Proofreading and Editing Medical Writing

We focus on academic, creative, and business writing in the Becoming A Proofreader and Becoming An Editor courses. But another area that proofreaders and editors may find work is medical writing. Here, then, we’ll outline what to expect when working with medical writing.

Editing and Proofreading Medical Writing

Medical writing is any writing that focuses on medicine or healthcare. It thus overlaps with academic writing in many ways, such as a tendency toward a formal, technical style. But medical proofreading and editing can also be a more specialized discipline, incorporating document and writing types beyond just medical research.

As a result, most medical proofreaders and editors have at least some background in medicine, healthcare, or the sciences in general. Minimally, anyone wanting to break into medical editing will need to familiarize themselves with the terminology and writing style associated with medicine, biology, and research.

In addition, while specific subject expertise isn’t necessary (e.g., you don’t need a qualification in cardiology to edit a document about heart medication as long as you’re familiar with the general language of research and pharmacology), it can help if you plan to offer substantive editing services for complex medical writing.

Common clients for medical writing, meanwhile, include individual authors, publishers, universities and research institutions, medical communication (medcomms) agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and online medical resources for patients. It is also common to work with ESL (English as a second language) clients in this field.

The exact demands of editing medical writing will therefore depend on the client, audience, and purpose of the document. But we can break medical writing down into a few main types, and most medical documents will have certain basic stylistic features, so we’ll look at these commonalities over the rest of this blog post.

Types of Medical Writing

Medical writing covers a very wide range of documents, varying in style and complexity depending on their purpose and intended audience. Broadly, though, we can identify three key types of medical writing:

  • Regulatory writing – Documents related to the approval process for drugs, from clinical study reports to package inserts for medicines. Regulatory writing is usually extremely formal and technical. It may also need to follow a specific style and structure dictated by the relevant regulatory body (e.g., the Common Technical Document is a set of specifications for registering new medicines in many countries).
  • Educational and research materials – Academic research about medicine and healthcare (e.g., journal articles), and materials used in medical education and professional development (e.g., textbooks). Both are typically formal and technical, following the conventions set out in relation to academic writing in general.
  • Medical communications – Documents that aim to inform audiences about topics related to medicine and healthcare, or to market new drugs and therapies. These can be aimed at specialist audiences (e.g., an article in a newsletter for medical professionals, or promotional materials aimed at doctors) or lay audiences (e.g., patient guides and information). There is more scope for stylistic variation here, and you may need to help authors simplify complex ideas to communicate them to non-experts effectively.

Knowing the differences between different types of medical writing, and the conventions associated with the different document types within these broad categories, is thus important for editors in this field.

Key Features of Medical Writing

While medical writing will differ in style depending on its subject area, audience, and purpose, key features found in most forms of technical medical writing (e.g., regulatory and research documents) include:

  • A very dry, objective, impersonal authorial voice and an overall formal tone.
  • Specialized technical language used very precisely.
  • Heavy use of acronyms and other abbreviations of complex terminology.
  • Use of figures, tables, and charts to present complicated information.
  • Use of equations, statistics, and other numerical data.
  • Detailed referencing of sources and other medical papers.
  • Standardized structures (either some variation on the IMRaD format commonly used in scientific research or a format dictated by the relevant regulatory body).

This type of medical writing therefore shares a lot of features of academic writing (particularly scientific research). But the exact requirements for writing style and how information is presented will often depend on the style guide used. We will thus look briefly at medical style guides next.

Medical Style Guides

In terms of medical style guides, the most influential organization to be aware of is the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), whose recommendations on preparing manuscripts are used by many medical journals. The ICMJE is also responsible for Citing Medicine: The NLM Style Guide for Authors, a common citation style recommended by the National Library of Medicine (and also the origin of Vancouver style referencing, since the ICMJE was known as the Vancouver Group when it developed this style).

Most medical style guides will at least be influenced by the ICMJE’s recommendations on these counts. But there are variations on and alternatives to this basic style available, including:

  • Major medical-focused style guides such as the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style (commonly used across many medical disciplines, especially in the US) and APA style (commonly used by journals and research organizations that focus on behavioral medicine).
  • In-house style guides and sheets used by specific publications and organizations. These can also be useful for adapting the ICMJE recommendations for particular regions (e.g., the BMJ’s house style recommends Vancouver style referencing based on the NLM guide, but it also permits British English spelling).

It is worth researching these style guides if you want to work as a medical proofreader or editor. And, as always, you will need to check with clients about which style guide to use before you start editing their work.

Medical Writing Resources

As with journalistic writing, there are plenty of helpful resources about medical writing and editing available if you want to learn more about this field. These include books such as:

  • The Complete Guide to Medical Writing, edited by Mark Stewart
  • Medical Writing: A Guide for Clinicians, Educators, and Researchers by Robert B Taylor
  • Targeted Regulatory Writing Techniques, edited by Linda Fossati Wood and MaryAnn Foote
  • A-Z of Medical Writing by Tim Albert

Other learning aids are also available. Online resources such as WebMD and the NHS website, which offer accessible ways to familiarize yourself with key medical terms and concepts. The PubMed search engine, meanwhile, is useful for finding reliable information on specific medical and healthcare topics. It is also worth investing in a good medical dictionary if you want to work as a medical editor.

If you are very serious about medical editing, moreover, or looking to progress your career in this field, there are groups dedicated to this type of editing, such as the Council of Science Editors and the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, which often offer training opportunities and chances to network with other editors. Membership of such a group can also help you find work with medical writers and publishers.

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