Sunday, 19 October 2008

Advice to a Young Medical Student

A few months ago, an email caught my eye regarding a new student-led magazine on global health at the university. It's a topic that interests me and, although I'm now staff, I still feel like a student, so I thought I'd get involved. I was a bit short of time though, so I initially signed up to do a spot of proofreading, in order to get a feel for the set-up before I considered volunteering for anything more time-consuming.

A couple of months passed while the writers exercised their craft, and eventually some articles started to trickle through. A couple of things should have warned me how painful and frustrating the process would come to be. Firstly, it was rapidly apparent that the editor had failed to distinguish between the roles of a proofreader and a copy editor. Secondly, it was clear that many of the writers actually needed their craft exorcised.

That students at a Russell Group university should produce such poor writing left me open-mouthed. Not least medical students, a group I doggedly persist in thinking of as reasonably smart, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. Quite how they've got so far in life, and specifically in academia, without someone giving them guidance is beyond me. Having said that, a recent conversation with a public health trainee who had four years of clinical practice behind him revealed that he found the idea of having to write 10,000 words on anything a daunting proposition. This is roughly the length of the dissertation that is part of every undergraduate degree, apart from medicine. Ho hum.

Anyhoo. I should try to get something positive out of this situation. The following list should provide guidance for any undergraduate medics who are thinking of unleashing their writing on the world, and warning for any mugs who are thinking of volunteering to edit/proofread.

  1. It's not unreasonable to expect that formal writing should not involve (i) contractions (such as 'don't') (ii) cliches/idioms and (iii) inappropriate use of the first person. I was quite tempted to thank the student who started a paragraph, 'Now don't get me wrong...' for neatly breaking all three rules in one go.
  2. A paragraph has more than one sentence.
  3. When did you last see triple question marks in a quality periodical??? Did you not stop using this method of emphasis when you were at school???
  4. Using the line, 'The Oxford English Dictionary defines X as.....' is the kind of thing you do when you're twelve and you want everyone to know that you're smart cos you can use a dictionary.
  5. Gauge your audience, and pitch your writing to them. Informing university students of the dictionary definition of 'politics' is a bit patronising unless you're going to focus on some niche definition, or subvert the whole thing.
  6. Don't include new stuff in the concluding paragraph.
  7. Recognise the difference between an opinion piece and a fact piece. Heck, recognise the difference between journalism, blogging, and ranting.
  8. If the first paragraph tells me more about your personal prejudices than it does about the topic, you're doing something wrong.
  9. Africa is a bloody big continent. Don't write about 'Africa' as though your oh-so-insightful comments apply equally everywhere. And don't be paternalistic.
  10. Don't use Roman Numerals for references. You may think it looks more smart but it takes up stupid amount of space by the time you get to 28.
  11. Use appropriate sources. Telling me that London has an epidemic of TB on the basis of a BBC news article from SIX years ago that doesn't actually make that assertion is not clever. Nor is quoting an expert's comments from a controversial TV programme that may have been the victim of biased editing.
  12. Actually read a newspaper or a magazine and see how your writing compares. The Sun or Heat will do. Seriously.

I should point out that there were occasional glimmers of hope amid the gloom. Sometimes I picked up an article and thought, 'Praise the Lord! Some good writing!' It was at that point that it usually became apparent that the writer was either (i) not British and/or (ii) a non-medical student

I give up.

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