Copy editing medical content requires a basic knowledge of medical terminology or the “language of medicine.” It is the medical copy editor’s job to ensure that the right terms are used and that they are spelled correctly. There is a big difference between a colonoscopy and a colostomy—and you do not want to be the one to mix them up. You will be a more effective and efficient medical copy editor with a good foundation in medical terminology.
Body’s Systems and Basic Physiology
Understanding medical terminology starts with knowing the body’s systems and the parts that comprise them (skeletal, muscular, integumentary, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine, nervous, urinary, and reproductive) as well as some basic physiology. If you do not have a biology background, the Khan Academy offers free online courses in human anatomy and physiology. InnerBody is a free virtual human anatomy website that offers hundreds of interactive anatomy pictures and system descriptions. Or perhaps you would like to take a “peek under the hood” with Anatomy & Physiology For Dummies.
Common Medical Terms and Medical Root Words
You need to be familiar with common medical terms and medical root words. Most common medical terms used today are derived from Latin or Greek, which makes sense since the Greeks were the founders of modern medicine. Having some knowledge of the Latin and Greek bases of words will go a long way to understanding the word and ensuring that it is used correctly. For example, the Greek roots myo (muscle) and myelo (bone marrow) look similar but have very different meanings. I was fortunate to take a “Latin and Greek for Scientists” course in undergrad, but I suspect that many of you with a natural love for language will already have some knowledge in this area. As a starting point, here is a list of medical roots, suffixes, and prefixes with their meanings and etymology. For medical terms, the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy is the most widely used comprehensive medical textbook for both professionals and consumers (available in print, online, and as an app). The American Medical Writers Association also offers a self-study workbook on Elements of Medical Terminology that is designed primarily for those with little or no medical background. You do not have to be a member to purchase it.
Correct Spelling and Common Errors
The field of medicine is filled with ridiculously complicated terms, such as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (“ice cream headache”) and unusual spellings (eg, hemorrhoid, diphtheria). You are definitely going to need a medical dictionary. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is the authoritative spelling resource for more than 54,000 medical terms and it is available in print, online, and as an app. Stedman’s also offers a medical/pharmaceutical spellchecker that is compatible with many word processing systems. Windows users also receive a universal spellchecker that integrates medical and pharmaceutical spellchecking throughout the entire desktop, not just in Word. This is an invaluable tool for medical copy editors.
I will discuss abbreviations and word usage in medical writing in future posts. Until then, happy adventures in editing!
I am freelance copy editor, proofreader, and instructor based in Toronto. Enjoy my adventures in editing! (Note: I transferred my blog over and lost my comments along the way, unfortunately. Please add new ones.)