How often have you read an article and thought “I could have written that?” How often have you had an idea for an article but never followed through with it? How often have you discussed a writing project with a colleague but nothing happened?
Writing for publication can be intimidating. It requires being intellectually naked. It exposes the rigor of our thinking, the creativity of our ideas, and the fluency of our words for others to judge. It is easier to talk about writing than actually doing it.
Publishing one’s research is a cornerstone of the academic life I have chosen, and I want to share three lessons I’ve learned. (I learned these lessons the hard way, as evidenced by the 18 months it took me to publish my first medical article.) I hope they will both guide and encourage the many really smart people I’ve met in my health care journey who have something important to say but have yet to say it in print.
- Write to contribute and learn — An article needs a “reason for being.” It needs to offer fresh concepts to the seasoned reader, challenge status quo thinking, provoke new thought, and lead to advances in the discipline. Everything I’ve published contains ideas, expressions, or concepts that I did not know I knew until the rigor of thought required to contribute something new released them into consciousness. These “lightbulb” moments compensate for the hour (or more) I often spend without writing even one word because I do not know what to say.
- Engage the right team — All but one of the IHI research papers I wrote during my seven-month residence as a Senior Fellow in Cambridge, MA, include physician co-authors. I typically write with co-authors to benefit from their knowledge and to share the workload. The end product is better because true collaboration requires the pooling of talent and experience. The complexity of medical topics coupled with the limitations of individuals underscore the value of collaborative writing. I can’t pretend to have a clinical background, but I can leverage my expertise and my research experience as a team member writing with others who have different expertise.
The key to collaborative writing is to engage the right teammates. I look for specific qualities in a co-author: expertise essential for the topic and complementary to mine; genuine interest in publishing and time to dedicate; dependability; writing skill; openness to new ideas; high standards; and intellectual integrity. In short, I want to work with others who know what I don’t, who pull their weight and meet deadlines, who insist on high-quality work, and who will never use another author’s work without proper attribution. I also consider the external credibility of co-authors but not at the expense of the basic qualities noted. Teamwork in writing is no different from teamwork in other contexts: everyone has to work and contribute their part.
- Manage the process — Communication technology has eliminated the need for co-authors to be in physical proximity. Nonetheless, even with the right team, you need to manage the writing process. One member needs to lead the process of developing the manuscript and shepherding it through to publication. Because writing for publication is part of my day job and I’ve been doing it a long time, I often play this role.
As the team leader, my goals are to facilitate reaching consensus on the article’s key messages and structure, coordinate who does what, balance the division of labor, agree on deadlines, and, in general, encourage an efficient, productive process. Connecting by phone (or in person, if possible) is essential at the outset of a project and when progress stalls or problems arise. Otherwise, electronic communication with all authors works well.
I believe in short timelines to sustain momentum, name-directed roles to clarify accountability, and transparent revisions to create an open, non-threatening culture of improvement achieved by asking each author to suggest revisions on each iteration of the manuscript. These basic guidelines are not difficult if the right people are on the author team.
Publishing enables me to reach beyond my campus classroom to share research findings, concepts, and ideas across the globe. I view it as a treasured opportunity. And whenever I get stuck, I turn to these three lessons and a simple checklist (see below) that continue to guide me. What will your next (or first) publication be?
IHI Senior Fellow Leonard L. Berry, Ph.D. is University Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Regents Professor, Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence, and holds the M.B. Zale Chair in Retailing and Marketing Leadership in the Mays Business School, Texas A&M University.