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Perils of writing for The Journal

By Sarah Marshall

Think carefully before you agree to write for The Pharmaceutical Journal, warns contributor Sarah Marshall

See other Christmas miscellany articles 


My early childhood career plans were diverse and included carpet designer (I liked colouring patterns), dress maker (I enjoyed making clothes for my dolls) and teacher (my role when my long-suffering brother and I played schools). Watching a television series about Marie Curie sparked an interest in science and research (which would eventually manifest itself in a PhD).

Then, as I grew older, I began to write teenage angst poetry and flirted with the idea of writing. At 16, I started work as a Saturday girl at Boots The Chemists. Insight into the role of the pharmacist combined with a catastrophic failure of English literature A-level, set me on the path to pharmacy.

However the beauty of pharmacy is its breadth and many years later, at home with young children, I found myself with the opportunity to fulfil my writing ambitions. It began with a commission for Tomorrow’s Pharmacist to write about working abroad, since I had lived and worked in the Middle East and the Netherlands for eight years. I found it hugely satisfying to research and write about a topic and it provided an intellectual stimulus to life at home with toddlers.

I then went on to write about frankincense for The Journal’s Christmas miscellany (PJ, 20/27 December 2003, pp862–4), having lived in Oman where frankincense has been grown for millennia. Logical sequels myrrh and gold followed.

It was then that the trouble began. I decided to venture into a clinical topic. My then five-year old daughter had suffered repeated recurrences of scarlet fever, entailing seven weeks’ absence in her first year of school. The experience was traumatic, especially coinciding as it did with my father-in-law’s death at the other end of the country.

I ended up knowing more than I had ever wanted to about the condition and decided to share that knowledge by writing an article in The Journal about it (22 July 2006, p115).

I was asked if I wanted to write more clinical pieces, and commissions on cough, chest infections and sore throats followed. It seemed, however, that a disturbing trend was emerging. Was it me or did we seem to be developing the symptoms of the conditions I was writing about?

Some commissions I accepted on the basis that I had prior personal as well as professional knowledge of the subject. For example, I wrote about slap cheek because I had developed viral arthropathy when on a family holiday in St Ives (25 July 2009, p100), and covered hay fever since allergic rhinitis runs (if you will excuse the pun) in the family (25 April 2009 p489).

However, it seemed to be a marked coincidence that when I did not have recent personal experience of a topic I would soon develop it during the research. They say “write about what you know” but the adage doesn’t say “know what you write about”!

To my concern the association seems to be strengthening. Having submitted two pieces on chickenpox for the Learning & Development section last summer (2010) we went on holiday to rural Ireland. After a week my daughter came out in a few odd looking midge bites and then a high fever. It rapidly became evident that she had chickenpox.

Two weeks later my son scored 1,000 spots (boredom made us resort to counting them). The only advantage was that, although I was away from any reference sources, I was acutely aware of the evidence base for treatments and potential alarm symptoms. However, worse was to come.

On my return I received an email from the editor I work with at The Journal. “I am working from home” she wrote. “Because I have chickenpox”! The phenomenon was spreading to my work colleagues, at a distance of 500 miles. No one was safe.

Writing strategy

I am beginning to choose my subjects with care. I am reasonably happy to write about malaria, given that the risk of malaria being contracted in the UK is negligible, although I am taking care not to travel to anywhere tropical. But, it was with trepidation that I agreed to tackle human papilloma virus infection: while an occurrence of childhood warts would be unremarkable, a sudden case of genital warts would have required some explaining to my husband of 20 years.

While we are on the subject, I would like to take this opportunity to let it be known that I have never written about soft tissue injuries. I am thus absolved of any responsibility for my husband’s ruptured Achilles tendon two years ago.

I should add that the spectacularly ill-timed bout of norovirus that we all suffered simultaneously a few days later was also nothing to do with me. It served as an effective crash course in galloping on crutches. It was not my fault.

My editor has also given up suggesting commissions to me; she does not want the responsibility she says (nor the symptoms). I am thus at liberty to chose my own topics (and possibly medical history). After the chickenpox debacle, my husband banned me from writing about anything dangerous or fatal.

However, my children are becoming increasingly uneasy. “What have you been writing about?” my daughter demands suspiciously when she goes down with a bug. After the events of last summer we were having a bed-time cuddle and the conversation ran thus:

“Mummy, what are you writing about next?”
“Sweetheart, you don’t want to know, go to sleep.”
“Mum,” now more insistent and suspicious, “tell me!”
“Sweetie, you really don’t want to know, do get some sleep.”

Under duress, I finally gave in and confessed that my next topic was diarrhoea and vomiting … in children (PJ Online only March 2010). “Oh no!!!!” she wailed “why can’t you write about something nice?”.

Regrettably, she was right to be concerned. Having been healthy throughout the research and preparation of the article, I thought we might emerge unscathed. How wrong could I be? The very night the article was released on PJ Online my son and I went down with a devastating stomach bug. Oh joy!

As yet I have been unable to make this association between commissions and my personal life work to my advantage. Sadly, an article about gold (PJ, 24/31 December 2005, pp810–11) did not leave me with untold wealth and a piece about chocolate (PJ, 7 April 2007, pp399–40) did not result in large quantities of the stuff being delivered to my door. The only gain there was extra weight since reading and researching the subject gave me terrible cravings.

So far it seems to have been a selective syndrome. Thus now you know my tale, so have a heart when you next see my name on an article, and consider the sacrifices we will have made for your sakes.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052519

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