Even Researchers Want Help with Writing

Dean leads writing workshop aimed at OVC faculty

Left to right: Dean Elizabeth Stone talks about writing with Ontario Veterinary College professors Sarah Wootton, pathobiology; Marie Holowaychuk, clinical studies; Brandon Plattner, pathobiology; and Adronie Verbrugghe, clinical studies. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Prof. Marie Holowaychuk enjoys writing, but her teaching and clinic duties in Clinical Studies have often kept her from cranking out those all-important research papers. Looking for help with managing her writing time, she signed up last summer for a new series of writers’ workshops for early career faculty run by Elizabeth Stone, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).

Now Holowaychuk attends monthly sessions to discuss academic writing challenges and solutions along with members of all four OVC departments under Stone’s mentorship. Aimed at non-tenured faculty within five years of their appointment, the workshops are intended to help assistant professors write anything from grant applications to journal articles in more productive ways.

Those writing projects are important, says Stone. But they often fall to the bottom of the pile for busy faculty members. “There are a lot of other things that pull on them for their time.” Referring to the new workshops, she adds, “This is not so much about how to write but about how to get the writing done.”

Sixteen faculty members have taken part in the sessions since last June. Groups of eight meet for an hour each month with Stone to share challenges and ideas.

Holowaychuk has already put some lessons to use, including a key one: making time to write. “I think we always put our own writing on the back burner,” says the clinical studies professor. She arrived at Guelph four years ago and works in emergency medicine and critical care.

“Just setting aside time to do your own writing sounds selfish, but Dr. Stone emphasized that you do have to be a bit selfish to get your writing done.”  Now Tuesday is set aside as her writing day.

Since attending the workshops last year, she has completed a large prospective multi-centre study. Holowaychuk expects to submit three journal articles as first author by March.

“It’s been a huge bonus.” Her work in trauma, hemostasis and sepsis has appeared in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care and the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

Pathobiology professor Byram Bridle says the sessions have helped him to make writing a priority and stay on track with monthly goals. Whether it’s uncompleted manuscripts from post-doctoral research to grant applications to administrative paperwork, he says, “When you start as a new faculty member, the amount of writing is quite overwhelming.”

He joined the group last summer after arriving at Guelph in early 2012 to study cancer and viral immunology. Since then, Bridle has published three papers – including manuscripts in Molecular Therapy and Blood – and submitted two more. He’s also completed four grant applications and two biohazard permit applications (each running to about 100 pages).

The writing workshop idea is not new. Fifteen years ago, Stone ran similar sessions while heading the clinical studies department in the veterinary school at North Carolina State University. She ran those workshops with writers Hilde Weisert and Barbara Penn.

There, a common refrain from faculty members was frustration over lack of time to write. Stone heard the same chorus here after arriving as dean in 2005. “These workshops help send a message that we care about this. Almost everyone has problems with writing.”

During the workshops, members discuss their challenges and offer each other suggestions. Basics include when and where to write, and the importance of getting started, even with just a “quick and dirty” first draft.

Stone recommends warming up with short bursts of writing. “During a short exercise, people are always amazed at how much you can get done in five minutes.”

Beyond the basics, she has shared “five practices of highly published faculty.” Those are based on a survey at North Carolina State; she plans to repeat the survey at Guelph:

–         Make time for writing. Block out time. Don’t waste unstructured time. Log how you spend your time. Break your manuscript into smaller parts, and set yourself deadlines.

–         Handle interruptions. Close the door and hold the phone and emails – or at least keep your answers brief. Learn to say no.

–         Cope with lagging co-authors. This is especially touchy when you’re dealing with senior co-authors, including your own mentor or adviser. Write the draft in as final a form as possible and ask others to fill in gaps. Give them a timeline and follow up.

–         Deal with reviewers’ comments. Don’t take comments personally. Rant and rave – and then get back to it. Look for positive ideas to improve your writing.

–         Manage the literature. Don’t spend too much time on the literature and too little time on the writing. Narrow your focus. Use database services.

Recently, Stone used some of those principles to write her introduction to a commemorative book being published this year to mark the college’s 150th anniversary. She plans to write a paper about the workshop project, likely for submission to the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education.

She says the workshops have given her a chance to work more closely with faculty members. “I’ve found it renewing, being able to interact with faculty and get to know them in a different way.”

Among guest speakers, professor emeritus Carlton Gyles discussed his experience as editor-in-chief of the Canadian Veterinary Journal. Members talked about pros and cons of submitting papers to high-impact journals.

Non-scientists might wonder what’s difficult about cranking out a scientific research paper, but there’s more to it than “methods and materials” and “results,” says Stone. In discussing their research, authors need to develop a line of reasoning showing what’s new and how their findings are relevant or useful. “It’s not fiction writing, but it’s still writing that takes creativity.”