Together, We Write

AACP Article

Pharmacy faculty representing many disciplines took on a writing challenge that sparked conversations about the process and helped them inspire each other.

By Athena Ponushis

As a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, Dr. Kristin Janke has writing to do, but she also has students standing at her door and committee chairs waiting on reports. Janke, director of the Wulling Center for Innovation & Scholarship in Pharmacy Education, has heard other faculty members vent about this same scenario—dividing their attention between the urgency of daily responsibilities and the unrelenting worry of ‘Am I being published enough?’

Mentoring junior faculty and hearing how much they stress while their writing sits really brought the matter into focus for Janke: There’s a lot of pressure and guilt around writing in academic pharmacy, but not a lot of support or conversation about it. That was at the forefront of Janke’s mind as she participated in a writing challenge through the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity that brought people of all disciplines from myriad institutions together to give focused attention to writing. Janke thought, “Why don’t we bring this to pharmacy?” And so, she did.

The #RxWritingChallenge drew more than 1,100 participants from more than 100 schools and organizations across 25 countries to write together this fall. Pharmacy faculty who work in the lab, at the bedside, in practice and in the classroom participated. They wrote about science, practice and education. They wrote 30 minutes a day for 14 days in October. They focused on writing so many words per session, sprinting to finish a project or practicing a writing skill. Pharmacists joined as individuals, using the challenge as a set time to make writing their priority. Faculty members joined with graduate students, modeling good habits as they wrote alongside each other. Authorship teams committed to the challenge together. All were encouraged by daily emails and writing webinars, as they empowered each other on Facebook and sent tweets about their successes. They started outlines, revised drafts, submitted manuscripts, experimented with their writing and found what works for them: a community.

“I just wanted writing to be something that we could talk about,” Janke said. “It seemed like we were all kind of suffering in silence on our own, trying to trudge through and get the writing done, while hoping it was quality and it was making an impact. But it was this silent work that we did in our offices, alone in front of our computers, and although it was a part of so many people’s job responsibilities, there really wasn’t a community around it and there wasn’t a place to have conversations. I was hoping to open it up and make it be public.”

A Community Emerges

Seven journals partnered with the #RxWritingChallenge this fall. Editors showed their support for writers and encouraged a healthy writing process, which ultimately yields quality papers and happy readers. Participants were moved to talk about their struggle, work on their craft and share their work. And Janke’s hope was realized: “There is an emerging community that faculty can choose to be a part of if they are looking for motivation or inspiration to get the writing part of their work done,” she said. “They can tap into this as a resource, this community and these materials and these periods of time when we are collectively writing together.”

The #RxWritingChallenge takes place twice a year and so far has been guided by the work of academic writing guru Helen Sword. Stemming from her BASE model, the spring challenge focused on behavioral habits that support successful writing. The fall challenge focused on artisanal habits; the next challenge (set for late March/early April) will focus on social and emotional habits.

Dr. Kathryn Smith, clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy, was attracted to the challenge because of the sense of community it fostered. She knew if she wanted to be successful with her writing, she needed to surround herself with others who were dedicating time to writing. She also appreciated the artistry theme.

“I’m learning there’s a lot more to being a pharmacist than knowing about drugs,” Smith said. “It’s also about people and relationships. You can know all about every single drug that’s out there but still not be the kindest, most empathetic pharmacist. I’m trying to help my students learn that, and so I appreciate in my writing as a faculty member that I can learn it’s not just follow the right formula and you get published. It’s what kind of story can you tell so other people can learn from your experiences.”

Smith keeps a running list of scholarly ideas to write about in a Word document. She has a fairly long list of things to write about, but she dreads the actual sitting down and writing. She would much rather be in the classroom trying something new than writing about it.

Collaborating with others has helped her. Faculty members at UF have set Thursday mornings aside for “writing time” to sit in a classroom together and work on anything related to writing. It could be a literature search, or sorting through articles they’ve already found, or writing a proposal or an abstract, or tackling comments from an editor or making data tables.

“Having that specific time dedicated in our schedule to writing has been really important for me, even though it’s not my favorite day of the week,” said Smith, who has been more productive as she and her colleagues are changing the conversation around writing at UF. She may not always find pleasure in her writing, but she does in the company, “knowing that I’m not the only one sitting in front of my computer trying to come up with a cool sentence.”

A More Collaborative Approach

Janke thinks breaking through the image of isolation can be difficult because many faculty were trained in an era when they were expected to define their personal expertise and find something at which they personally excelled. That training can sometimes get translated into, ‘I need to do this by myself,’ ‘I need to lead this,’ ‘I need to write this,’ ‘It’s mine,’ because that was the traditional approach to academic work, but she sees a shift. Healthcare is becoming more collaborative in all facets, including the delivery of care and research relating to healthcare, and writing is catching up.

“Even though it feels like putting words on paper is a solitary activity, it doesn’t have to be,” Janke said. “We’re writing for someone, we are writing for it to eventually be read and we can write with people. We can tap into the social elements of writing. We can also pay attention to the emotional aspects of writing, what do we get caught up on, how do we break through those barriers, the procrastination, the frustration. We can work to manage those emotions so that writing might even be pleasurable.”

Janke writes regularly to keep her research front of mind and advocates for experimenting with the writing process. She has tried co-writing with a colleague on Google Docs while simultaneously talking with her on a video call. They can say, ‘I’m on paragraph two. Can you come up here and help me? I don’t know if I’ve stated this well.’ She finds she’s most productive in the morning when she puts in 30 minutes before she drinks her tea. She works to set reasonable goals for the time she has. And she tries to be patient with herself.

“In Helen Sword’s model, she talks about the creativity and the craft of writing, the artistry that is involved…but she also talks about how we need to cultivate patience with ourselves and recognize the growth and mastery in our writing over time,” Janke said. “She talks about developing a lifelong learning around writing, that none of us were born great writers but we’re building skills through the course of our careers and to appreciate that we are all developing as we go.”

Smith was able to build her patience during the challenge. Writing the background of a systematic review she’s leading, she found herself reading article after article, but still wrote more than expected. Discussing methods for assessing impact of book/journal clubs for faculty development was productive, as her collaborators were also participating in the challenge. Smith hoped to finish a draft of a discussion for another manuscript. She did not get any words on paper, but she was reminded that writing is also about the brainstorming process and she was able to think about the project and how to present it.

“I think people might be hesitant to sign up for the challenge because they aren’t sure what to write about or they don’t know if they can write for 30 minutes a day for two weeks,” she said. “You’re not the only one who feels that way. You’re not the only one who misses a day because of a busy day in clinic or in the classroom. This is just a first step. It’s not, ‘This is a challenge. Can you complete it?’ Take it as an opportunity to learn about writing and develop your writing instead of something you can pass or fail.”

Science and Storytelling

Dr. Daniel Malcom, associate editor of the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, saw the #RxWritingChallenge as a chance for journal editors to say in a collective voice: ‘We want this to happen. We want encouragement of the writing process to happen. And we care about storytelling.’

Dr. Kristin JankeWe tend to write on our own and then we never see anyone read it, so getting comments from our colleagues along the way and being able to talk with others about the challenges we’re facing energizes and rejuvenates us and keeps us focused on the task at hand.

Dr. Kristin Janke

Malcom, who is also associate professor and vice chair of clinical & administrative sciences at Sullivan University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, always goes back to storytelling. Authors are sometimes surprised to hear he’s focused on readability almost as much as science. “When I read a paper, especially for the first time, I’m looking for the story that the author is trying to tell me. No matter what the paper is—it doesn’t matter if it’s describing a research project or if it’s a review article—if there’s not a story, then the reader is going to be left wondering what the point of reading the paper was,” Malcom said. “I think with writers, it’s really critical that you think about the story that you’re telling as you’re writing it, reading it over even in the part of the process when the peer review comes in and you have to go back and change what you wrote. Writers can have a tendency to do exactly what the reviewer wanted them to, rather than taking a suggestion and saying, ‘Well, how does this fit in with my story? What things did the reviewer pick up on that I can use to help readers understand my story better?’”

A member of each journal sat on the planning committee for the #RxWritingChallenge, helping to flesh out the themes and find supporting material. They also ran a series of webinars during the challenge, feeding that love of lifelong learning and giving participants tools and places where they could go to learn about writing. “There’s a lot of writing out there,” Malcom said. “Journals are proliferative. We have more pharmacy education journals than we’ve had in the past, more education journals, more medical journals. The statistics don’t lie when it comes to the number of papers that are out there, so editors want to focus on quality.”

Healthy writing habits may generate high-quality articles. “The spirit of improving your process, that stretches across the journals,” Malcom said. The daily emails during the challenge, the encouragement on social media, the writing webinars, all those little nudges help those who are new to writing and those who have been writing for decades to exercise their talents, improve their process and advance the field.

“We are all in this together. We are all trying to improve pharmacy education and we can’t do that alone, so collaborating on paper, encouraging each other to write is a good thing, because improving education is not a competition,” Malcom said. “We are all working together to improve the quality of our educational efforts. It’s really all about quality.”

Janke thinks the #RxWritingChallenge made the writing process and the frustrations around writing more visible. She saw academics talking about their writing and dispelling some of the pressure and guilt. Participants said the challenge was the boost that they needed. Schools held writing competitions, welcomed speakers and organized events that brought participants together to be inspired by the collective tapping of keyboards.

“Writers become engaged when they can see their audience reacting and responding and they can see the value of the hours that they put into the research and the manuscripts. I think creating more visibility around writing, more dialogue and more support adds to that energy,” Janke said. “We tend to write on our own and then we never see anyone read it, so getting comments from our colleagues along the way and being able to talk with others about the challenges we’re facing energizes and rejuvenates us and keeps us focused on the task at hand.”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.