Why My Relative is a Bad Writer

A relative of mine, whose privacy will be maintained, fancies herself a writer. Historical fiction is her self-proclaimed genre. Unfortunately, she is not a good writer and reading her stories is akin to listening to nails scratching a chalkboard. My suggestion to her, without revealing how I truly felt about her writing, was to read as much historical fiction written by others as she possibly could. Her response was, “I don’t like reading other people’s fiction.” You can imagine how hard it was to restrain the thought that ran through my head, “Now you know exactly how I feel about reading yours.”

HellerThe point of this anecdote is to help explain why I decided to become a reviewer for the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine (JUM). You cannot possibly expect to be a good manuscript writer without reading as many manuscripts written by others as you can. And what’s even better than reading an already edited and published “fit-to-print” manuscript is to read one in its gestational state, (sometimes) full of awkward sentences, confusing presentations of data, and tables that are impossible to digest.

When I was first invited to become a reviewer for JUM, I was (presumably jokingly) instructed by top editorial staff members to “ignore the email invitation at your own peril.” Being a first-time manuscript reviewer can be a bit intimidating. You begin to question your own qualifications: “What makes my opinion valuable?” “Who am I to criticize someone else’s writing?” As a regular reader of this or any medical journal, you are exactly the person from whom opinions and criticism count. You are the intended audience of the writing and, as such, the manuscript needs to appeal to you, not only in medical accuracy, but also in relevance and in the style in which the information is presented.

A good manuscript needs to be consistent. It needs to flow effortlessly and consistently from abstract to discussion. The first step I take in reviewing a manuscript is to read it from beginning to end, without making any suggestions. I want to digest the information in the state in which it was originally presented. While this can sometimes lead to indigestion and heartburn, I resist the urge to scribble any comments, questions or suggestions along the margins of the article…at this point.

I wait anywhere from several hours to several days to allow my digestive tract to return to normal (I find probiotics to be particularly helpful for this). Then I reread the article more carefully and more slowly, dissecting each sentence, in particular the data, making sure that information is consistently presented throughout the paper and that the numbers add up. I avoid correcting grammar and linguistic choices (my grandmother, the eternal grammarian, would roll over in her grave), knowing that there are great copy editors who will take care of this. I do ensure, however, that I correct any words that are medically inaccurate (i.e., incorrect abbreviations, suboptimal word choices for ultrasound techniques).

In addition to confirming that the information is presented in the correct section, (i.e., results are not included in the materials and methods section), I ask myself what I would do differently if I were to write the paper. Is the number of subjects adequate? Does the work add substantially to the literature? Is the conclusion appropriate for what was actually done? Might the work alter medical care? Are there any pertinent articles that have not been included in the references section? Do the tables help to more clearly represent the results or are they unnecessary? Is JUM the appropriate journal for this article?

In summary, the more articles you read and, in particular, the more unedited articles you read, the better a manuscript writer you will become. Of this, I am certain.  Whether or not you choose to write scientific manuscripts, historical fiction or perhaps screenplays for the next hit HBO series, the more you know about what’s already out there and how it was written, the better your own work will be.

What are your writing, reading, editing tips? Have you ever written for JUMComment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Howard Heller, MD, specializes in diagnostic radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Department of Radiology. He is also on JUM‘s editorial advisory board.