PracticeUpdate: What are the different types of papers that you would suggest writing if early career physicians were interested in scholarly publishing?
Dr. David Rakel: If someone is interested in scholarly work through publications, I think easy ones are reviews of literature. In family medicine, there is a Family Physicians Inquiries Network where you ask a common clinical question, look at the research to find what's out there to help solve or answer that question, and then publish the findings. There are a lot of different reviews that can be done for some of the clinical periodicals or journals. You can do a summary of a particular topic, which is a great way to learn how to work with editors and get things submitted — and learn to have thick skin for when it gets rejected and then do it again and again and again. I think having the interest is the most important thing. And then showing up and being willing to put yourself out there and submit. Eventually, one will get accepted, and it will get easier and easier and easier from then on out.
PracticeUpdate: What are some challenges that people may face when writing research papers?
Dr. Rakel: A research paper follows a specific format, with an introduction, a methods and statistics section, results, and discussion, et cetera. That requires a template, but also a lot of mentoring. I would encourage young faculty to partner with someone who has done this before and let that person know, "Hey, I'm here if you want to co-write a paper."
Someone who's seasoned in writing would love to support a junior faculty member and then be co-authors. So that's a win–win. The junior faculty member gets guidance from someone who has more experience and can offer advice and who understands how to prepare a manuscript but also collaborates with someone who he or she may admire and wants to learn from. This way, the junior faculty becomes a co-author and partner and part of a team. Senior faculty members really like that because it reduces their workload, but also allows them to work with others and mentor and support the careers of less experienced colleagues. So, it's certainly a win–win opportunity for both junior faculty just starting out and senior faculty towards collaborative success in sharing scholarly papers.
PracticeUpdate: What are some important elements to communicate when writing?
Dr. Rakel: Well, I think, in any paper, we want to help solve a problem. And how do we help solve a problem? We need to understand the science, so we have to collect good data, and the data have to be complete and balanced.
As Sir William Osler said, "This is an art based in science." Once you have good data, you have to apply common sense. And how does one use that science in a pragmatic way to help solve a problem? That's an art in and of itself. I think, when addressing a big question or the timely topic that’s been chosen, it’s necessary to do your homework, collect good data, organize the data in a way that's balanced and fair, with solid statistics, and then communicate in a way that combines the data with some real-life experience and wisdom that leads toward a practical recommendation.
PracticeUpdate: Do you have any tips for early career physicians that they can follow to make their writing more effective?
Dr. Rakel: Read, read a lot to make your writing more effective. See what journal articles resonate with you and maybe borrow some of those skills or techniques. I've been doing this a long time, and I'm still trying to become a better writer. And then there are some simple things: grab the readers’ attention at the beginning, fill in the middle, and remind them of the point you wanted to make at the end. So, grab their attention, address the problem you’ve chosen — discuss or explore it — and then, at the end, remind the readers why this particular topic is important and what you’ve done to address it. The ending becomes a beautiful bookend with the introduction that captures attention.
The reader should almost be able to predict what's coming next, but hopefully will be informed by the discussion. And don't forget the power of story. This doesn't always work well, obviously, for a research paper; but, in other types of writing, the more you can connect with people's hearts, the better. People generally don't remember what you tell them, but they remember how you made them feel. And, through writing, we touch people's hearts through story and personal experience. A research paper generally doesn't have that. In other types of writing, however, I think that's a really important piece to remember.