In medical communication, it is critical to ensure that documents and other materials are free from mistakes, inconsistencies, and errors. The stakes are high, and even though few of us reach perfection, it is important to utilize all the tools at our disposal to get as close as we can.
Every document needs to undergo a thorough proofreading before it is ready to be released into the world. This last look gives the author and editor confidence that they have not missed anything or introduced any errors.
Before the technology evolved to assist medical communicators, proofreading was often a demanding task—especially if it involved manually entering and formatting long reference lists.
These days, tools and resources are available to make our lives easier.
The following proofreading tips will help ensure that every document meets the highest standards.
Understand Proofreading Basics
Even when using the technology and tools that are available, the proofreader’s most important tools are their eyes and mind. When proofreading, medical communicators need to be alert to
- Numbering of tables, figures, and references
- Required style and format
There are a number of tools available that can help provide backup after completing the age-old process of reading and re-reading a document.
Use the Technology
The technology for proofreading has evolved quickly, and researchers and medical editors can reap the benefits of innovation. For example, PubMed and reference management software make the task of inserting citations much easier than it used to be. Spelling and grammar checks have gotten smarter, and all of these tools make proofreading and editing go more smoothly.
Be Consistent, and Follow Guidelines
Medical communicators need to be thorough when it comes to formatting of manuscripts according to target journals’ guidelines. Details matter, and it is always important to have a style guide at your fingertips to make sure that every document meets the requirements.
Seek “Fresh Eyes”
Many of us have reopened a document only to discover flaws we didn’t notice when we saved it. It’s not unusual to forward a manuscript to a colleague for a quality check and learn that they have discovered inconsistencies. It is a good practice to call on colleagues to take a spin through a document to see if they notice anything amiss.
Because file sharing is common practice, be alert to the fact that clients, customers, and colleagues might add something to a draft without tracking changes or following the rules of style and formatting.
So if you do find fresh eyes, be clear about the protocol for changing or adding material, and double-check everything afterwards.
Use Artificial Intelligence and Know Its Limits
Artificial intelligence (AI) has its place in medical editing, but the technology does have limits. Many AMWA members report success using PerfectIt or other similar tools as a final check.
It helps to receive professional training on how to use AI programs in order to optimize the accuracy of the software.
What Can AI-Based Quality-Check Software Do for Medical Writers?
Here are some elements of formatting, which are vital from a medical writer’s perspective. Proofreading software can check and perfect the following elements:
- Hyphenation (“-” vs “–”)
- Numbers in sentences (“8” vs “eight”)
- Use of italics (“E. coli” vs “E. coli”)
- Abbreviations (defined more than once, not defined at all, or inconsistent, eg, “AspAT” vs “ASPAT”)
- Compound words (“left handed” vs “left-handed”)
- Phrases in capitals (“Heart Rate” vs “heart rate”)
- Open brackets and quotes
- Order of tables and figures
- Spacing (double spaces, spaces before punctuation, spaces at the end of a paragraph)
The list above is not exhaustive. Editing and proofreading software can improve many other elements of documents. It can also be customized to check for in-house style elements.
AI-based quality-check software is typically a plugin to your text editor, and can work on both PC and Mac platforms.
When you’re working on a manuscript and reach the point when you believe your document is ready, launch the software and perfect your work. Every program works differently, but experts often recommend accepting changes step-by-step rather than universally. The software will point out each formatting inconsistency and ask which version should be used throughout the document.
Nobody’s Perfect, Not Even Document-Perfecting Software
AI-based quality-check software isn’t flawless, although developers seem to improve the functioning with each new product or version.
Be aware of the publisher’s requests regarding the treatment of abstracts. For example, if the abstract and the main body of the manuscript are prepared as a single file, as most journals require, the software will suggest defining an expanded abbreviation only once, in the abstract. Most journals will need the abbreviation to be spelled out again in the main body of the document.
Furthermore, some AI-based tools will try to “improve” titles of the articles in the reference list. So, use these tools, but proceed with caution. Nobody’s perfect, not even AI software.
What’s Your Method?
Thorough proofreading improves documents by ensuring that writing is error-free, sharp, and conveys the intended message.
Each individual develops a preferred method of proofreading. Some people prefer to read aloud, or have an app read the text aloud to them. When reviewing typeset proof, most people read it on its own first and then compare it with the original text.
Many medical communicators use a proofreading or editing checklist to ensure that they are not missing any key elements.
One final tip: Step away from the project between proofreading sessions to give your brain and eyes a break.
You’ll be thankful you did.
Editor’s Note: This blog was originally written by Szymon Brużewicz, PhD in 2019. It has been rewritten/updated by AMWA for republication.