Saturday, March 22, 2008

Get Real: Vetting Your Work


Get Real: Vetting Your Work

Are you a human being?
If yes, continue. If no, go plug yourself into a socket.
Are you interested in writing?
If yes, continue. If no, go work on a crossword puzzle.
Are you interested in someday publishing, in any way shape or form?
If yes, continue. If no, go find a snack.
Okay, if you said no, I’ll give you one more chance.
If not interested in publishing, what about interest in having more than one person on the planet read your work (not counting you)?
If yes, you may continue. If no, bite me.
Are you interested in putting the ‘best’ product out there?
If yes, continue. If no, go write a poem about angels using 14 mixed metaphors.
Now the capper!
Have you vetted your work?
If no, read on.
If…not sure what vet means- you definitely should continue. If yes, go ahead and read it anyway; as my Yiddish grammy used to say, “it voodn’t hurt!”

Definition of vet.. to subject to thorough examination or evaluation: vet a manuscript.

Okay, that was a bit harsh. But you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t have a clue where I’m going, but the hook was so good, you’re willing to read at least one more paragraph.

I’m going to approach this a little sideways, and perhaps by the end you’ll get some idea of what I’m trying to say. I’m a scientist, by profession (I write poetry too). I think I can say that awful word (scientist) with some degree of certainty, partly because I’ve worked in a laboratory for over 25 years, but also because I’ve published over 60 papers in peer-reviewed journals. Before you get all ruffled and think this is yet another academic snob spewing forth self-righteous self-accolades, let me quickly tell you I have no multiple initials following my name. I’ve no masters, I’ve no PhD, but I do have over 60 papers published in peer-reviewed journals (obnoxious for effect). I personally think that means a lot more than a degree. I also think degrees mean something, but not always. I’ve seen an awful lot of pretty inept PhD’s float through our labs, some that can’t pipet squat, others that can’t think their way out of a test tube, still others quite incapable of holding a conversation with anything but a computer screen and/or a pencil.

One thing remains clear. When I want to know what’s up in the lab, how to plan an experiment, where to insert a gene, how long to incubate an enzyme reaction, I do one thing almost exclusively: I consult a published paper. So, what’s so terrible about that? What I’m doing is relying on past experience. On collective experience that has stood the test of time as well as multiple reviews and peer-vetting. That’s a good thing. And when I do that, I don’t just turn to any old journal. I consult the best indexes, choose the best journals, as universally accepted by my colleagues. Then I find the journal article that best relates to the problem at hand. I trust the findings (insofar as reason allows), because the research has been reviewed (vetted) beforehand by a team of experts. (There you go, cringing again!) I know experts is a dirty word. And it gets worse when you invoke: a team of experts. But what’s wrong with the idea? Is there a better alternative? Should we consult a team of beginners? I don’t think we’d do that with our medical problems.

In science, there's a huge spectrum of journals in which one can be published. Some are universally recognized as being top tier journals, others have more loose qualifications and prerequisites, and some lower end journals you just don’t want to be seen in. But, for the most part, to be published in a scientific journal, one’s work must be vetted by a board of reviewers chosen by the editorial board to be proficient in the area which the investigation is reporting. This makes for a highly competitive and rigorous acceptance protocol the net result of which is a high degree of veracity and reliability of the final product. I’ve participated in many, many rounds of the review process. It’s really quite fascinating, and there’s a good deal of plasticity built into the system. Reviewers interact with the submitters and edits are made along the road to publication. That’s a good thing, and there’s really no equivalent, that I’ve found, in other disciplines. Without benchmark standards, we don’t have criteria to judge what is good and what is bad.

I want to draw a comparison between vetting scientific work (by submitting to journals) and vetting your writing. The former is rigorous and pretty established. You have clear cut options. The latter, vetting your writing, is a much more nebulous proposition, and one needs to be careful in drawing similar conclusions about what is art, versus what is science, for example.

On should strive to have their writing viewed by a discriminating eye if one wishes to improve. To settle for anything less is to settle for deception, a path of least resistance accommodated by many a writer, including yours truly. But it’s worth it to go the extra mile and look for a friend or associate you trust who can give you candid and discerning feedback without a sugar coating. Further, one should always take casual praising with a huge shaker full of salt. It’s good to get it. But too much can be intoxicating. In online forums, especially, it can be an all-consuming opiate (see above flowchart if I’m losing you here… remember, if you don’t want to publish, feel free to get a Reader’s Digest and turn on the tube).

I think the problem is not that one can’t find suitable avenues to vet your work, but more that one is not, ultimately, really interested or prepared to take that kind of input and use it to a worthwhile end. It may seem like an obstacle, but it doesn’t take long to get used to critical remarks, especially from a friend or associate sharing your common interest to improve a craft.

Extrapolating from informed friends, internet groups and writing forums to- heaven forbid- journal editors or publishing houses may seem daunting, but take heart! You take the steps necessary to walk as far as you want to go. If you want to be good, and you want to be read, you’ll work hard to improve, vet your work, seek earnest and critical feedback, and finally, if you really have the stomach for it, you’ll vet your work to publishers, and work your way up the feeding chain. Some of you will go right to the top. Most, if you’re like me, will find you’re not as good as you had hoped or dreamed… but you'll land on your feet and have as much ink as you need. At least you’re walking in the real world. Planet earth, last time I checked.