A medical writing style guide can be handy for your clients and employers. Sticking to the house style is essential whether you’re editing your work for your business or working with clients or employers.
What is a medical writing style guide?
A medical writing style guide is a list of rules writers follow to keep their writing style consistent.
These rules can relate to grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, formatting, bullet lists, language usage, subheadings, spelling, layout and more.
A style guide can be as detailed as you like, but it needs to be easy to use. You want to create a style guide that is simple enough for your writers and editors to follow it!
Why do you need a medical writing style guide?
There are many reasons why having a medical writing style guide is essential for your business.
Consistency and professionalism
A medical writing style guide keeps all the business’ writing consistent. When your external communications are consistent, they look and feel more professional and credible. If several documents from the same business use different conventions, the work feels unedited and less professional.
Keep messaging aligned
A style guide can keep writers on track if the company has specific messaging tied to goals or objectives.
Medical writing style guides can contain important information about marketing and advertising guidelines, including words to avoid to ensure compliance.
Style guides teach writers how to follow and stick to rules, helping them make fewer errors in future.
What format should your medical writing style guide be in?
The style guide doesn’t have to be in a specific format, so consider what will be easiest for the people using it. The style guide could be in any of the following formats:
- Online eBook
- Printed book
- Google doc
- Online document
How long should the medical writing style guide be?
The optimum length for your guide depends on the type of content the business produces and how many rules there are. Some style guides are one or two pages, others are 50 pages!
What goes in the medical writing style guide?
You don’t need to over-explain concepts. Consider the specific terms, words and phrases that are often inconsistent or problematic in your business. There may be common misspellings or terms that often need to be used or used more.
Here’s a guide to the terms you may wish to include.
Processes, abbreviations and acronyms: Aim to include any specific language the company uses and language to avoid.
Terms frequently used in your industry or health topic
Consider terms such as patients or people. Do you use person-centered language (eg a person with diabetes, not a diabetic)? How do you refer to people of different ages and backgrounds? Do you have rules when writing about care settings, trials, guidelines or research?
Where is your target audience from? There might be different ways of spelling certain words for your audience (American English vs British English) or different words entirely. For example: In Australia, a physician is a specialist, but in America, a physician is a regular doctor.
Spelling, grammar and punctuation
Define those conventions that can go either way, like Oxford commas, quotation marks, capitalisation, numbers, spelling, sentences, punctuation, dashes, hyphens, symbols, abbreviations, contractions, numerical information – the list goes on!
Need a refresher on some of these editing rules? Check out my medical editing course.
You may have rules about paragraph length, sentence length, bullet lists, font size and type, paragraph spacing and headings.
Does your client or organisation have a specific referencing style? Include it here with examples to avoid confusion.
How to create your medical writing style guide: Getting started
Step 1: Plan your sections
Before you start writing the content, you’ll need to determine the guide’s scope.
Questions to consider:
- What is the point of the style guide?
- Who is the guide for?
- What do the guide’s users already know about writing?
- What stylistic items can we leave out?
When you know the answers to those questions, brainstorm a list of critical sections. You can use the list above in this blog’s ‘What goes in the style guide’ section as a starting point.
Step 2: Determine your rules
Determining your rules can be the most challenging and time-consuming part. Getting the key stakeholders to agree on the rules can be tricky! Oxford commas, double or single quotation marks?
You may need to meet with the main people using the guide to agree on the basics. Or, to avoid issues when there is disagreement, you can follow the recommendations of a trusted source, like the Oxford English Dictionary.
Step 3: Add valuable explanations
Your style guide users may find knowing the reasons for the rules helpful. Reasons help to avoid confusion and help people understand why the rules exist. Add an explanation for each rule. For example:
- Keep paragraphs 4-5 lines because long paragraphs are hard to read.
- Use you instead of the patient because you is more engaging and personalised.
Give examples where necessary to ensure the style guide’s readers understand how to apply the rules. This is especially helpful with numerical information.
Step 4: Design your medical writing style guide into a helpful tool
Make the style guide easy to navigate and find sections. Consider using a tool like Canva to design the guide or design it in PowerPoint.
Make sure you edit and proofread the guide, too!
Step 5: Distribute to your team
Consider the best way to make everyone aware that your new medical writing style guide exists. Getting people to use the guide may be challenging if you have a lot of writers and editors. You should remind people and follow up regularly to ensure they use and understand it.
Step 6: Review and update your medical writing style guide regularly
When I’m teaching my health writing courses to businesses and corporations, one of the first questions I ask is whether there is an existing style guide. Those who say yes often admit that it hasn’t been updated in years. Remember that rules change constantly, so schedule an annual review for your style guide to keep it current and useful.