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One Year of Word Surgery and Diplomacy: Editing The Doctor’s Tablet

Chocolate candy bar - a gift

A sweet treat to say "thanks" from a happy blog author!

The outreach email began in earnest as shaky fingers hovered nervously over the “send” field:

“As you may know, we’re expanding our social media footprint yet again with the launch of a blog, titled The Doctor’s Tablet. . . . We would be delighted if you would participate and are reaching out to seek your blog submissions.”

“Does that sound contrived?” we second-guessed ourselves. “What if no one responds?”

And so began the wild ride of co-editing Einstein’s blog, The Doctor’s Tablet. One year, 100 posts and a sea of ink-black coffee later, we’re still tapping away! We thought we’d pause and reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve learned.

The structure of our blog is almost entirely multiauthor. From the start we decided that our role as co-editors would be to encourage our faculty members to share their opinions, experiences and expertise on biomedical research, clinical medicine, medical education and health policy.

Anyone who has ever edited a multiauthor blog knows the cycle well: cast the net wide for content, hone your pitch about why anyone should provide content for free—then wait patiently (okay, pray) for posts to arrive in your inbox.

It’s thrilling to work with such an accomplished group of doctors, researchers and health professionals. These are bright minds with big ideas expressing concepts and perspectives that broaden our thinking and, at times, challenge convention.

But we’d be fibbing if we didn’t admit to occasional doubts about our ability to edit what can be complex, highly nuanced posts. The pressure is on to shape submitted drafts while “doing no harm” to intended viewpoints or relations with our colleagues.

For the most part reaction has been positive. As we were preparing a draft of this post, a faculty blogger whose post we recently edited arrived at our offices unannounced—bearing a large bar of milk chocolate in appreciation.

But we can assure you it’s not all sweetness and light.

Surveys we’ve conducted show that our blog’s target audience is mixed: about half academics, researchers and students, and the other half nonscientists interested in health. Striking the balance between these audiences can, at times, feel like a high-wire act. Sure, it would be easier if we chose one audience over the other—but where’s the fun in that?

Academics are in the business of submitting scholarly papers and writing technical grants and other densely worded prose. A blog post, on the other hand, might be 500 or 600 words written at the eighth-grade level. Sentences are short. The flow is breezy (we hope!). (Yes, this post is longer than usual, we know, but hey, we’re the editors.)

The biggest challenge remains diffusing the tension created when faculty members feel that their concepts and arguments are being compromised and we, as editors, are adamant that copy must be adjusted to ensure that our entire readership understands the post. That act of negotiating with our authors we think improves our blog.

Still, old habits die hard. Both of us are former journalists. Our impulse at times is to make sure posts are “balanced.” But that’s not where the blog shines. Our bloggers are writing to express fiercely held opinions and viewpoints, not document the news. We still need to check our facts and qualify statements, though, when necessary.

One big lesson we’re learning is how to better manage the fine line between offering directional guidance to our bloggers and reworking their thoughts.

When approaching an edit we now leave copy alone until submitted drafts are thoroughly read at least twice. We both read every submitted post.

“What is the big picture in this post?” we ask. “What central points are being made?”

From there, we provide suggestions on how copy might be adjusted and point out gaps in data or flow. What we try to avoid at all costs is rewriting pieces.

We think our editorial restraint has begun to pay off. Word is getting out that we welcome thoughtful, opinionated content. Blog posts have started to arrive unsolicited (a gift from above!).

In November, one of our Featured Contributors was fired up about what he felt was a misleading Dr. Oz segment on the dangers of slow walking. The unsolicited post generated hundreds of views and much discussion on Twitter. Two weeks later, the horror of Sandy Hook violence hit and another faculty member provided an impromptu and welcome post offering guidance to parents struggling to find the right words to use to console their children.

On a recent lighter note, a faculty member riding the elevator with us spontaneously fished out a potential post from her handbag as we reached our building’s lobby! How’s that for enthusiasm? And some faculty members have begun reaching out privately, asking us to help them navigate what is for them the brave new world of blogging.

Traffic to and interest in our blog has grown considerably. Both our faculty and external guest posters have enthusiastically supported our efforts. We also want to acknowledge the support of colleagues at the Association of American Medical Colleges (@AAMCToday) and @HealthSocMed. The latter, an engaged community on the weekly Sunday night #hcsm Twitter chat, is a source of inspiration, keen ideas and good cheer.

We sincerely thank all of you. The gradual embrace of our blog has made those pots of coffee and 1 a.m. sessions worth it!

When we started our blog, one of the first pieces of advice we received was to make a long-term commitment and refuse to give up. Keep focused on content, we were advised, and readers will come.

We’re still learning. Still growing. And we warmly welcome your thoughts on which direction you’d like to see The Doctor’s Tablet head next.

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