So you want to get into medical editing

As Dragonfly’s editorial manager for science and medicine, I hear a lot of people say they’d like to get into medical editing. That always sounds a little vague to me because medical communications is such a broad field, and there are so many ways to be a medical editor.

As editors, we all work on many kinds of content. Some projects might relate to your professional background or education. Other jobs might reflect your personal interests. Some work might come your way out of the blue.

If you want to get into medical editing, how can you align your editorial experience and skills to make that move?

Here are some things to consider:

What interests you about medical editing?

One of my favorite things about medical editing is feeling like what I do helps people. That’s a good feeling.

I also enjoy the highly technical aspects of this writing, particularly for scholarly publications. The precise editing that’s required can seem almost like doing a puzzle, and it’s satisfying when a piece snaps into place. And I have a front-row seat in learning about new developments in science and health care.

These are my medical editing jams. Be able to express what excites you about this kind of editing.

Who is your preferred audience?

The most technical content is usually written by and for clinicians. But the broadest audience is made up of patients. The medical field has been transitioning to a model of “patient-centered care,” in which health care providers make medical information accessible to patients, who become educated partners in health care decision-making. There’s also medical education, which uses both traditional publications and online learning to train new and continuing health care professionals.

All these audiences need clear, correct information, in different formats and reading levels, and medical editors have a role in crafting that content. Do some reading to get a sense of what voice speaks to you.

What areas of medicine interest you?

Your life experiences might lead you, directly or indirectly, to a particular type of medicine that you know about or want to know about. I learned a lot while caring for my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease, and then I ran seniors lunch programs and got a graduate certificate in gerontology.

That education and life experience helped a lot when I started editing a urology journal. Urology overlaps with oncology (cancer) and transplant medicine, which led to other work in those areas and then in cardiology (heart) and pulmonology (lungs) as well as molecular biology and genetics.

I found that I’m fascinated by cancer—read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee!—but don’t ask me about orthopedics. Ophthalmology seems to involve a lot of geometry. Think about your own experiences and what you’re interested in learning.

How do you like to work?

Are you a detail person who likes a fast pace? Editing pharmaceutical materials might be for you. Do you like to really dig into an edit for a few hours without being disturbed? Journal or book editing might suit. Are you online all the time? Medical centers, associations, and industry develop social media and website content. Talk with people in the field to discover myriad ways of medical editing.

What skills do you have?

Most technical medical editing uses American Medical Association (AMA) style. The 11th edition came out in spring 2020 and is available online (https://www.amamanualofstyle.com). Check out the “Style Quizzes” link on the main page to test your skills and improve your knowledge.

Chicago or Associated Press (AP) style also might be useful for patient-facing materials and general health writing.

If you’re a member of an editorial association, check out the educational programs for information on becoming a medical editor. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a series of recorded webinars available called “Medical Editing 101.” The Board of Editors in the Life Sciences offers certification for editors who have at least two years of experience doing science or medical editing. The American Medical Writers Association has various courses and certification in medical editing and writing, as do several university editing certificate programs.

Certifications have gained importance in the gig economy and may help you gain a foothold in a crowded field.

At the end of the day, I find the most satisfying editing projects are usually the ones that are interesting personally. To get into medical editing, use your own interests and experience to find your path.

Written by Editorial Manager, Science and Medicine, Jeni Crockett-Holme and edited by Michelle Anderson and Lisa Péré.

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