I’d Like to Write a Medical Article, But…

Have you ever dreamed of seeing your name in print? Our intrepid editorialist provides guidance on preparing a clinical manuscript for publication.

For almost 10 years, I have had the privilege of teaching an online medical writing course for two health science universities. The premise is that health professionals must be able to present their work clearly and proficiently. Excellent educational material and important research data, however, are sometimes buried in poorly written papers.The truth is, writing a good medical paper is a complex task. It requires inspired energy, quiet reflection, and yes, time in which to do it. Now that I’ve lost most of you (ha ha) ….

The first question we have to answer is: Why write, anyway? There are many reasons; six are listed in the box below.

Once you’ve decided you want to try your hand at medical writing, it is essential to develop a plan for carrying it out. It can be a long and arduous process, but without a strategy, it is nearly impossible to complete. Following are eight steps to ease the process—or at least make it palatable.

2. Look at past issues of your professional journals to see what types of articles they accept. Some may not accept original research, while for others that is the primary focus. Also, visit the “Instructions for Authors” page (CR’s can be found at http://bit.ly/16OmNW9) and review that information. You should follow the guidelines to the letter unless otherwise instructed by the editor. In fact, it is a good idea to contact the editor and share your idea before you begin your work.

3. Start writing. A blank page is very intimidating. Get your ideas down on paper early (giving yourself permission to revise later!). Think about the main message of your article and what you hope to achieve by writing it. What is the one provocative thought you would like to leave with your audience? And who is that audience: the general public or medical professionals? Create a general outline with an introduction, discussion, and conclusion.

5. Revise! Good papers are the product of many revisions—­usually in response to feedback from others. That means you need to get over your fear of criticism and ask colleagues for advice. (I have two trusted colleagues—they know who they are!—who are critical to a fault of my drafts. But I thank them for it!) Since readability is crucial, you might even want to read your work out loud to determine whether your points are clearly made and easily understood.3 Then give yourself time to step back, digest your colleagues’ feedback, and ­re-read with a new perspective. ­

Revision also entails checking for consistency, eliminating redundancy, and deleting unnecessary information. Make sure every sentence and paragraph has a purpose. Yes, it’s time-consuming, and time is often at a premium. But if you undertake to write an article, make the time to do it correctly. Don’t rush the ­process.

6. Create your “accessories.” The title and abstract are the first—possibly the only—parts of your paper that an editor (and, if you’re successful, a reader) will read. Spend some quality time developing them so they accurately and adequately express the focus of your article, as well as why the subject matter is beneficial to readers. Another key element is figures and tables; visuals draw attention, so ensure you have some compelling data to present in this format. They can also be vital “take-aways” for readers to refer to in the future.

7. Submit your article to your chosen journal—and be prepared to wait! Compose a cover letter indicating why you chose this particular journal and confirming that you have not submitted the manuscript elsewhere (which is considered a conflict) and that your work is original. Then get ready to wait, because the review process takes time. First, there will likely be an in-house editorial review to determine whether the manuscript meets the publication’s needs. If it passes this first “test,” it will be sent (blinded) to two or three peer reviewers who will provide detailed feedback on the clinical validity and relevance of the topic and your presentation of it. Finally, the editor will review that feedback to determine whether the article will be accepted outright (which is rare), accepted pending revision, or rejected.

8. Deal with rejection. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Review the feedback you receive and consider how you could rewrite the article or even approach the topic differently, hopefully with a more positive outcome. And if you mange to skip step 8—all the better! Bravo!

I hope this editorial has been a helpful introduction to the wonders of writing. There are great resources out there, including a text by Furman and Kinn4 that I encourage you to aquire.

Writing will always be hard work—but if you stick to it, it will be a rewarding and essential part of your professional life. I would love to hear your experiences in writing (both good and bad). Direct your responses to me at [email protected].

References

1. Richardson L. Writing: a method of inquiry. In: Denzin NK, Lincoln YS (eds). Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 2000;923-948.

3. Welch HG, Froehlich GW. Perspectives: strategies in writing for a physician audience. JGIM. 1996;11:50-55.

4. Furman R, Kinn JT. Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles: Writing and Publishing in the Helping Professions. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books, Inc; 2012.