Watch for this popular column in each issue of the ECNG Resources & Information Newsletter for answers to questions frequently asked by early career professionals. If you have a question or would like to serve as a mentor for the column, please email Brooks Wingo.
What advice could you give to an early career investigator on increasing their productivity of writing? I feel like I’m pretty good with regular writing, but writing scientifically seems to be much more difficult and time-consuming. —Submitted by an anonymous ACRM Early Career Member
ANSWER from Dawn M. Ehde, PhD:
Dr. Ehde is a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Fortunately, the more you write, the easier it becomes. Early in my career I established collaborations with other scientists from varying career stages. In addition to learning from others’ writing styles, collaborative writing helps me move my own manuscripts along. I try to send imperfect drafts of sections to colleagues early in the manuscript. If I get stuck, I make a note of what I’m trying to say in the manuscript and allow co-authors to help. My co-authors and I will often “divide and conquer” so that different sections are drafted by different co-authors. Select co-authors who are timely and constructive.
One other tip: Reporting guidelines provide a framework for what to include in a manuscript and thus may also facilitate scientific writing.
ANSWER from Steven L. Wolf, PhD, PT, FAPTA:
Dr. Wolf is a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, a professor of geriatrics in the Department of Medicine, and an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology at Emory University School of Medicine. He is also a professor of Adult and Elder Health in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory, and a senior research scientist at the Atlanta VA Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation.
I have had the opportunity to participate in several grantsmanship writing courses and as a mentor or investigator in T32 or K award grants. So please take this advice with a sprinkle of caution but a waterfall of hope. Being a good writer is an excellent credential that does not necessarily translate into scientific writing success, especially if the latter is for either grant or paper/journal submissions. Writing with succinct and direct sentences that are clear and unequivocal is important.
The process can be facilitated substantially if you expose your work to mentors/colleagues who have had vast experience and have been successful. An open mind to constructive criticism is important. Even more important is the realization that your effort may require several revisions before submission. And please … remember to reflect upon the fine line between not submitting until the product is ready and unnecessary procrastination. Sometimes we allow the latter to supplant the former.
There is no quick fix to excellent scientific writing. The process takes considerable thought and, indeed, is time consuming. With considerable practice and success the effort moves faster by virtue of experience not simplicity of content. If you are strong of character, imagine that as you read your words you are no longer the writer but a reviewer and a critical one at that.
Such an exercise takes fortitude and courage, but will be helpful if you can extricate yourself from writer to critical reader by imaging the work is that of someone else. Allow yourself the luxury (and perhaps necessity) of producing a finished and polished product and then putting it away for a week or two. Then re-read the paper critically and revise again if flaws or weaknesses catch your attention. If none truly exist, then consider submitting. Once the actual submission has found its way to the postal service, take a deep breath, smile, and realize you have truly done the best you can!!!