What can an editor teach medical writers?
May 21, 2008 5:27 AM   Subscribe

What can an editor teach medical writers?

I work for a company that has been very generous (in training opportunities). In particular, the editor for our department of mainly medical writers is going to teach a weekly class to improve our writing skills.

The medical writers do have PhDs (basic sciences) but not a lot of writing experience. Furthermore, most of us are writing material that is in a new area of expertise and unlike material we have previously written. For example, much of the current content we write and develop is in the format of a peer reviewed journal article for Lancet, NEJM, and summarizes a clinical trial.

My goal is to be able to learn from the editor how to improve our writing and more specifically, improve the quality of the article before it even goes through the editorial department. I am fishing for topics/syllabus/things that we should learn as I am supposed to generate a list of topics, and I don’t think I even know what we need to learn.

If you are an editor and work with writers, if you could offer a course, what would you teach the writers? Alternatively, if you are a medical writer, what skills should we learn from the editor? Most of us are also early in our medical writing “careers” (less than a year).

I’m also open to suggestions for other material that you think we can learn or that would further benefit us in our career development. I may request another class, or try to learn material on my own (the content area is oncology but may be expanded to other therapeutic areas). This is a great job because there is always something new to learn – I just don’t know what I should do to improve further. Thanks.
posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a copy editor at a large software company. While I mostly look at general business communications, here are a few topics I would cover with my writers if I had them in a class: avoiding jargon, plagiarism and proper citation, nonsexist language, punctuation, agreement, house style, abbreviations/initialisms/acronyms, and avoiding passive voice.
posted by Shoggoth at 5:58 AM on May 21, 2008

Oh, and Unnecessary Capitalization.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:02 AM on May 21, 2008

Brevity and clarity. I have long thought this paper was an excellent example; others liked it too.
posted by TedW at 6:35 AM on May 21, 2008

Proper comma usage. Scientists are notoriously poor at it.
posted by emd3737 at 6:39 AM on May 21, 2008

Proper comma usage. Scientists are notoriously poor at it.

I personally wouldn't focus on that, because it's hard to learn the "correct" usage if you're clueless to start with, and it's easy to fix. Brevity and clarity, as TedW says, are vital, because if you've produced a rambling, unclear paper, it's much much harder to do anything about.
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on May 21, 2008

I'm a commercial writer and often have to help others write more effective copy. If it were me, I'd run sessions on:

Style: punctuation, grammar, and the importance of having Strunk and White on your desk (and using it)
Clarity: avoid the passive voice, structure your argument
Brevity: edit, edit, edit. Start off using a chainsaw and finish using a fine pair of scissors. (I'm paraphrasing a book, but I can't remember which one.)
Audience: think about who you're writing for, what they want from it and their situation. How can you get this across as quickly, clearly and persuasively as you can?
MS Word can help you: use the grammar tools to continually check the document for passive writing and readability.

Overall, I'd want them to realise:

- If you're writing for a young child, it's important to be clear, simple and brief. The same goes for busy scientists and CEOs.
- Short words are better. Science is full of long, complicated words. Don't add more.
- Choose each word carefully and put it in well-structured sentences and paragraphs.
- Everything needs a narrative and a structure. Plan what you will write. What's the starting point? What's the end point? What needs to be explained along the way?

...and maybe get them to read a copy of the Economist. It does all of this, tackling difficult, complex topics with exemplary clarity and style.
posted by dowcrag at 7:05 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Relevant paper: How to write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature (think it was posted on the blue last year).
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:10 AM on May 21, 2008

Agree and reiterate- style, form and organization. Maybe workshop on developing a style sheet for your company.
posted by gjc at 7:14 AM on May 21, 2008

Passive vs. active voice, interpretation of statistics, subject verb agreement, parallel construction, brevity, opinion words/statements as opposed to factual statements.

Maybe even have a "journal club" style discussion of before-and-afters, so you can discuss what is effective/ineffective in how a manuscript is translated to the end product.
Learn from example, in other words. It's a common saying that reading quality work helps writers produce quality work. Should apply here, too.
posted by NikitaNikita at 7:21 AM on May 21, 2008

Best answer: I'm a technical editor who works with subject matter experts on a regular basis, and who trains SMEs to work with editors; I also worked with medical writers many years ago. I differ from some of the commenters above, because I don't think you should focus on mechanics. Your work is to interpret highly technical information, and if you get caught up in commas and semi-colons, you will be distracted from the bigger questions of how to present the topic for a particular audience. Does your company have an existing style guide? That will answer many of your mechanical questions: do we use the Oxford comma, how do we cite the literature, how do we deal with acronyms, etc. Your editor will know if there is one, and s/he may well leap with joy if you ask for it. (I know I do.)

If I had the luxury of teaching a weekly seminar to my regular SMEs and writers, I'd use Style: Toward Clarity and Grace as the text. We'd also dissect articles in the journals you're writing toward (i.e. Lancet, NEJM, and JAMA), looking for differences and similarities in the way the articles are organized and how information is presented. We'd talk about the unique language of your field: where it's useful, where it obscures, how to write clearly without sounding too different. We'd work collaboratively on articles in progress so that you'd get a sense of how I edit your work and how you might deal with the editing process. We'd probably spend five minutes a session on a single mechanical issue.

It's a great idea, for both the writers and your editor, and I wish more companies would do the same. I spend a lot of time defusing hostility and misunderstanding between writers, subject matter experts, and editors; if I had the same amount of time to do something like this, I think we'd work faster and get along better.
posted by catlet at 7:54 AM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest that your writers learn to listen actively and clearly (not something most people do well).

I also recommend that experts learn to cultivate good relationships with subject matter experts, and approach them as empty vessels. That means that writers will often have to ask lots of questions and initially write things that they know are incorrect to elicit a response from a SME that corrects and expands the topic.

The "willing to be wrong" and the "willing to defer to expertise" really does help move things along more quickly.

Style/usage stuff can be learned over time and can be ameliorated with a good editor. Relationship management and good listening ability with SMEs can sink or further an entire career.
posted by answergrape at 10:48 AM on May 21, 2008

Response by poster: I wanted to thank everyone or their responses. Thanks again!
posted by Wolfster at 6:43 PM on June 2, 2008

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