TCS Daily

There Is No 'I' in Gerson or Scully

By Michael M. Rosen and Thomas J. Van Gilder, M.D. - August 23, 2007 12:00 AM

"Creative destruction" aptly describes the recent contretemps between Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter, and Michael Gerson, his colleague and Bush's chief speechwriter.

Scully's recent article in The Atlantic (subscription required) describes the collaboration between himself, Gerson, and John McConnell, as speechwriters for George W. Bush, first as presidential candidate and then as President. Although the focus of the piece seems to be Gerson's reported misbehavior, and while it has sparked an energetic discussion in the blogosphere, the article's poignancy derives from its heartfelt description of collaborative work, especially in a town and business famous for friendlessness.

Scully's article makes three separate but related points. One, Scully describes the joy of collaboration, the thrill of synergy as three energetic, creative co-workers came together to produce more than the sum of the parts. His article is something like a pre-emptive re-write of Gerson's own forthcoming book, a sort of previsionist history of what really went on in the West Wing, aimed at equalizing the participants' contributions.

Two, Scully catalogues the perils of collaborative efforts, particularly the danger of unequal credit for ideas and work brought to the effort. Here, Scully takes Gerson to task for grabbing the limelight to the exclusion of his co-authors and promoting himself over the team. Scully, of course, neglects to mention—other than in passing—the fact that Gerson served as the chief White House speechwriter and senior counselor to the president and thus necessarily enjoyed a higher degree of visibility than his colleagues.

Third, Scully elucidates the difficulties of true friendship and collaboration in the culture of modern American politics, exemplified in the Washington, D.C., culture. This third point is made all the more poignant by the first two and by the apparent personal and professional success of the speech-writing team's collaboration.

We pause to reflect on Scully's article not for its delicious gossipiness or for the fascinating look into the creation of specific landmark speeches. Rather, we reflect on the nature of writing and the special circumstance of collaborative creation.

(In the interest of full disclosure, we note that one of us (Michael) worked for Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) more than ten years ago when Gerson was the Senator's speechwriter. From Michael's limited perspective as an 18-year-old intern, Gerson at the time seemed talented, earnest, and friendly; he cannot recall an instance when Gerson wrote speeches in a nearby Starbucks.)

In a bit of recursive irony, this article itself is the product of collaboration, albeit of a different sort than that described by Scully. When we write together, as we have on several occasions, we generate an outline together (verbally), then we divvy up different pieces of the writing, and then we take turns editing and refining. Our joint articles are truly the work of equals in every respect.

But our professional writing is different, and more closely resembles the "writing-by-committee" so fascinatingly detailed by Scully. Our experiences in legal and medical writing embody the importance of group contributions, the necessity of sharing credit, but the ultimate realization that pursuing the greater good—not individual recognition—must be at the forefront of the enterprise.

For all except solo practitioners, legal writing—and here we mean briefs, motions, trial witness outlines, and even correspondence—inherently requires teamwork. When a junior attorney is given the task of "writing" a brief, it generally means, first, that he consult with his superiors about what needs to be written. Much like Gerson, the chief speechwriter, supervising attorneys tend to have a broader perspective on how to approach the brief in order to further the client's case overall, and, also like Gerson, are usually more gifted at assembling the scaffolding for the work itself.

So after receiving an outline, or getting approval for one, the associate usually sits down and pounds out a draft of the brief. (Occasionally, two or more attorneys may draft different portions of the brief in parallel.) And then the fun begins: edit after edit after edit until the original writer's work is often unrecognizable. With any luck, the brief persuades the judge, the attorneys prevail in their argument, and the client wins the case.

But does the junior attorney receive "credit" for having written a good brief? Sure. A pat on the back, a congratulatory email, even an end-of-year bonus might be in order.

Yet, ultimately, that attorney's job is to make his superiors look good, and their job is to make their client look good. And when the brief that the associate initially drafted ends up winning a case it's his superior who will usually receive and take the credit (with a hat tip to the junior attorney) as the person who pulled it all together. The internal division of credit, however, isn't usually significant in the eyes of the client, who simply recognizes that the law firm won the case on its behalf.

Thus, the successful junior attorney appreciates these niceties and makes his peace with them. Glory hogs tend not to last long in the law firm world.

Similarly, the nature and purpose of medical and public health writing almost necessitate collaboration—the breadth and depth of even the narrowest topic rests on the work of so many, it is difficult to imagine a genuinely solo effort. The purpose of most medical writing is less persuasive than informative, and in medicine, the more an article reflects general opinion, the more avidly it will be accepted. One good way of reflecting general opinion is to gather collaborators—from energetic junior colleagues to sage older ones.

Furthermore, at least three aspects of much modern medical writing reward collaboration. First, medical writing tends to be modular. Most articles follow a standard pattern that includes sections labeled purpose, methods, data, results, and discussion. The modules often correspond to separate tasks carried out by different team members—for example, study design, data collection, data analysis, and the drawing of conclusions.

Second, medical writing tends to be derivative. It relies on discoveries of others, often on discoveries stretching far back in time. In a given article, authors sift through past writings on the subject and borrow (with attribution) relevant work of their own and others to set the context for the current work. This context-setting makes reading and understanding the article possible, as most readers will not know the topic well enough to appreciate what has come before, nor will they have the time to familiarize themselves with the relevant literature.

Third, medical writing tends to be incremental. It extends existing work more often than it marks radical departure. It is also incremental in that it often refines current practice, allowing clinicians to winnow and sharpen their diagnostic and therapeutic arsenals.

The finished product in the medical literature typically has an author list nearly as long as the article itself. The order in which names appear can have significance—and can generate intense internal battles. The first author listed is the one who contributed most to the final work, while the last author listed is usually the senior author who oversaw the work and who mentored the project. In between, co-authors jockey for position based on contribution, visibility, and "political" considerations.

Thus, much of professional writing relies on carefully orchestrated teamwork. While the person pulling the work together deploys certain skills that participating writers may lack, and while that supervising author often receives credit for the work as a whole, all participants recognize that they are each indispensable to the enterprise.

From Scully's account, it appears that the same is true of speechwriting at the very highest level. Pity, then, that the participants seem to have eschewed their harmonious success in favor of cacophonous strife.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property Columnist, is an attorney in San Diego. Thomas J. Van Gilder, M.D. is a patent attorney and physician in Milwaukee.


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