundant words or unnecessary conjunctions. Multiple strategies for reducing word count and simplifying writing are available via Internet searches or style guides.
Not all of these strategies will work for everyone, and there are likely some great ones not on this list. Try incorporating different tips into your writing practice to see what works best for you. Just like any other skill, improvements in writing take practice and feedback.
What tips to have for better writing?