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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Possibly the greatest writing lesson I ever received happened one afternoon when I was at my work-study job at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR. I was a research assistant for a young Assistant Professsor in the Medical Psychology department. He was fierce in his devotion to research, and especially to writing about it. He was also having a very good start to his career. He would take on a subject about which he know little, like, say, pregnancy and smoking, and study it hard and long, and then write about it and get published in good journals. THAT is hard work, let me tell you!

So this particular afternoon, I come in at about 1PM, and he’s sitting his desk, with a single sheet of paper in front him, and a yellow legal pad. The desktop is bare, otherwise. He gives me my instructions for the day, and I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me “This is the introduction to my new article I’m about to submit. I’m trying to get it right”. That single sheet of paper contained what looked like 3 paragraphs.

I go off to the computer center (I have distinct statistical analysis skills and have had them for a long time, and that was my focus on this day). At 4 PM, three hours later, I return to his office. He’s still there, sitting, staring at what is now a legal pad with notes on it. “Having problems with the writing?” I asked helpfully. “Oh no,” he says. “What most people don’t realize is that writing isn’t easy. I have graduate students ask me ‘how do you do it – what’s the trick?’” (He wrote like an angel – it was clear and effortless to read. Simply gorgeous – and that’s not easy to do in a psychological research report!)

“There is no trick,” he explained. “It’s just hard, so you work at it.” I left him there, sitting at the desk. I’m sure his piece got published. It seemed they always did, and he did about 3 a year.

I’ve written a great deal since then, including a 300+ page Master’s thesis. It’s all proven him right, although if you keep at it, you do acquire a certain grace relative to simply starting, and to more or less getting things decent in the first draft. Beyond that…hard work.

So, there you are. “Blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” It could be worse. The silence of a blank sheet of paper is worse.

One last thought: I have observed over the years that serious writers all seem to share a common trait: We write out of necessity. We cannot not do it. It’s how we pull form out of our own chaotic minds, not to mention the collective chaos of those around us. It just has to happen. Resistance is futile. I do not object.

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Since about November, 2008, I have been slowly working to improve the Posttraumatic stress disorder article at WikiPedia. It’s been fun, though at times inordinately time-intensive. Much of the article awaits my planned revisions, and I’m the only MHP (mental health professional) working on it, at the moment. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who ever has. (More about that later…)

A few of the article’s sections are looking rather good. Medication (which took me 3 days!) is great, and Epidemiology is about 90% there. Other sections aren’t bad, but lack adequate references, or need their references checked (people can be incredibly sloppy). Some need a complete rewrite. Overall, the whole article needs some basic reorganization, which it’s about to get.

Wikipedia has enormous exposure on the Internet. It’s among the top 5 most-visited sites on the Internet. Of those, it’s the only one that’s non-profit. Its influence on a large segment of Internet users and various organizations and publications is truly impressive, and well surveyed here.

It’s also enormous. Nine years old, it currently has 14 million articles. Not words. Articles. Whew. Someone has a lot of free time, yes? In truth, I think it’s more about the passions of a small group of individuals, and the desire to share, than about free time.

It’s written collaboratively. You can go write there, if you like, but…you’ll have company. You’ll have to learn to work cooperatively, and to take the time to learn a little of the culture. There definitely are some rules and traditions you’re expected to play along with. Pretty much all good stuff, to be sure, but with some particulars you do need to know.

A certain amount of it appears overly influenced by popular culture, and an almost (heck – distinctly, at times!) adolescent point of view. But, for all that, there are reams of articles there which are very carefully written, meticulously documented, and flagrantly informative, if I may put it that way. A recently published study found its accuracy compared quite well with that of the Encyclopedia Britannica.[1]

When needing some quick information about some serious topic, Wikipedia is often the first place I turn. If nothing else, the references and links at the end of an article will quickly point me to some excellent information sources. But I usually get  much more than that.

Still, quality varies broadly, so it’s best that you know a little about your subject before reading a Wikipedia article, so you can filter the rocks out of the humus.

So, when I found that one of my clients with PTSD was reading about it there, I reviewed the article, and I was both intrigued and bothered. Some material in the article was excellent, but other major parts were poorly written, dubiously sourced (i.e., using shabby references), or simply irrelevant. I was annoyed. After some thought, I decided to try to fix it. But…I was totally new to Wikipedia, so I started slowly.

I hung out at the article’s Talk page for a while, and wrote some rather long and detailed answers to various questions. Suitably warmed up, I began contributing to the article itself. Slowly it dawned on me that I basically had no competition. There is only one other health care professional  involved with the article, at times, but he’s not a mental health professional, much less an anxiety disorders specialist. So, as it turns out, as long as I do my work according to accepted conventions (write clearly, make sense, and source major assertions with obvious authoritative references), I’m not challenged.  And, because of Wikipedia’s exposure and influence,  I’m feeling like I’m making a real contribution. At the very least, I can begin to stop worrying about what my clients might be learning about PTSD at Wikipedia!

So why am I so alone, as a major contributor to the article? I can only conjecture. In my personal experience, my MHP peers are a very caring, committed, and somewhat narrowly focused group of folks. Granted, work + family = little free time for many people, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Many MHPs don’t write much, if anything at all. Many are not exactly enthralled by research-oriented psychotherapy. Few have much interest in community education or outreach issues. So, who’s left? Apparently, not many people at all.

I recently appealed for help on an Internet Discussion list I started some years ago. It has about 200 members, and a number of them are quite serious folks. I got no takers. OK…I guess I’m on my way to being the sole professional source for Wikipedia’s PTSD article. I do hope to have company at some point. It can only work to improve the article. However, I’ll stay with it until it meets my standards, which are definitely demanding. How demanding? Well, my Masters thesis in Counseling Psychology ran 385 pages, and I was told I’d written a dissertation. Didn’t get a Ph.D. for it, though.

Notes

1. Jim Giles (December 2005). “Internet encyclopedias go head to head”. Nature 438: 900–901. doi:10.1038/438900a. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html.

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It is in my nature to speak both plainly and rather more often than some (many?) other people. I trust the process of dialog, for one thing. And that of reason, as well. I also trust human nature – which I know not to be neutral at all, but rather distinctly biased toward the good.

Some people feel a reticence about speaking out, especially when taking a view opposite to that of some other person. In the silence that follows, we are all losers. I would prefer that we support the idea of, and offer models of, civil dialog. What we talk about we are less likely to fight about, or to allow to become a barrier between us.

What have we to fear? If our concern is to uncover an ever greater truth, then all that is at risk is the lessening of ignorance – ours or someone else’s. That is not something to be feared!

So…you are most certainly invited to talk back, here. Just wanted to make that very clear. And…I will hope for balance, thoughtfulness, and openness to alternatives, in the dialog which you will thereby create with me. We can never get enough practice doing that sort of thing.

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