Which Style Guide Is Best for Medical Writing & Editing?

Recently, a colleague new to the field posed a question to a group of professional medical writers and editors. Briefly, she asked which style guides, in addition to the AMA Manual of Style, are worth investing (time and money) as a new medical editor.

She was tempted by The Chicago Manual of Style, she continued, and wanted to know if that was a useful resource to have on her journey to becoming a professional editor.

One colleague suggested the Associated Press Stylebook, because (to paraphrase) hospitals and similar institutions use AP style because they use it for their press releases—so having written materials consistently produced in that style makes their use and re-use easy. Chicago, she said, is used for academic humanities, not medicine and science.

I agree about AP style—it is definitely worth knowing if you are interested in working for hospitals and other commercial clients producing materials primarily intended for a lay audience.

But I don’t agree with my colleague’s assessment of The Chicago Manual of Style, however. The Chicago style is less a question of subject (ie, science vs humanities) or audience (ie, lay vs academic) than it is media type. I would suggest every professional editor, regardless of discipline, consider making space for The Chicago Manual of Style on their bookshelf.

I started my career in book publishing, and I was formally trained as an editor using the Chicago Manual of Style, which was applied to all books, including the sciences, and for all markets (trade, professional [including medical], academic, and college). If you are interested in editing or writing books, you’ll want to know Chicago.

Even if book projects hold no interest for you, The Chicago Manual of Style is a great resource for editing language. The last edition has about 300 pages on grammar and usage, punctuation, spelling and distinctive treatment of words, etc. When editing “non-book” medical and scientific publications, Chicago provides great support and complements other guides. The AMA and CSE guides are my go-tos for technical issues (treatment of numbers, styling of statistics, etc.) and of course reference styles, but the Chicago + Merriam Webster Dictionary combo provides a lot of answers where the AMA + Stedman’s Medical Dictionary combo falls silent.

Styles are just tools in the service of communication, minimizing the noise to amplify the message, so it helps as an editor to be proficient in many tools and their effective use. That happens over time and as opportunities present themselves. For example, I have a client, a book author who is a journalist by trade, and we have negotiated a style for her books that blends AP and Chicago. The hybrid captures her style and voice, while also helping the text read as a book (rather than a collection of newspaper articles bound as a book).

In the end, it’s all about clear communication, so spend some time learning the logic behind whatever styles you use, and then be sure to apply the styles consistently. Consistency in itself goes a long way to minimizing distraction and keeping the reader’s focus on the content.

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

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