I was enticed away from cultivating my garden the other day to run a short session on writing and editing.
The invitation came from my friends in the BMJ, and my first instinct was to turn it down.
But then I remembered that a fourth edition of one of my books had just been released and I was meant to be spreading the word about it. So I suggested the Wordsmiths’ Olympics – a fun afternoon in which we would divide the editorial staff into teams and set them working on various editorial-related tasks.
The event got off to a fine start when I offered the teams a quote from Shakespeare shorn of punctuation – with the challenge to see how many different versions they could produce. The winning entry was well into double figures.
They then got stuck into some of the finest examples of gobbledegook from my personal collection (see below). I am pleased to report that the professional editors did not find them easy to unravel.
As a bit of light relief I gave them a list of 10 quotes about writing – and some multiple choices as to their author. I don’t think anyone suspected that 'Analysis, reflection, much writing, ceaseless correction – there is all my secret' was not the work of Johnson or Dickens but of JS Bach. And no one knew (or guessed) that Cicero, Franklin and Pascal have all been considered responsible for: 'I am sorry this is such a long letter; I did not have time to write a short one.' Most people assumed it was Mark Twain, which my Google searches assured me was never the case.
For the next challenge I handed out a recent BMJ article. In the old days I would have asked them to write a headline or two – perhaps for a tabloid and a ‘heavy’ newspaper. Now, on request, the task was to write a tweet. They had no trouble with that; i did.
The final challenge was to draft a short rejection sentence and in this they excelled. One team went so far as to suggest that the article was so good the authors should send it to a journal with a higher impact factor.
It was all great fun and I suspect some learning did take place.
My own take-home message was that, though technological developments are coming quick and fast, there is still a need for the core skills of getting the right words in the right place in the right order. And that’s a skill that needs constant nurturing.
1. It has been established that the curtailed treatment schedule may offer perceived social and medical advantages for patients, with the additional benefit of it being more economical.
2. The whole purpose of reaching agreement in respect of maintaining disagreements that occur within an internal framework has been known for many years. We would therefore ask you on this occasion as we have done in the past to continue to use the further stages in the internal procedure if you so desire in order that no accusations can be levelled at either side for failing to abide by agreements.
3. Comparing time intervals between the accident and intubation to death and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) rates within the first 48 hours in the intensive care unit, the rates of death and DNR for patients incubated at the scene of the accident within one hour and patients incubated after arrival at the hospital within the same time interval were similar.
4. To reduce the impact of ceiling effects, the proportion of cases in which clinicians failed to carry out each clinical practice was recorded for each obstetric unit at baseline and follow-up, and then baseline to follow-up ratios were computed to yield the risk ratio for failure to implement each practice in each unit.
5. The editors reserve the right to make literary corrections. Please couch terminology so that it will be understood by an international readership.
'Beautifully written ... a rare good autobiography'
A cub on the moor: a short talk on life as a country reporter in the 1970s. Available for Rotary Clubs, Probus, U3A and other groups.
Winning the publications game: the groundbreaking book on writing scientific papers