Be Your Own Editor

Excerpts from Thorne’s Better Medical Writing
Stephen Lock
Pitman Medical Publishing


...even complicated subjects can be discussed in simple, clear English....

Chapter 5 — How to Write Your Article

Even if you started work on your article mainly to see your name in print, once it is published you will want to know your friends’ reactions to it. If they mumble apologetically and explain that they have not yet got round to reading it, the betting is that they tried and gave up because they found it too heavy going. Few doctors or scientists mind putting a towel round their heads to understand an article which is in their own special field, but they will not make the same effort if the subject is of only peripheral interest. If you want your article to be widely read, you must make the readers’ task as easy as possible.

The need for clarity

The single most important stylistic feature in any article is clarity. Nobody is asking you to write great literature, but your meaning must be readily understood. Good points to remember are that doctors not working in your field should be able to understand the article, and so should a doctor whose native language is not English. Clarity also helps the editor and his advisors to assess the article, and almost certainly prejudices them in its favor.

In part, clarity can be achieved by good style, but most of it will come naturally if you have a clear scheme prepared in your own mind...

...Few people will read more than 6,000 words unless they have to, and, given the choice, most would sooner read two separate articles of 3,000 words each.

...It is no good unloading a very long paper on an editor and expecting him to suggest where cuts may be made... If your bad manners are rewarded by the editor sending the article back by return post, you have only yourself to blame.

Hence you must constantly check the length of your article. Go over it again and again, asking yourself what is superfluous and what is repetition. Put it away for a week and then read it again with a fresh, critical eye. Ask colleagues (preferably in other specialties as well) how it can be improved and shortened.

Chapter 6 — Who Cares About Style?

Scientific writers are rarely literate. If a colleague tells a scientist that his latest article is difficult to understand, the writer is more likely to assume that his colleague is unintelligent than that his article is unintelligible. Such writers believe that discussions about style, choice of words, length of sentences, active and passive voices, subjunctives, and the like, are for non-scientific second-rate minds with nothing original to say, and are irrelevant for serious scientific workers. Unfortunately, this argument can be supported by reference to published accounts of important work, many of which are badly written...

Simplicity and clarity are the features of good scientific writing. Clear thought can be expressed clearly; and a man with something of value to say has no need to pad out his account.

...Shortness, simplicity, and clarity should be the aims of a scientific author....

Be Your Own Editor

I now believe that much of what I do can be done by the author, either by himself or in collaboration with an interested colleague. If the colleague will ask the author to explain exactly in his own words what he means by each sentence, and even each word, the article will become steadily shorter and clearer as unnecessary words are crossed out and simple words and constructions replace complicated ones. Articles that have had this time-consuming treatment, sometimes more than once, are much easier for an editor to accept and for a language supervisor to make sound English without changing the meaning.

I try to make it clear that my changes are only suggestions, not Holy Writ, and I make them in pencil so that they can be rubbed out if the author disagrees with them. At the same time I do not hesitate to comment on the length, the layout, or the logic. I am also convinced that articles by English and American authors would invariably benefit from scrutiny by colleagues. Not only articles but many expensive medical books are far too long and turgid to read because they get no such treatment from their authors or publishers.

Updated June 25, 2018
© Copyright 2000-2018, Michael LaRocca
Durham, North Carolina 27707

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