If you’re a professional medical writer, or coordinating a writing team at an agency, you may be considering using an editor. What value will you get? Why would you take that extra step and invest in an editor to look through your work?
Scientific writing needs to be easy to read so the intended audience can interpret the message with minimal effort. However, scientific documents can start out as impenetrable, and perhaps even intimidating. Not only are the underlying concepts often complex, but the language itself can add to the confusion, forcing the reader to work harder to understand.
As a writer, when you’re immersed in the flow of the writing – exhausted by it, even – issues in the text are harder to pick out. Not so for editors. They are your fresh pair of eyes and are trained to spot problem areas. None of this is to catch you out; it’s to catch it and point it out before the reader gets to it.
Fortunately, the editor’s objective input can transform documents before publication, and by involving an editor, your expert ideas will be better communicated.
What aspects of writing will a medical editor address?
Once the writer has planned and researched the content and written their final draft, the editor can get to work refining the material by making corrections and suggestions. There are lots of areas to consider, and the points below are by no means exhaustive.
It’s worth mentioning that there are distinct levels of editing – ranging from macro to micro in nature – and so different editors may handle separate aspects of the writing, depending on their skills and experience.
So, how can an editor support you to produce your best writing?
An editor helps you tailor your content to the intended audience
Writing will miss the mark if you don’t first consider who’ll be reading it. The editor supports the writer to communicate based on a specific readership. This could mean making the tone more accessible to the general public for a patient education leaflet, or aligning the language with a niche audience that’s familiar with specialist terminology for a peer-reviewed research paper.
Knowing the conventions of different types of publication enables the editor to gauge the ‘fit’ of the content. Whatever the publication, all aspects of the writing, design and format need to keep the reader in mind to deliver the content successfully.
An editor encourages purpose-led writing
Writers should be clear on why their piece is important: what function does it serve, who is it helping, why is it relevant? The purpose of the content will determine how you address the reader and how you present the material. Sales pages may need to entice the reader with bulleted lists, crisp images and calls to action, whereas an instruction leaflet for medical equipment may include more detail, labelled diagrams and safety information. Your copyeditor can prompt you to adjust the content and layout to better target the end user.
An editor establishes a sense of style
In editorial terms, ‘style’ means the agreed parameters you must follow to ensure consistency. Style is usually fairly rigid and is imposed by academic journals, institutions and companies alike. A style guide gives you editorial guidelines so your work can achieve the professional expectations set.
It’s very common for multiple writers to be contributing to the same report, academic paper, or slide deck. This doesn’t necessarily mean only scientific writers but anyone (perhaps a stakeholder, patient, assistant, client) who has provided material at any stage. With a multi-author document, you need to be particularly aware of how spelling preference, tone, syntax and punctuation usage differ between contributors. In some cases, editors are asked to align the tone and maintain a consistent style to improve readability.
Medical editors are familiar with adopting different styles for different purposes: one week they may be getting a research paper ready for submission by styling it according to the journal’s requirements, and another week they could be applying a client’s house style to web copy or a med comms slide deck.
Consistency is key with all writing, so if there is no style guide to follow, your editor may offer to create a style sheet of decisions they’ve made during the editing process. Far from being restrictive, this helps you maintain tidy copy and stops the reader getting distracted by oddities.
An editor suggests structural improvements
Long-form writing benefits from having structure to support a logical flow of ideas and to break up the content. Providing an intuitive structure helps signpost the reader to relevant information and relieves some pressure, especially with complex scientific material – who doesn’t occasionally need to skim and scan? Elements like headings, subsections, tables and summaries also lend a hierarchy which helps to prioritise facts and consolidate learning.
Although research papers are expected to adhere to the prescriptive sequence of the abstract, introduction, methods, results and discussion, an experienced copyeditor can suggest a less formal framework for other kinds of medical writing to keep the reader focused.
An editor checks figures, infographics, tables, citations and references
These extra elements that display data or source information are often added to the document out of step with the natural chronology of writing. Although this additional material is meant to validate the underlying content, it also happens to be where lots of discrepancies lurk. Duplicated references can wreak havoc with citation sequencing; number ranges sometimes overlap; percentages don’t always add up neatly to the total; titles and legends may not correspond to the data; a graph could be missing a vital category, despite it being cited in the preceding paragraph. The editor will flag these issues so that the author can double-check against their source material.
Getting references right is a crucial part of the submission process for academic research papers, and journals will expect writers to adhere to a specific style (e.g. Harvard, APA, Vancouver) to maintain consistency throughout the manuscript. Understandably perhaps, checking the reference list may not be an appealing prospect after the demands of writing, but fortunately this is an editor’s territory and where they excel in attention to detail.
Graphics need careful cross-checking against the original information, and the copyeditor takes care of not only the data but also the layout and visual appeal. The material shown should be both scientifically accurate and aesthetically sound – slick design supports easier learning.
When you get these things right, nobody notices – and that’s the point of good editing. Readers will notice when things are wrong.
An editor delves into sentence- and word-level detail
During the main edit, the editor will either use the provided style guide or summarise their editorial decisions on a style sheet. This could include info on capitalisation, hyphenation, spelling, punctuation, formatting, hierarchy of headings, spacing, and so on. Leaving comments is an effective way for the editor to query missing content, flag any ambiguity or redundancy, and suggest possible rephrasing.
Writers are often time-poor, having to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. In these instances, tiny errors creep in here and there. Copyeditors commonly run a few ‘global’ clean-ups, like replacing incorrect hyphens (or dashes) with minus signs or applying consistent spacing of symbols from the given value. These seemingly minor details matter in professional documents and make all the difference to the outcome. Medical writers can leave all this to the copyeditor and focus on honing their message; keeping macro and micro concerns running concurrently slows everything down.
Many editors can improve the accuracy of your content further by applying tech tools designed to identify errors and inconsistencies. This is particularly useful for writing peppered with acronyms that might be mistyped, or proper nouns that could be misspelt, or capitalisation that’s been applied differently – elements that might otherwise easily go undetected.
An editor keeps an eye out for broader aspects
Just like in any other industry, it’s important for editors to keep up to date with continuing professional development. To better serve their clients, editors need to acknowledge evolving language use and adopt these changes into their practice to promote inclusivity and accessibility. This knowledge filters through the edits to the writers, and this then stays on their radar for future work.
Since editorial professionals regularly work on a variety of projects, they’re skilled at recognising things that others may overlook; these factors often go beyond the words themselves and instead concern the way the words are handled. For instance, a copyeditor can advise on things like contrast checks (readability of the font in relation to the background), reasons for choosing a certain capitalisation case, importance of person-first language, considerations for using bold/italics, and the relevance of parallel constructions. These diverse editorial tips add to a writer’s arsenal and enhance their offering in the long term.
Let’s work together
You take care of the message and the editor will take care of the details. The writer–editor relationship should reflect a strong team: working together to make the writing more focused, credible and professional, producing a much crisper result for the reader’s benefit.
You will always have the final say over any edits you accept or reject, and you must feel comfortable with the changes as it’s your name on the work. The editor’s role is to remain the hidden supporter.
If you or your agency would like some editorial support with med comms writing, please get in touch to chat through what your project involves.
Georgina Fradgley is a professional web editor, copyeditor and proofreader, based in Hampshire and offering a range of services. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing (CIEP).