Category Archives: Writing

Learning to write

It’s terrible to admit: I didn’t learn to write until I was in college. My freshman year at a liberal arts school was brutal – but by the end of four years, this science major managed to catch up. (Look at me now, Ma!) The difficult memories of writing tutors and tears resurfaced when I read an article in The Atlantic on teaching analytical writing in high school. Oh, how I wish I had been taught to write in high school!! All I remember is stacks of note cards I was supposed to assemble into paragraphs for English class essays. Despite my embarrassing beginnings, though, I decided to become a professional writer/editor.

Today, even though I consider myself somewhat experienced, I constantly seek out professional development opportunities–taking seminars, reading the literature, going to professional meetings–not only to stay current on the issues within my field, but also to make me a better writer. I recently took an online science writing course from Stanford that was offered through Coursera (along with many of my medical writing and editing peers). It would be an understatement to say it was a great experience.  I consider the notes I took during the class to be priceless, and I am amazed at how often I go back and refer to them in my everyday work. It reminded me of how important it is to return to the basics, even when I consider myself to be a veteran writer. I would recommend the first few weeks of the class to anyone who writes – not just those who write in the sciences.


Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.

Giving the vision a voice – program/center grants

Been busy with several large center grants lately, so I thought I’d write a little something about what that’s like.

Essentially, center grants–or program grants–bring together multiple investigators, each with their own project and research goal, into a single overarching program. Each project stands alone as its own R01, but must also link to all the other projects and to the overall program.

There must be cohesion among the individual grants, with a shared vision that is communicated clearly throughout the entire submission. Ideally, the individual grants should overlap, with data from each grant feeding into the others, with each project using the planned core resources, and with an overall administrative core and leadership that can hold everything together and move all the investigators toward the shared program goals.

For all the grants I work on, primarily R01s and private foundation grants, my clients expect me to make sure all the components are present–that the significance, the innovation, and the approach are appropriately and completely described, that the aims are clear and scientifically sound and not overly ambitious, that all the other required pieces are present and complete. Ultimately, they want me to make sure that the reviewers will see what they are looking for and will score the grant well.

With a program grant, I am asked to do all these things, but also see connections between the individual project grants and the overall program, identify collaborations, and describe how each project ties into the overall goal that everyone is striving for. There is the purpose–the “why”–for each research project, and then a little further out, there is the “why” of the program. I must keep the larger “why” front and center, staying above the weeds and seeing the whole program and how the pieces must fit together and interact.

Of course, I am not handed a bunch of grants by individual investigators and told to make a program out of it. I work closely with the program director and in some cases, a grants administrator, both of whom are also defining the vision and shaping the overall program from all the component parts. My role is one of language–not only making sure that the individual project investigators’ grants are written well, but also that it is clear how each grant is part of a whole program.

As with any grant proposal, program grants are exhausting. But they are incredibly satisfying as well. They let me move beyond the editing and writing and into the planning, the creating, the crafting. As a communicator, program grants are a great intellectual challenge–each investigator must keep their own voice in their project grant, but must also use a shared language of the overall program. As the components are pulled together, I am making sure that it is clear to the reviewers how everything will work together and that the overall vision has a voice.

Know your audience

I recently took a grantsmanship course at Northwestern and my brain is now full. Seriously, though, I came away from the course with so much great information and advice that I could fill 10 blog posts, but I thought I would start with this: when writing a grant, always keep your audience in mind.

Image from: Giles J. Research grants: the nightmare before funding. Nature. 2005;437:308-311.

For any grant, the audience is (1) the funding agency and (2) the reviewers who are reporting back to the funding agency. That’s it. You are writing the grant for them. What does this mean? It means that part of good grantsmanship is doing as much up-front research as possible about your audience. For NIH grants, what are the mission statement and research priorities of the institute/center (I/C) you are targeting? Does your research fit into these priorities? What IRG or study section would you like to review your grant and who is on it? Print out the program announcement (PA) and study it until the pages’ corners are ratty. Check RePORTER to see what research the I/C has already funded. Is your proposal different from already funded research?

To be clear, all this should happen before writing your grant.

It seems obvious from a marketing standpoint – market research and competitive intelligence are essential first steps in promotional writing. But it’s probably not so obvious for researchers who are focused on their research program and how to keep it going, not market research!

The other part of the audience is the reviewers themselves. What are they looking for? How do they score your grant? Be sure you understand the review criteria and scoring system and keep them in mind as you write your grant. For NIH grants, each reviewer on a study section is assigned 3 grants – while they aren’t the 25-page behemoths they once were, this still amounts to a stack of paper to review. Use key words and statements that correspond to the review criteria. Make it as easy as possible for the reviewers to find the information they need to score the grant. Of course, good writing and grammar are important so that your science is not lost in bad writing, but it is just as important to keep the reviewer and the scoring criteria in mind as you write your proposal.

The takeaway message for today? No matter what kind of writing you are doing–grants, education, promotional, heck, even fiction–know your audience. And for grantwriting, do some preliminary research on the funding agency and understand the scoring system inside and out. As you write the grant, remember to step back from time to time and ask yourself if you are fulfilling the review criteria and responding to the program announcement exactly as it is written.

Branding and Passive Marketing for Freelance Medical Writers

I attended a session at the AMWA annual meeting today on marketing for independent healthcare communicators (a fancy way of saying freelance medical writers). Deborah Gordon (GordonSquared) and Brian Bass (The Accidental Medical Writer) gave two fantastic talks about the importance of branding your freelance medical writing/editing business and the power of passive marketing. Deborah stressed the importance of branding your freelance business in a wTT_Logoay that reflects who you are and what you stand for. Brian talked about building your reputation, then delivering on your marketing promises and gently reminding your clients about the value you bring.

I’ve often written about how trust is an essential part of my freelance medical writing business. I work with individual basic and clinical researchers who must trust me enough to hand over their data or their “next big idea” so that I can help them communicate it clearly – to journal peer-reviewers, to the NIH, etc. So to get new clients, I have to be able to assure them of my trustworthiness and my capabilities at the start. This is even more difficult because I work remotely, and usually am unable to meet face-to-face before a project starts.

So it became essential for me to develop a brand for my company, one that reflects not only trustworthiness, but also professionalism, experience, thoughtfulness, dedication, and attention to detail. I decided to rely on online marketing rather than direct mail or other print tactics, and I turned to a professional designer to develop my logo and website, and I did a lot of research of other medical writers’ websites to figure out what I wanted to say and the best way to say it. But my company website could only do so much to communicate a concept like trustworthiness (unless the color blue has a calming effect or something), so I also started a blog as a way to showcase how I think, what I think, and hopefully give potential clients a better idea of who I am and why they might trust me with their research.

So as Deborah was giving her talk on branding, I found myself nodding a lot (no, not nodding off, just nodding in agreement!). By creating a brand and then getting it out there through my website, my blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even my AMWA freelance listing, I have been able to bring in new business, and do it fairly passively. In the past year, I’ve landed 3 clients who have found me through my blog because they liked what I had to say about one topic or another and many more people who contacted me because they liked my website. Even better, more than a few people here at AMWA blurted out “Oh, the Tobin touch” after I told them my last name. Which means that creating and cultivating my brand seems to be paying off.

Brian also introduced me to the idea of relationship marketing, which again had me nodding. Relationship marketing involves building your reputation and getting your name out there, marketing yourself whenever you can—though not with a hard sell, but with passive marketing. For example, each time Brian gives a talk for AMWA, he builds his reputation because his name is being seen and associated with a respectable group. Same goes for posts on LinkedIn or articles in the AMWA Journal. He may not be gaining clients directly, but when more people recognize his name, they may be more likely to remember him when they or someone they know is looking for a medical writer. You never know where opportunities will come from, and somewhere down the line, your name might get passed on to the right person. Keeping your name and brand visible and your reputation intact are critical to generating new freelance business.

But just building a brand and a reputation for your business and getting exposure is not the end of relationship marketing. You absolutely must deliver on what you have promised with your marketing. For me, I know I have delivered on my marketing promise if my clients feel that they were able to trust me with their data, that I understand their point of view and what they are trying to say, and that I helped them convey their thoughts clearly.

Another great piece of advice that Brian gave was that we should remind clients after the project is over about the value that we as medical writers brought to them. Brian wants his clients to look at his invoice and say, “Look how easy Brian made my life, he’s worth every penny.” Reminding your clients of your value doesn’t need to be overt; he suggested that in the cover letters you send with your invoices, you should add a short note reinforcing how you contributed and that you are looking forward to the next project. He also stressed the importance of helping your clients—in whatever way you can—and following up with emails, checking in often to see if you can help, and sending holiday cards to each of your contacts. By cultivating relationships with individuals, not companies, you are more likely to expand your business as individuals move from company to company. But above all, deliver on the promise of your relationship and prove your value.

A lot of great advice from some of the best in the medical writing freelance world…now go forth and brand thyself!

On the importance of definitions

I just received a link from a colleague on an AMWA listserv to an article in PLoS on one medical writer’s experience with ghostwriting. It got me all worked up, so I thought I’d share. First, let me make it clear that I completely agree that there is a problem, called ghostwriting, in which medical writers are asked to write a manuscript—based on someone else’s research, with very little transparency or author contact, and no acknowledgement of their contribution as either an author or in the acknowledgements section—for publication in the peer-reviewed biomedical literature. These medical writers might be freelancers or work directly for a publications planning or healthcare communications company, which is in turn hired by a pharmaceutical company. There are financial interests all over the place in this arrangement, no doubt about it, and that’s why it’s such a hot-button issue. Was the author of the PLoS article a ghostwriter? Sounds like it. Was she right to take a stand and question the ethics of what she was being asked to do? Absolutely.

So why did the PLoS article make me upset? Nutshell: It introduces confusion about medical writers, types of medical writing, and the types of companies that utilize medical writers and for what purpose. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt–something obviously got lost in translation as the article was repurposed from a presentation at a conference at the University of Toronto.

That said, the article would have benefited from some concrete definitions and descriptions of what kinds of medical writing are done at each of type of company mentioned: medical education companies, publication planning companies, healthcare communications agencies, and pharmaceutical advertising agencies. All of these entities work in some capacity with the pharmaceutical industry and either indirectly or directly with physician authors (thought leaders). But not all of these companies, or the medical writers they hire, ghostwrite manuscripts for physician authors to be submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

On first read, I came away asking, why was the med ed company part of an ad agency, and if it was, why were they doing pub planning? These seemed like some pretty big ethical red flags, but that issue was not explained to readers.

But then I re-read it several times, particularly the part about why she stopped. It wasn’t because of ghostwriting. It was because of the marketing doublespeak she was being asked to insert in her pieces, some of which were manuscripts. Lack of access to physician authors to confirm content and wordsmithing to fit a marketing plan are definitely ethical issues, and she was right to take a stand, particularly if she was working in a med ed company, which is supposed to produce content independent of the pharma company. (Again, those distinctions were not discussed.) Instead, issues about wordsmithing at a med ed company were presented in an article about ghostwriting. I am going to go ahead and assume that readers of this article are now really confused about what medical writing is.

The author ends with the suggestion that med ed companies be eliminated to remove the middleman, and that centers for guest authors be used to help researchers prepare manuscripts. That last part is a great idea, but all I read was “med ed companies are the middlemen between pharma and physician.” Again, definitions that distinguish between med ed, pub planning, healthcare comm, and pharmaceutical ad agencies would have been helpful here.

While the article had many valid points, and I recognized some of the unethical wordsmithing issues from my experience in med ed and healthcare communications, I came away confused about the ghostwriting issue and what those pesky medical writers are really up to. Which is why I got upset. Done.