by Dinethra Menon
Supporting evidence forms the backbone of health writing to validate the content you create. However, have you ever been confused about how to reference a piece of consumer health writing? Or, have you submitted work and had it sent back with a request for more details of references?
If you’re a scientific or academic writer, you’ll already be very familiar with academic referencing. Yet it can be difficult to apply the traditional academic model of referencing and annotation to some forms of consumer health writing – like articles, blogs, Facebook posts and short snippets of information.
It’s common to wonder how to approach references in consumer health pieces – for example:
- Do you include in-text references or cite your sources as a list of links at the end of the piece?
- Will the client, editor or employer check your references and remove them before publication, or do you need to supply two copies – one with references and one without?
- Should you include in-text hyperlinks to Pubmed abstracts when you discuss research?
- Do you include a reference for every source you read during your background research, or do you only need to include the scientific studies?
- Do you even need to include references at all?
Essentially, it is only your client, editor or employer who can answer these questions.
There’s no single rule when it comes to referencing your consumer health content, as every business you work with has their own requirements and internal policies.
However, by having a clear referencing process, you can ensure you’re able to effectively meet these requirements and avoid the need to re-work your writing (which can be quite onerous!).
Referencing in health writing
Providing references allows the organisation you’re writing for to have a more detailed account of the information you obtained for your work – so they can be comfortable that the work is accurate and of a standard they’re happy to put their brand or business name to.
Not only does referencing ensure the credibility of the background information used to establish your arguments, but if the references are published with the content, it also enables readers to source further information on the research and health topics.
Much of the consumer health writing of today is very different from academic or medical writing that uses direct quotes or information from sources. While some claims can be easily referenced, other arguments are a summary or analysis of a variety of different sources. While you can supply references that validate the overall accuracy of the information and background research, it can sometimes be difficult to clearly indicate which page, line or section of a reference your information came from.
If you then change your consumer health writing style so your arguments can be more easily referenced, there’s a chance your writing may not be engaging or creative enough for the general public. Finding the balance can therefore be a challenge!
These tips can help you to develop your own referencing process – so you can better meet the referencing needs of the health brand, business or organisation you’re writing for.
Tips for effective referencing
1. Become clear on the specific requirements before you start
Every organisation has their requirements for referencing health content and it can help to understand up-front what these are to ensure you meet these requirements while you write.
Where possible, try to understand your requirements up-front – it can save you time and ensure that any revisions you include in your quotes aren’t chewed up with re-referencing your content.
2. Ask for an example
Part of the discussion about referencing requirements may include asking for an example of how they like their work referenced. This can help you better understand the style and type of information to include in your draft.
For example, some health organisations may require your writing to acknowledge the evidence you have sourced with a corresponding in-text reference, whereas others may just need a list of sources. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask before you start writing to save yourself time later. You can save yourself a lot of time by writing the references in the preferred format as you write.
3. Dedicate (a lot of) time to referencing
Before you submit your work, dedicate a set amount of time to referencing only. Keep a detailed record of your references as you write your draft. This will save you time later trying to figure out the references after you have finished writing.
While you’re double-checking your references, it can help to go back to your original source to ensure you are referencing accurately.
4. Understand the preferences for evidence
It’s helpful to be aware of the hierarchies of evidence preferred by the health organisation you’re writing for. For example, they may have a preference for local sources and quantitative studies over information source from reputable or government websites.
By making sure you have all this information before you start writing, it not only helps you source references, but also will ensure your content is relevant and similar to the existing content produced by the health organisation.
5. Consider using referencing software such as EndNote
There are pros and cons for using EndNote or other referencing software in your writing.
Having an EndNote library means you will always use the correct source for an in-text numbered reference and reduces your chances of incorrectly typing in the wrong reference.
However, although using EndNote can save you time typing citations and double-checking for accuracy, if you’re freelancing it is important to unlink your references from your EndNote library when you submit your work. Some clients do have a preference that EndNote is not used for this reason. In fact, Mendeley is fast becoming the referencing software of choice for many medical writers.
Once again, it’s best to ask before you start.
Do you have any other suggestions for referencing your consumer health writing? Feel free to share in the comments below.