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Opinions of Saturday, 27 June 2009

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Re: Writing Like A Doctor

Certainly, Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, USA, has not come across many brilliant medical doctors in her very promising career. If any good doctor had read her recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he or she (or shall we say they) would most likely have questioned her assertion that doctors cannot tell their adjectives from their adverbs. Rachel eloquently tells the story of her friend, Godfrey, an academic physician who does not know what a semicolon does in a sentence, and is generally horrible at putting his thoughts on paper. She, however, admits that Godfrey is a very good conversationalist who could sustain a conversation for hours without boring his listener. She writes: “He knows how to tell a story in conversation. He knows which details will enhance suspense, which will come as a surprise. But when it comes to putting it on the page, those skills desert him. He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences. He endlessly repeats words and phrases. His language is complicated not only by terms of medical and scientific art, but by using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job.” I would not proceed to the next paragraph before debunking Rachel’s assertion. But before I do that I would be mindful of the words and phrases I employ, because I intend to give Rachel a copy of this crap for whatever she would make of it. In the article, Rachel, who is not a fan of students who start their essays with: “In society today…”, is quick to distinguish between an assertion and an argument. Is Rachel’s position on the communication skills of doctors an assertion or an argument? Well, she makes the case with some conviction, so we are comfortable to say that it is an assertion; what folks in drama and theatre would like to call a statement. Rachel is so concerned with the English of the medical fraternity that she doesn’t even trust her own doctor. She laments: “Even now, when I get letters from my own physician giving me the results of lab tests, I cringe. Can I really trust someone to interpret complicated data if she can't maintain control over her sentence structure?” In the dieing pages of the article, which she sarcastically titled Writing like a Doctor, she offers some important advice: “Communication is the fundamental element of most professions. Writing, as Plato reminded us, is a risky business. It should be approached with fear and trembling. Doctors and scientists might sometimes need a reminder that they are writing for humans.”

The person who drew my attention to Rachel’s article is a medical doctor who practices his trade in West Virginia, USA. He was working on an article for publication in a science journal, and felt he might need some editing assistance from me. Even though he is particularly good at what he does, and has submitted several papers for publication in some important academic and professional journals, he suddenly felt so miserable about his writing skills. He was quick to confess that he experiences his own version of the Golgotha whenever he composes himself to write a thing or two. He was worried that he spent too much time to think before he puts his pen to the pad, and sometimes he struggles to follow the train of his own thoughts. His solution, he believes, is not reading too many grammar books, but practising the art of effective communication by joining the Toastmasters, the educational organisation that helps people to improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. With some hesitation, I agreed to look at the paper he had spent weeks working on. He warned that it was full of scientific jargons, so I should ignore them and just check grammar and punctuation, and any other thing I deemed necessary. The paper was about conventional and microwave heating, and had been presented quite well. The title was quite off-putting for me: Enzymatic-mediated production of cellulose nanocrystals from recycled pulp. I also had to contend with terms like endoglucanase, monossacharides, cellobiohydrolases and biofillers. At least biofillers sounded quite familiar but it meant something very different from what I had in mind. All the same, I went through the script, jumping over all the minor grammatical slips that I should easily have corrected if I had read it like any other writing. I had satisfied myself that there was no way I would understand the sentences the doctor had written. So, I hurriedly sent it over to him, assuring him that it was a good paper. Then, as has become my custom, I picked up the printed copy and read it again, this time slowly, and realised that I had done a bad job by failing to spot the few mistakes, most of which were typos, anyway.

Unlike, Rachel’s friend, this medical doctor knows when to use a colon and a semicolon, and is mindful of the number of words he packs into a sentence. At a point, I wondered why he felt so concerned about his writing skills. Luckily, the paper was accepted and published in the journal shortly thereafter. He was kind enough to mail me a copy, which I still keep among the junk of papers stashed under my computer desk. When I realised that he had regained the confidence he has always had in himself, after the publication of the article, as we all do, I asked him why he felt I would do a better job at writing anything than him. He was almost impatient to submit: “But you are a writer, and you would not go through what some of us go through.” Then gradually, I explained to him the difficulty that even bestselling authors and speakers go through before they are able to write a word or speak a sentence. I narrated to him my experience when I visited an accomplished journalist at his home in London years ago. I met him typing his column for the week, and watched the ace writer pause several times for as long as it would take a bird to hatch its young, to write a sentence. He would then press the backspace button to erase the entire construction and start again. Occasionally, he would pop his head up and look at the title, get the cursor to it and attempt to change the words in it. He would leave it as it was, only to come back to shorten it. Then he would regurgitate the words he threw away and plant them right where they were. Eventually, when the paper came out, he would read just portions of his article and say to himself: “I could have done better.”

Many of us could do a lot better at communication if we recognised that writing and public speaking are generally difficult for everybody, even for the most accomplished of writers and speakers. But while they work at it, we just toast it. My medical doctor friend, who by the way, made a grade 2 in English at the GCE Ordinary Level examinations in 1991, wonders whether he would have found writing easier if English was his mother tongue. In his Toastmasters club in America, he is the only black member, and he is doing fine. He hasn’t won any awards yet but he admits that his public speaking skills have improved considerably. Yet, he still harbours some fears – fears born out of his non-liberal arts background. He thinks those who read Shakespeare for academic evaluation, and were quizzed on Wordsworth to test how much their words were worth, should have better communication skills than him. So, whenever he asks me the meaning of a word, and I refer him to the dictionary, he becomes disappointed. He thinks I should know the meanings of all the words in the dictionary, because I studied English at university and have been writing for a long time. He knows nearly everything in the human body and the functions they perform, so he cannot understand why a writer with an English degree would foam at the mouth at the mention of some English words.

Of course, some people are naturally good at communication, both in its oral and written forms. They don’t strain or go through hell, unlike most of us. They would excel at giving extempore speeches than others who had a month to prepare to speak on the same subject. It comes to them, naturally, just like the way a leaf comes to a tree. At the Communication school in Legon, I had a mate who was so good at public speaking that he could speak volumes off the cuff. He needn’t prepare nor think about how he needed to say what he had say; it just came to him. Unfortunately, we heard that he couldn’t say much when he had to say only a few words to get the most docile of girls to kiss him, even when their tongues stuck out. Or maybe he talked a great deal that he ended up talking above their heads. Many of us wondered how he was able to talk that dame he now lives with into marrying him. Well, maybe she did the talking, thanks to feminism.

Is it so much how to say it, so that it leaves that instinctive sense of what must be said, or it is so much those dreaded words that must be spoken so well, so that they grow organically with time, catching hold of public sentiment? Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ would have been a nightmare if it had been delivered by another friend of mine. The rendition of that speech is what sent it down into history as one of the greatest. The forthrightness of the political metaphors is what made Margaret Thatcher’s The Lady Is Not For Turning legendary. Compare Charles De Gaulle’s The Flame of The French Resistance with Churchill’s We shall Fight on The Beaches, and you would realise how pitch and tone combine with the mood of the occasion to make Nelson Mandela’s An Ideal For Which I am Prepared to Die, worth dieing to listen to. If you were an audience member in the Capitol Building when Franklin Roosevelt touched the collective nerve of America with his inaugural address in 1933, you left believing that The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself. Sometimes, it is not the rhetorical flourish or the oratorical fireworks that make a speech tick; it is when the speakers speak their mind.

Not many of us can speak like the worst public speaker in history, not even with David Frum as coach and Theodore Sorenson as mentor. We are scared at the thought that people are listening to what we have to say, even if it is one person. Being terrible at public speaking is sometimes excusable, especially if you are not in a profession that requires a lot of public appearances, but not being able to write down your thoughts, the disease that Rachel’s medical doctor friend suffers, is difficult to comprehend. I can understand Rachel’s frustration at seeing Godfrey write as if he was raised by wolves. She asks: “How did you manage to graduate from such fancy-pants schools if you can’t even write a sentence?” The irony is that doctors are usually trained at very good schools, where medical facilities are available. Besides, it is usually the best brains who make the high marks required for medical school admission. Not everybody can be a medical doctor, but nearly any buffoon can be a lawyer. The assumption that the lawyer needs good communication skills more than the doctor is flawed. The Police needs it most.

Benjamin Tawiah

Email: quesiquesi@hotmail.co.uk