A number of years ago, when I held a Director-level medical writing position in the Healthcare practice at a major PR firm, I was given the assignment of writing a background document on a certain disease area (I don’t remember which one). I spent an hour or two on research, and then another couple of hours writing a first draft, based on my research. I then showed the draft to Timmy, the young account executive who was supposedly supervising the project. He read a few paragraphs and started shaking his head. “Peter, I was hoping you’d just give us some of your thoughts on this disease area. I didn’t mean for you to be influenced by any outside information you might find.” Flabbergasted, I sputtered that I didn’t consider myself an expert in the disease area, and that I didn’t know how to write about it without doing some research. Nevertheless, Timmy (not his real name) told me to give it another try.

And try I did, though I didn’t get anywhere. I did express my frustration to Timmy’s supervisor, who was out of town, running a client event. I told her I was frustrated by the vague direction from Timmy, and asked if I could get some pertinent source material to inform the document. Next thing I knew, I was taken off the project, and that supervisor never gave me another assignment for the rest of my time at that agency. (As for Timmy, I’m not sure what happened to him. He left the agency several months later. He seemed more interested in ingratiating himself to clients than in doing actual work, but that’s another story.)

I’ve often thought about that incident in the intervening years. Here’s what I wish I’d done in that situation: First, I would have paged Timmy to come to my office. As he entered, I would’ve asked him to sit down. Next, I would have said:

“Let me explain to you about writing, Timmy. Writing is not magic. I can’t just pull something brilliant out of my ass. For me to write something that meets our client’s needs, I need background, I need input, I need direction. Without any of those things, the best I can produce is bullshit. Do you think our client is paying us all this money to produce bullshit?” Pause. “I don’t think so, either. Now, why don’t you go back to your desk, spend a little time going through your files, and forward me some pertinent background information so I can produce a draft that we can all be proud of?”

Timmy then would’ve sheepishly gone back to his desk and done what I’d asked, and the result would have been something far more satisfactory, perhaps brilliant.

In truth, the collaborative process usually works much better than in that unfortunate situation. My agency contacts are generally very good at providing me with the information I need, or in pointing me in the direction of useful information. But there are still occasions that make me cringe, such as when an agency colleague tells a pharma or biotech client (while I’m listening in on the conference call), “Thanks for the update. Now we’ll hand off the information to Peter and let him do his magic.”

I’m flattered that my clients think so highly of me, but I think they sometimes give me undue credit. I suppose that’s the price I sometimes pay for being thorough and conscientious in my work; it can engender lofty expectations, which can make me nervous. But I think another factor is at play here: clients are often too busy to think things through (see another recent blog of mine, “Outsourcing Thinking”), and they sometimes rely on others to do their thinking for them.

Just this week, I was on a call with an agency contact who asked me to write a few lines about genetic testing for a brochure the agency is preparing for a biotech client. “What about genetic testing?” I asked. “Well, we just need a few lines about the value of genetic testing for the patient,” my contact explained. “I found a couple of websites, but I don’t know if any of that information is accurate. It’d be better for you to write it.”

“Do we have a point of view about genetic testing, or any approved messaging about the topic for this client?” I asked. No, I was told. It seemed I was expected to create something brilliant without much direction. I thus found it necessary to thank my agency contact for giving me so much credit, while reminding her that I don’t know everything, and there are areas of healthcare and medical science that fall outside my range of expertise. Ultimately, I got my agency contact to agree to take a stab at the content herself, and then to send me the draft, along with a link to her online source information. Armed with the source material (and its appropriate context), I was able to edit the piece to everyone’s satisfaction, without having to start the research process from Square One.

While I acknowledge that my contacts at the agencies I consult for are under considerable pressure to meet their clients’ needs, and may not have had the same level of training I received when I entered the PR world, there are days when I wonder if anything has changed since the days of Timmy and his questionable work ethic. I ask my colleagues in medical writing, does this ring familiar to any of you?