Scientific writing is a hard job. Many of my students struggle with writing their papers, thesis chapters, and case reports, and there is a trend in the excuses that they claim stifle their progress: “I don’t feel inspired,” “I can’t find the time,” “I don’t know where to start,” “I am still doing a literature search,” and my favorite, “my hard drive crashed.” I have recently joined a writing support group for faculty to help develop successful writing skills. In academia there is the somewhat terrifying phrase “publish or perish” that can keep you awake at night hoping that your manuscript is accepted by the journal you just submitted to. In this writers’ group we were asked what are some of the road blocks that prevent you from getting your writing done when really the “publish or perish” phrase should be enough motivation? I bet you can guess what some of the answers were: “I don’t feel inspired,” “I can’t find the time,” I don’t know where to start,” “I am still doing a literature search,” and……wait for it… “my hard drive crashed.” The first thing I did after this initial meeting was back up my hard drive.
So, what does this really have to do with veterinary practitioners in private practice? I guess I am just trying to illustrate that writing is difficult for those (academics and even editors) who are supposed to be writing daily, weekly, or monthly. How is a busy practitioner supposed to contribute to the scientific literature given the demanding nature of private practice? I believe that most practitioners see the value in the subject-specific (ie, swine) peer-reviewed literature and how it helps to guide evidence-based decision making in practice. But practitioners do not submit to journals as much as I would like, and I have had many conversations with practitioners that go like this:
Practitioner (name withheld for confidentiality reasons - you know who you are!): “I have a case report I keep meaning to write up that I think would be of interest to JSHAP readers.”
Terri: “That is terrific – why don’t you write that up and submit it?”
Practitioner: “I don’t really know where to start and I can’t seem to find the time….”
The conversation goes on along this line and then usually ends talking about the weather or hockey. But what I want you to see is that the reasons for not writing follow the SAME TREND! We are all in the same boat that swallows up time and motivation. Case reports, case series, and on-farm clinical trials can, and do, make important contributions to our scientific knowledge, so don’t keep them in your back pocket. Even though case reports do not “test a hypothesis,” they contribute an important aspect of sharing clinical experiences and can be “hypothesis generating.” Here is the bad news – case reports are hard to write, too, and yes, I know, the peer-review process can be brutal. So how can you incorporate writing into busy practice life? Here are some of my own humble suggestions and some tips I have taken away from my scientific-writing support group:
1. Set up a writing group. This can help you to establish deadlines and set up some accountability for getting your case report (or other genre) written. The group can share drafts of the paper and provide feedback to one another. In clinical practice, this activity could easily be incorporated into your rounds and case discussions.
2. Put writing into your schedule and treat this blocked time like an important meeting that you cannot miss or change. The more times you sit down and write, the better, even if it is just 200 words a day or week.
3. Enroll the help of a DVM student. They can help edit and make suggestions.
4. Contact your local academic institution and see if they have scientific writing workshops or groups already set up that you can join.
I am sure there are many other ways to improve your success as a writer, and as I attend my own writing group I will be sure to share good tips with the JSHAP readership. But one more practice that I believe will improve your own writing is to get involved with the peer-review process. Contact a journal (eg, JSHAP) and express an interest in being a reviewer. By reading other manuscripts of any genre you can learn a lot about writing, attention to detail, and presentation of data or case descriptions.
Terri O’Sullivan, DVM, PhD Executive Editor