Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Medical writing

10 steps to proofread your medical writing


Careful proofreading is like minding your manners: it gets you noticed for the right reasons and shows consideration for your reader.

It also helps you avoid embarrassing - and possibly expensive - mistakes. Your instincts might tell you to read the piece straight through, but it's better to scan for errors first. Try this 10-step checklist to get it right every time.

1. Start with the big stuff. Check the main headline for typos. Then look at anything else where the typeface stands out, like sub-headings and captions.

2. Check the spelling on all names. People are offended when you get this wrong. Make sure titles and organisations are correct.

3. Check the bottom of every page. Is the footer correct? Are the page numbers right? Check the copyright statement, job number or any other publishing information.

4. Check numbers. This is especially important for medical writing. Compare any numbers to your approved manuscript. Sometimes it's smart to check your numbers against the original data source, too.

5. Confirm consistency. If it’s a longer piece, do the headings match the table of contents? Are the citations and figures (illustrations) numbered correctly? Are the citations laid out in a consistent style?

6. Look for the lonely ones. Do you have short lines of copy dangling at the top or bottom of the page? If you are forced to use hyphens across a line break (and here I shudder), are they landing in the correct part of the word?

7. Look up tricky words. Check drug names and medical terms. If you’re unsure about any spelling, look it up.

8. Start reading
. Now you can get stuck in and begin to read through the copy.

9. Tackle punctuation and grammar. If you find yourself tripping over an awkward bit of copy, you probably need to fix the punctuation or grammar. Revise the wording so it's easy to read and the meaning is clear.

10. Come back to it. This step is essential. Take a break from the material, walk around or work on something else for a while, and then come back to it. Read it through once more. There is always time for this, even when you are on a tight deadline. In fact, it’s especially important when you are under time pressure, because that’s when mistakes are most likely to happen.

Good proofreading smooths the way for your readers and it gives you some extra confidence in the tough business of publishing. Once it has been checked properly, your work is ready to show its best face to the world.


Searching the evidence

A literature search has always been a part of good medical writing, but tighter regulations and schemes like the Department of Health’s Information Standard mean this process is increasingly formalised.
When you're up against a deadline, it's tempting to leap right in and Google everything on your topic. But starting with a plan is ultimately faster and it helps you remain objective.

The main steps are:

• Write a clear research question.
• Set limits for your question, such as a time period.
• Brainstorm a list of key words for your question.
• At this point you are ready to search. If you don't get enough results - or if you get too many - you can try with another question.

Our brains don't always follow these rules, though. One fascinating study found that strict searching protocols are not the only effective method. (Greenhalgh et al 2005) Researchers also got good results by asking their contacts, using their own knowledge, and tracking down references cited in other papers.



How to use the Vancouver referencing style

If you're an experienced medical writer, you'll already know that documenting your sources is a crucial part of the job. There are different formats for presenting your citations. Sometimes, this is set out in house style guidelines. Other times, the choice is up to you.

The Vancouver style of referencing is favoured by many medical journals. The references are numbered throughout the text, and the citations are listed in this numbered order at the end of your piece.

As an example, a journal article would look like this:

McAlpine L, Selamaj E, Shannon C, Chis L, Dacre J, Elder A. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clin Med. 2014;14(5):500-5.

So in general that's:

First six authors (surname, first initial) followed by 'et al' if there are more authors. Title of paper. Title of journal with approved abbreviation. Year; volume (issue number): page numbers.

You can bookmark this page and come back to it any time you need a reminder. This is only a very general guide and you will need more details for your medical writing project. For further information, and rules on citing other types of source material, see the guidelines from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.



How to use the Harvard referencing style

There are different ways to present your sources in medical writing, so they meet house style and accepted academic standards.

If you haven’t already seen it, please do have a look at my earlier post on using the Vancouver style for references, which kicked off this mini-series.

Now we are moving on to Harvard, which is another common choice. This is my own favourite because you don’t have to number the references within the article – always a headache when you come to second drafts and beyond. There is also something nice and traditional about it.

A citation for a journal article with more than two authors would look like this:

McAlpine, L. et al. 2014. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clinical Medicine. 14(5), pp. 500-505.

Within the text, you would cite the reference like this. (McAlpine et al, 2014)

Simple! You’ll need more details if you are working on a live manuscript. I think the University of Leeds has a great resource. You can also bookmark this page and come back to it the next time you are referencing up your own healthcare writing project.