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!
“If publishing were like getting dressed in the morning, the copyeditor would review the chosen outfit, bearing in mind the weather and what the day’s agenda entails. She may decide on different shoes or a wider belt. She may pick out a different jacket. She may even suggest an entire wardrobe change. She examines the overall appearance and makes suggestions to create the nicest-looking ensemble that ever stood in front of the bedroom mirror. The proofreader then waltzes in and points out the deodorant marks on the shirt.” (Suzanne Gilad, Copyediting & Proofreading for Dummies)
Many authors who contact me think that proofreading is synonymous with copy editing (and sometimes copy editing is synonymous with copy writing, but that’s a different story). But copy editing and proofreading are two different processes done at two different stages of production. When I explain to an author who is clearly looking for copy editing that proofreading is actually the final step after typesetting and layout, I still have many who say that is what they need because they have already put their manuscript in final publishing format—without having copy edited the text first. Editors can understand how eager authors are to see their manuscript “look” like a book, but there are stages that should be followed so that you do not end up wasting valuable time and money.
According to the Professional Editorial Standards of Editors Canada, copy editing is defined as “editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness,” whereas proofreading is “examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements.”
Science or Art?
Regarding the text, it has been said that proofreading is a science, editing is an art. Proofreading is correcting text. Copy editing is not just correcting, it is also improving. Let’s take a look at the following example:
Notice the difference. In the proofread correction, the text remained the same, but the spelling and number errors were fixed. In the copy edited correction, the wordiness of the sentence was corrected. This change in wording makes it a “stronger” sentence. The proofreader would not change the wording. As long as it is understandable, the proofreader would leave it as it is and fix the copy editing and layout errors only.
When, Where, and How
Copy editing and proofreading differ in when, where, and how they are done. The copy editor works on the manuscript before layout, usually on-screen in a Word document. This is a much easier time and location to copy edit. The copy editor can adjust the font size and line spacing of the document for easier reading without worrying about messing up the layout. The copy editor also has access to lots of built-in Word functions as well as add-in Word tools and macros to help in the process. The proofreader, on the other hand, works on proofs of the final manuscript after layout, usually within a PDF or on a hard copy (printed out version). Space to work is far more limited in this format and the proofreader reviews things that the copy editor never sees, such as all the style and visual elements, cross-references and running heads, typography and page formatting.
Copy editing (manuscript in a Word document)
Proofreading (PDF proof of page spread)
How are corrections marked? When copy editing a Word document, track changes is used to mark errors and changes to the text. Errors and text changes are marked directly within the body of the text. Comments are usually made within the margins. In proofreading, however, changes have to be indicated in two places: within the body of the text using standard symbols and a corresponding symbol or note/query in the margin on the same line so that the error can be easily spotted. A summary of the differences is presented below:
What other differences are there between copy editing and proofreading? Share them with us.
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.)