When Dr. Layton Smith, director of drug discovery at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, was starting out, his mentor gave him an important piece of advice.
“He said, ‘Our publications are the currency of our business,’” Smith recalls. “And he was right. The papers that we publish, grants that we write, presentations that we make — these are what we are judged upon, and they ensure our success.”
As a private, independent research institute, Sanford-Burnham conducts world-class, collaborative research devoted to finding cures for human disease and improving quality of life. Smith’s role demands not only that he manage a research laboratory and serve as an assistant professor in the institute’s biomedical sciences program, but that he write grant proposals, research papers, abstracts, and more.
Though comfortable giving presentations or speaking in front of an audience, Smith felt that his written communication needed improvement. After looking for ways to fix his writing after the fact, Smith had an epiphany.
“I finally realized,” he says, “that it was silly for me to struggle alone. If I needed help with my golf game, I’d find a golf pro. I needed a writing coach!”
Harder to publish
With all of his other responsibilities, Smith found himself “drowning” in writing projects that weren’t getting done. And even when he completed a project, he felt as though it wasn’t good enough.
“On a daily basis,” he explains, “we’re doing experiments, testing hypotheses ... The bottom line is, I found that writing technical manuscripts, in a clear and concise manner that communicated effectively, was challenging, given the traditional writing training I’d had.
“It’s getting harder to publish in these days of shorter manuscripts with more references and less background information,” Smith continues.
Fifteen years ago, research papers that were submitted to journals went through a rigorous round of editing, formatting, and revisions, but the necessity of working with hard copy meant that the majority of the work happened on the journal’s side.
Now, with the accessibility of digital word processing and collaboration software, researchers are expected to submit higher quality and more polished and formatted work in the first draft. Plus, Smith points out, having only 1,500 to 2,000 words to tell a story about a complex experiment that took years to conceptualize, perform, and interpret is no small task.
Understanding the nuances
Smith worked with three or four editors before contacting Pam Hurley. After working with her as a writing coach, Smith knew he’d made the right decision.
“Pam’s style works for me,” Smith says. “I started out looking for someone to help me with my productivity in writing, but it wasn’t until I started working with Pam that I realized that part of the problem was that I struggled with distilling the technical aspects down to a cogent, readable manuscript.”
Smith knew that oral presentation was a strength for him, but he’d been criticized for his writing. Now, he’s working with Pam to try to learn how to apply his presentation ability to the writing process, rather than struggling with a method that doesn’t work for him.
“Pam has helped me understand a lot of nuances — even down to the way scientists tend to structure sentences — that help me break habits,” says Smith. “I can get to my point more quickly and keep my writing clear.”
He points out some of the most important skills that he’s learned:
- Use active voice.
- Start simple and then delve into more complex material.
- Imagine explaining the subject to a non-scientific person and support that explanation with science and details.
“People don’t have to read your paper,” Smith explains. “If I don’t give them a reason to read it or don’t make it interesting, they aren’t going to read it. When it comes to a grant, if the reviewers aren’t convinced by my writing, they aren’t going to fund the project — and I’m not going to have a job!”
A new way of thinking about writing
Changing what he learned years ago has been a challenge, but the outcome for Smith — learning how to use his strengths and improve his writing — is already reaping rewards. Smith submits grants in every funding cycle of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant submission cycles: three cycles per year.
“The last time I got a grant funded was 2007,” he says. “That’s one time in 12 cycles. I wasn’t even getting into the top 50 percentile. But over the past year, since working with Pam, I have secured funding for two new grant proposals. Pam’s help has been an integral part of turning that around.”
Smith is now working with Pam on a manuscript, which will give him an even clearer metric of success.
“What Pam has done for me,” he says, “is to point out: This is the goal you have. How do you want to get there? For me, having an editor wasn’t enough. Having a partner in crafting the message is crucial to success.”