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Helpful Tips I Learned at the AMWA Carolinas Spring Conference

July 10, 2018 | Caroline Drucker, PhD, Clinical Research Scientist II  │ Medical Writing Services

In May, the Carolinas Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) held its annual spring conference at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, NC. With this location convenient to Research Triangle Park, I was fortunately able to attend, meet other medical writers in the area, and learn about an array of topics from the 6 speakers and other attendees. The subjects ranged from the technical (efficient use of Microsoft Word) to the writing process (strategies for focused authoring, approaches for efficacy and safety summaries in marketing applications, and editing your own work) to the “softer” skills involved in medical writing (such as interpersonal interactions and working from home).

Microsoft Word Tips

Following breakfast, the day kicked off with a lively talk on “Everything You Wanted to Know About Word but Were Afraid to Ask” from IMPACT’s very own BJ Witkin. An hour-long presentation on how to use Microsoft Word more efficiently may sound like it would be dull, but BJ kept us laughing throughout. Moreover, as most of us medical writers spend a large amount of time each day working in Word, we paid rapt attention to BJ’s tips on such topics as formatting tables, using find-and-replace for more complex items, and how to create bookmarks properly and avoid adding line breaks or extra text into them.

For example, did you know that you can shift a row up or down within a table by holding down Alt+Shift and then using the up or down arrows? This avoids having to add a new empty row, delete the old row, or worry about whether the whole row will copy-and-paste correctly. (Sadly, as one attendee asked about, this shortcut only works for rows – there is no similar trick for columns.)

Or have you ever written a 200-page report in which a certain key term – say, AMWA18 – appears repeatedly, only to discover that you should have formatted part of this term differently throughout – say, AMWA18? You do not need to spend a tedious half-hour going through your document and manually subscripting every instance. Instead, BJ showed us that you can simply highlight one correctly‑formatted instance of the term (AMWA18 in this case), hit Ctrl+C so it’s copied, and then open the find‑and-replace window. Enter the term you want to replace (AMWA18 in this case) in the “Find what” field, and then the characters ^c in the “Replace with” field. This instructs Word to use whatever was most recently placed in your clipboard. Pretty great timesaver!

During part of BJ’s talk, the person behind me couldn’t help but exclaim, “This is amazing!” I feel the same way every time BJ helps me figure out why something bizarre is happening in a document (eg, all the heading numbers have suddenly disappeared, or the table numbers are showing up in a seemingly random order), or shows me how to automate some repetitive task in Word. We are lucky to have him on our team at IMPACT. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to benefit from BJ and our other publishers’ wisdom.

Focused Authoring

Next up, Kimberly Jochman of Merck spoke about “Using a Focused Authoring Strategy to Create a Message‑Driven Deliverable.” The focused authoring approach (which some of us may also know as lean authoring) encourages a writing style that will help readers stay focused on the key messages. Kimberly explained that nowadays, our audiences are probably reading our documents on screen rather than in print. Reading on screen tends to entail more time browsing and scanning (rather than actually reading), spotting keywords, reading each section only once and likely in a nonlinear order, and reading more selectively. Thus, it’s more important than ever to make sure our points are coming across clearly.

The main idea behind focused authoring is to carefully consider whether each piece of text is needed, clear, and accurate. I won’t delve much into accuracy here; to that point, Kimberly emphasized the importance of making precise statements that allow for correct interpretation.

To ensure necessity:

  • Keep your particular audience in mind. Regulatory authorities, healthcare providers, academics, and patients each have different levels of technical knowledge and different interests.
  • Avoid repeating information in different sections, such as restating the methods in the results section. Use a hyperlinked cross-reference if needed; remember that when documents are read on a computer or other device, different sections are just “one click away.”
  • Present data in tables only, and write statements that interpret the data; a reviewer can look at the table to see what the numbers are.

To ensure clarity:

  • Maintain consistency throughout the document. Develop a style sheet early in the writing process, use terms the same way in all parts of the document, and use parallel structure (ie, present information in a fixed order).
  • Consider whether a figure or table may be easier to understand than text.

Above all, be concise. Kimberly’s rule of thumb is that every word should be needed, either to add information or to adhere to correct grammar. One of my favorite lessons of the day was when Kimberly advised us to use fewer words and simpler language whenever possible: “Don’t feel like you need to sound intelligent by using more words; instead, let the reader feel intelligent because they understand what you’re saying.”

One tip that raised some controversy was how to order information within a sentence (especially in longer sentences). Kimberly advised starting with the most important information, to be sure that the main point does not get lost. However, in their well-known 1990 American Scientist article “The Science of Scientific Writing,” George Gopen and Judith Swan instead suggest that the most important information should come at the end of a sentence, since the reader’s mind more naturally emphasizes that location. I do not know if more research has been done on this topic since 1990, especially with the rise of electronic devices for reading – so for now, just know that opinions may differ on how best to order information!

Kimberly further discussed how to set a team’s expectations when using a focused authoring approach, which may be different, unexpected, and even anxiety-provoking for some Sponsors. As writers, we can be proactive and describe the benefits of this approach at kick-off meetings. We can further emphasize in emails to our document reviewers some of what they should expect to see. And if we are having trouble getting certain team members on board, the next speaker had great tips on interpersonal relations and communication.

Dealing with Challenging People

The pre-lunch slot is always a tough one, but luckily Robin Whitsell of Whitsell Innovations, Inc., led a dynamic and engaging session titled “It’s Not Me, It’s You: Dealing with Challenging Teams and Coworkers.” She described 7 personality types whose mission, from the writer’s perspective, seems to be disrupting whatever we’re working on. We broke into groups, with each group assigned one of the personality types (Big Cheese, Editor, Tangent Ninja, Passive Aggressive, Bully, Credit Hound, and Crickets), and discussed our experiences with such people and how best to keep the project moving forward when you have a person like that on the team. A couple that stuck with me:

The Big Cheese. This person thinks their viewpoint is the most important, and has a tendency to bulldoze the other people in the room. They may have been with the company a long time, and will insist that “this is the way we do things.” Or perhaps they’ve spent time working somewhere else and use that to validate their opinion: “Well, when I was at the FDA, this is how we always did it, and of course we have to do it this way now.”

Some strategies for handling a Big Cheese included acknowledging their expertise, but not necessarily doing everything they say. Give them space to say their piece, and then bring the focus back to the document at hand. Ask if what they’re suggesting is necessary or nice to have. Try to pull other team members into the discussion. Perhaps most important, do NOT call out this person in group meetings if they are wrong or causing difficulties; address any issues privately.

The Credit Hound. This person thinks that the project is all about them, and all good ideas were theirs. When faced with someone who takes credit for everything, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps something was mentioned a while ago by another team member, and the Credit Hound has forgotten about that when it creeps into their head as a good idea now – they may truly believe it was their own idea. Also, if the person is a manager or project lead, they want to make sure things get done and might present an idea as their own to make sure it has the proper clout for others to follow.

Another great strategy is to set a tone in your workplace or team of naming the person who has an idea. For example, instead of “I think we should switch the order of these two sections,” go with “I agree with [insert name]’s suggestion to switch the order of these two sections.” This reminds everyone whose idea it really was, and makes it harder for someone to steal credit. Finally, while it’s critical for a variety of reasons to be acknowledged for your ideas, in the short-term it can help to take any credit thievery as internal validation that you thought of something great.

In general, Robin reminded us that regardless of what type of person we’re working with, we should always assume positive intent. This might require creating a narrative in our heads – for example, perhaps an aggressive team member is just really passionate about the drug development program and wants patients to benefit from it as much (and as soon) as possible. An attitude of assuming good intentions keeps our interactions civil and productive, and can help keep us happy in our jobs.

Lunch Break: Roundtable Discussions

Each table at lunch had a dedicated discussion topic related to some of the less technical aspects of medical writing, such as “Your Creative Side,” “Breaking in to Medical Writing,” and “Staying Fit/Work-life Balance.” I sat at a table with the topic “Working from Home,” led by September Mihaly (who also organized the conference). A few of the people at the table worked from home full time, a few had the option to work from home a couple days a week, and a few were trying to find positions that gave them more flexibility to work from home.

We shared methods for avoiding the pitfalls of working from home, such as:

  • Don’t let work creep into all parts of your life, both in terms of physical space – set up a dedicated home office! – as well as time – set a schedule for each day and stick to it!
  • To avoid isolation and build or maintain relationships, make a point to have phone calls with your colleagues from time to time, rather than exclusively using email.
  • Ensure that anyone you live with understands that when you are working from home, you are working. Being at home does not necessarily mean you have the time to wash the dishes, do the yardwork, provide “taxi” services, or chat throughout the day.

ISE and ISS Authoring

The first talk of the afternoon was from IMPACT’s Elaina Howard and Tim Garver on “Practical ISE and ISS Authoring Approaches That Support Marketing Application Approvals.” I won’t steal Elaina and Tim’s thunder; look out for future blog posts about authoring Integrated Summary of Effectiveness (ISE) and Integrated Summary of Safety (ISS) documents. (OK, I’ll give away one thing I learned – turns out the E does not stand for Efficacy!)

Editing Your Own Work

The final presentation of the day was from Hope Lafferty of Hope Lafferty Communications. She kept things lively while explaining the distinctions among the writing, editing, and proofreading processes:

  1. Writing should be the experimental phase: throw all your ideas down on paper without worrying too much about the wording.
  2. Editing involves tightening up the messages and sharpening the language.
  3. Hope described the proofreading process as “symbol recognition,” in which the reader is looking for hard errors such as typos, missing or repeated words, grammar, incorrect math, and inconsistent style.

Hope emphasized the need, while editing, to get back to a fresh mind about text you’ve been working on for a while. Cognitive compensation allows us to fill in things that aren’t there, or to rearrange letters or words into something that makes sense. Also, if you come back to do a read-through and find yourself skimming over part of a document because it’s boring or because you don’t like thinking about it, that is probably the part that needs the most work!

Additionally, Hope provided a number of concrete editing tips. For example, except for some uses of “only” or “significantly,” it is best to avoid adverbs in technical writing. There are also common redundancies that should be eliminated, such as “a time when” (simply say “when”), “future plans” (if they are “plans” then they are in the future), and “4 separate/different [studies, occasions, etc]” (enumerating them implies they are distinct).

Takeaways

Overall, I had a great experience at the AMWA Carolinas conference this year. Each of the talks touched on different aspects of the job of a medical writer, and I gained additional perspectives from chatting with the other attendees.

I hope you’ve found some of the tips I picked up the conference helpful, and if you’re a medical writer, perhaps I’ll see you there next year. If you have questions, or are looking for an author for your regulatory documents, please don’t hesitate to contact us at IMPACT!

All images in this post, except for the Microsoft Word screenshot created by the author, are from Pexels.com under a CC0 license.

Category: Medical Writing Services
Keywords:  Medical writing, AMWA, Microsoft Word, personality types, working from home, editing

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