“You want it by when?”

Br J Cardiol 2012;19:62–3 Leave a comment
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We continue our series in which Consultant Interventionist Dr Michael Norell takes a sideways look at life in the cath lab… and beyond. In this column, he muses on deadlines upcoming and gone.

Like it or not, we all have pressures upon us to meet a deadline of some form or other. It might be for a book chapter or an editorial invited by a journal. It might be for your considered peer review and refereeing of a manuscript submitted to an esteemed, high impact publication, or for a structured reference to support a promising trainee facing an imminent job interview.

How we approach such a task, which by its nature comes with a defined timeline, is variable. Often the actual delivery of the piece is the easy bit; it is the creative aspect of the work that is so arduous and consumes most of the time period between accepting the proposal and finally pressing the ‘send’ key.

By way of reassurance, when I use the word ‘creative’ above I am certainly not applying that term to the last on that list and the recommendation of a trainee for his or her next appointment. That process has now become more of a tick box exercise, which assesses those qualities highlighted in the General Medical Council’s guidance on ‘Good Medical Practice’.

Publishing blues

Some years ago, I and three other valued colleagues were asked to edit a textbook of interventional cardiology. Forty internationally renowned practitioners were approached to produce various chapters covering all aspects of cardiovascular intervention.

This venture was very successful and I have nothing but the highest regard for all the hard work put in by the many authors involved. (As it happens this classic tome is available from Amazon; details available upon request). So, the following observations in no way apply to that project but are more based upon a good few years of personal experience in writing columns and articles, commissioning features and editorials, and editing and proofing copy generally.

I have come to the view that no-one in their right mind would willingly write a book chapter; there is no financial reward or inducement, other than the remote possibility of receiving a free copy of the final volume. Already well established individuals who are approached with such a request are unlikely to need yet another entry into the ‘publications’ section of their curriculum vitae.

So, needless to say that, as a sweetener, it is made clear that they might wish to do this in conjunction with a colleague, trainee or fellow who is far more likely to pounce on an opportunity to become published – and quite right too.

Then comes the issue of the deadline. Here, you have to be realistic, sensitive and yet firm. In theory you would want all the commissioning letters to go out to authors at around the same time and perhaps allow at least three months in which to receive back a near final draft. That would then give time for editing, applying what is known as “house style” and proofing, before all parties are happy with the final version.

It sounds easy doesn’t it? Well…

Deadline, what deadline?

For various reasons not all potential authors are asked at the same time so a certain amount of staggering occurs. Their own work commitments will often influence any proposed deadline and human nature is such that the degree to which each of us understands any requisite timeline and what the term ‘deadline’ actually means, is open to a degree of interpretation.

There are those that will produce a near final version almost by return of post. Such individuals, whilst highly valued, are rare and one is left wondering whether they should actually get out a bit more.

Then there are those (like me) who pin up the commissioning paperwork on their office wall with every intention of getting around to it in due course. Every so often we peer at it and think to ourselves, “I should really start thinking about that soon”, and then let a couple more weeks go by. Then we might email our trainee who has actually been tasked with the assignment querying, “How are you doing with that chapter? Is there a first draft I can look at?”

The pace of the work involved then accelerates exponentially depending upon how seriously we have accepted the original agreement particularly in terms of its timescale. The idea of a classic volume going to print without your chapter is unacceptable; you wake at night, sweating with visions of an enthusiastic reader heading specifically to the section on “Theoretical considerations in coronary stent design and construction”, only to be crestfallen – if not suicidal – when he is greeted by an apology on behalf of the editors followed by sixteen blank pages.

And there are others – thankfully equally rare in number – who just never deliver.

Reminder letters, with subtly increasing hints of desperation, are sent out and eventually the manuscripts start coming in. By the time the long awaited chapter from the last author lands on the doormat, one then starts to receive plaintive correspondence from the initial  “early adopters”. Given the often significant time since they – in good faith – submitted their copy, they (not unreasonably) feel that their piece should be refreshed so as to reflect recent advances in their area of expertise. Quite rightly they would not wish their contribution to viewed as “out of date”.

So the ticking clock is allowed to stop in order to allow such a request. No sooner has the first updated version appeared than a similar request arrives from the next efficient author in line.

And so to press

This process could, at least in theory, go on endlessly and so at some juncture an editor has got to define some form of census date at which point “enough is enough”. This usually works out but the result is often that a book is eventually published well after its intended date and will often lag a little behind current practice or not necessarily include the very latest developments or trial results.

Writing anything is hard enough but is made far more onerous when one has the pressure of a deadline looming.  I am reminded of a scene in the 1987 film ‘Throw Mama from the Train’ in which struggling author Billy Crystal, whilst laid low with writers’ block, is trying to begin a novel but can never get any further than the opening line, “The night was dark”. Repeatedly he tears each attempt from his typewriter, screws up the paper and tosses it into a waste bin already overflowing with identical previous attempts.

It is a bit like trying as hard as you can to get to sleep; i.e. impossible.

As you may have appreciated, the particular deadline for this piece has come and gone. Whether or not the editors of this august journal allow me a bit of latitude, being a regular customer as it were, remains to be seen. I guess if you are reading this then I have just made it!