Olivia Wroth (B Vet Science, Dip Editing & Publishing) has worked in medical writing and editing for 25 years. She practised as a vet for 10 years before moving into medical and veterinary editing and publishing. Olivia has worked for MIMS for 24 years managing their veterinary publications. She also worked with the Medical Journal of Australia for 8 years editing journal articles. Her current clients also include NSW Health; Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment; Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine; and Animal Health Australia.
You can book a coaching session with Olivia to tackle general and specific writing problems. This can be casually in-person over coffee and a laptop, or by Zoom. Olivia is in the office at REN on some Wednesdays and Fridays.
Don’t underestimate a comma
They say in publishing that editors put commas in and proofreaders take them out. Commas can be vastly entertaining and controversial in editing circles.
The Oxford comma seems strangely named, as its use is more popular in the US than the UK. It is also known as the Harvard or serial comma.
It is the final comma in a list after the penultimate item, before the ‘and’ of the final item. An example is in ‘the red, blue, and yellow’, which in Australia would generally be set as ‘the red, blue and yellow’.
Some commas are optional and do not contribute much to the meaning of a sentence, merely indicating where to pause or to more clearly separate phrases.
Others are crucial and can completely change the meaning of a sentence if they are missing.
Compare ‘I respect my parents, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’ with ‘I respect my parents, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton’.
An Oxford comma there is essential, unless your parents are an unlikely political duo.
In this space I will be introducing you to the craft of medical writing, one useful tip at a time.
Rules for regimens
What’s the difference between a regimen and a regime?
In the broad sense there’s not much difference between the two words but in common usage the “n” can make a difference.
The terms originate from the Latin “regere”, meaning rule or govern.
Regimen, which travelled from Latin to Middle English, means a prescribed course of medical treatment, diet or exercise.
It can refer to a set of rules or an authority, but is now not usually used in that sense.
Regime (sometimes written as the French “régime”) generally denotes a form of rule or government.
It often has a negative connotation and implies an autocratic, authoritarian leadership.
Some countries make a clear distinction between the two usage patterns and others lean more to using one word to cover both meanings.
The words obviously have a lot of overlap in meaning, so using regime when regimen would be better is not a capital offence.
For the purpose of clarity in medical writing for an Australian audience (e.g. grant review panels), it’s best to always use the version with the “n”, unless you’re a principal investigator of the repressive, dictatorial kind.
Put yourself first
Take possession of your research, and of your sentences!
In contemporary medical literature, we are encouraged to use the ‘active voice’ or ‘active construction’, but what does that mean?
It’s easy to change from passive to active sentences if you remember to put yourself first.
This means starting sentences with ‘I’ or ‘we’; for example, ‘We analysed our data . . . ‘ instead of ‘The data were analysed . . . ‘
This often results in the verb being closer to the front in your sentence, which is another positive.
Of course, too many sentences in a row beginning with ‘We’ or ‘I’ can get a bit repetitive.
You will need to mix it up with other sentence constructions so your work doesn’t look like a robot wrote it.
Using the active, personal construction instead of the passive, anonymous construction introduces a livelier, more immediate tone to your writing.
Your readers will be more likely to engage with you and your ideas, which is what you want when grant and journal reviewers are reading your work.
Active sentence construction makes you appear more confident in your writing, your ideas and your results, and you will be a more attractive funding or publishing prospect.
So, as you should in many other aspects of your life, remember to put yourself first.
Comparing apple’s with apples
Many writers have difficulty understanding where apostrophes should be used and, more importantly, where they should not be used.
Incorrect apostrophe use is a source of great irritation to readers and can devalue your grant proposal or journal submission, so it is worth getting your head around the rules.
An apostrophe is mainly used to indicate possession (“Harry’s hat”) or letter omission (“didn’t”).
One simple, useful rule is that they are almost never used for plurals.
The classic “grocer’s apostrophe” error is commonly found where plural fruit are advertised, for example “apple’s and orange’s” (“apples and oranges” is correct).
It seems some are wary of pluralising nouns ending with vowels, because “plum’s and carrot’s” are rarely seen (“plums and carrots” is correct).
The possessive apostrophe (eg “respondent’s data”) is used incorrectly less often, but sometimes the plural possessive apostrophe (eg “respondents’ data”) can be awkward to read.
In medical writing, we can rewrite “A descriptive analysis was performed on respondents’ demographic data” to become “We performed a descriptive analysis on the demographic data of respondents” to avoid the awkward possessive apostrophe.
It is only two extra words, and has the added advantage of being in active, personal voice (“We performed”) as well as being an easier read.
Apostrophes are difficult to tame and are frequently found where they should not be, but remembering not to use them for plurals, and to reword phrases with awkward possessive apostrophes, will help you master their usage.
Put the person back into the patient
Medical editors are expected by journals to make many changes to manuscripts to improve reader engagement.
Most of these are relevant to increasing grant panel acceptability.
One of these expectations is to try to keep patients “personalised”.
The personalisation writing strategy signals to the reader (journal reviewer or grant panel member) that you value your patients and study participants.
It confirms to review panels that you are a committed, professional researcher who prioritises the health of your patients before your scientific curiosity.
To achieve this, it is best to refer to patients first as people, and then describe their condition, eg “women with diabetes” (rather than “diabetic women” or “diabetics”).
Try to avoid “subjects”, which is not regarded as acceptable these days.
Sometimes you may not be able to avoid using “cases” or “presentations”, eg if some patients are represented more than once in a study.
Another way to flag your respect for your patients as people, rather than objects on whom to perform research, is to refer to a person’s sex as “woman/women/man/men” rather than “male/female”.
Remember to put the person first, and you won’t tread on anyone’s politically correct toes.
How to spell: Latin, Greek, British or American?
Fetus is from the Latin word meaning offspring or bringing forth young.
At some stage, possibly as a result of a 16th century error, the British spelling changed to foetus, using the Latin o-e ligature diphthong.
It seems someone may have mistakenly wanted to further Latinise an already Latin word.
US spelling has maintained fetus but, for British and Commonwealth usage, foetus has remained, except in the medical literature, where fetus is now the convention.
It’s best to use fetus in all your journal and grant proposal submissions.
The prefix haem- (from Greek haima, meaning blood) has remained in the British medical spelling lexicon but has become hem- in US spelling.
If you are submitting a grant proposal for an Australian panel, or a paper to an Australian or British journal, use haem-.
If submitting a paper to an international or US journal, it’s probably best to go with hem-.
You can usually find out from journal author guidelines whether US or British spelling is preferred.
But beware of reckless use of the global computer document find and replace shortcut!
I know of an article in which an impatient proofreader used it to change all instances of hem- to haem-, resulting in the word schaeme throughout, where it should have been scheme (the error was corrected before print).
When less is not more: fewer v less
Communication is the main purpose of language, so fussing about the small details is often overkill, especially in general conversation and shop signs.
But when writing for grants and journals, take the time to make sure you use grammatically correct terminology and phrases.
This signifies your serious intention and careful approach; admirable qualities in researchers.
A source of irritation to the more pedantic reviewers of grants and articles is the incorrect use of “less” when “fewer” should be used.
An easy way to remember which to use is this: if you can count it, use “fewer”; if you can’t count it, use “less”.
For example, “You should eat fewer apples” but “You should eat less apple sauce”.
Apples can be counted but apple sauce cannot.
Units of time, money, distance and weight are exceptions to this rule. For example, we say “less than $20”, not “fewer than $20”.
A related and less controversial confusion is “much” and “many”.
We tend to use "many" with plural-count nouns, and "much" with mass nouns. So “many thanks” sounds more correct than the lesser used “much thanks”.
I advise you to:
- Eat more apples instead of fewer
Save your new-found grammar for your formal writing; and
Avoid lecturing your friends about it.
Language is, after all, a human construct and you do not make friends by correcting people's grammar.