Medical editing, like any other kind, varies according to the specific medium, platform, even workplace. Sometimes editors are given a style to follow; other times they create their own. And part of the editor’s job is to know how to apply the right style to the copy in front of them.
In the communications office at Harvard Medical School (HMS), we produce a wide range of materials. Our only print publication is Harvard Medicine, the research and alumni magazine of HMS; for this, we use the Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago style suits the kind of storytelling the magazine features—longer form narratives in a print-primary publication.
We also publish news stories on the basic and clinical research being done at HMS and our 16 affiliated hospitals, as well as internal communications, student profiles, community letters, event announcements, and op-eds; for these, we use the AP Stylebook. Add in photos, videos, podcasts, and social posts, and you begin to see the volume and variety of copy involved. AP style is better suited for this kind of writing—shorter, more informational copy.
While each primary guide works well most of the time, both fall short occasionally. For example, Chicago has a section on bias-free language, mostly focused on gender-neutral language, but it’s not as specific as AP’s sections on race-related coverage and gender-neutral language. If you want guidance on whether you should use pregnant people or pregnant women, you won’t find it in Chicago, but you can find that AP uses pregnant woman.
HMS uses pregnant woman by default, but if a quoted individual or published source uses pregnant people, we will use it also when referencing that source.
AP has some solid guidance on medical terminology and on current usage for, say, writing about COVID-19. Chicago has a broad section on scientific terminology with a subsection on medical terminology. “CMOS Shop Talk” provides deep dives into topics such as styling COVID-19 and related terms; AP’s comprehensive coronavirus topical guide has saved me more than once.
On the prosaic side, HMS is the second-mention abbreviation for Harvard Medical School, which we need to style as a possessive fairly often. AP is clear on how to style this: HMS’. Chicago acknowledges this as an alternate approach to its stated guidance but is equally clear that it does not endorse the approach because “such usage disregards pronunciation in the majority of cases.” We disregard pronunciation and use HMS’ across the board.
I hesitate to use this analogy, but I will anyway: style guides give you the recipe, and each editor adjusts for content type, organizational fit, and audience considerations. Consistency matters, but sometimes you need to rely on your good judgment about what will best serve your readers. The breadth and volume of the content we produce and the number of hands in the mix make adhering to a uniform style challenging, but it’s something we continually strive for.
Our big news this year is that we adopted the series comma across all content. Now, that is progress
Resources I depend on (not an exhaustive list!)
The digitally dog-eared:
The frontline backups:
Choosing a style guide was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.