What’s your style? Are you an AMA person? An APA aficionado? Does your employer use a house style guide?
For freelancers, perhaps the more important question is: What writing style guide does your client want you to use? Many publishers, journals, and organizations (AMWA has one) have created their own style guides — or they have created supplements that define the deviations from a style guide.
Major Writing Style Guides
One of the essential tools for medical communicators is a style guide, a reference for how to make decisions about grammar, abbreviations, punctuation, and word choice. Style guides are the key to consistency within a document or throughout a series of publications. In an AMWA Journal article summarizing posters on display at the AMWA Annual Conference, authors Emily Mahan, MFA, and Sandra Ripley Distelhorst, ELS, wrote, “Medical writers can use the AMA Manual of Style as their primary style guide for general language, publication, and ethics issues when writing across disciplines, keeping in mind a few key, manageable differences between style guides.”
AMA Manual of Style
In medical publishing, many medical communicators use the American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style. In 2020, the guide published its 11th edition, and it bills itself as “a must-have guide for anyone involved in medical and scientific publishing, providing everything you need to produce well-organized and clear manuscripts.”
The guide is a living document that evolves with the English language. As an example of the types of issues the AMA Manual of Style addresses, consider the question of whether to capitalize hyphenated compounds in a heading. Should it be “Short-term Effects” or “Short-Term Effects?” AMA style guidance (10.2.2) reads, “In titles, subtitles, and text headings, capitalize both parts of a hyphenated compound.”
The APA Style Guide
Another style with significant traction is the APA style, based on the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Seventh Edition (2020), maintained by the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA also publishes an online “Bias-Free Language” guide based on the seventh edition. The APA guide is often used in the social and behavioral sciences.
For example, APA style provides a detailed guide to using in-text citations, both parenthetical and narrative. Some clients may prefer this to the footnote citation style of AMA.
The Chicago Manual of Style
Another essential style guide for writers is the venerable Chicago Manual of Style. This guide is available in book form or online with a subscription. It provides extensive guidance for all stages of the publishing process and includes chapters on style and usage, numbers, abbreviations, quotations, and illustrations and tables.
If you enjoy diving into style questions, you may want to check out the blog CMOS Shop Talk, which tackles topics like hyphenation and offers fun quizzes.
House Style Guides and Style Sheets
Some organizations and clients will supply a house style guide, which helps create consistency among and within documents. Pharmaceutical companies will often have what is called a branding guide.
Creating a style guide is a big project, which is why some organizations will opt instead to create a style sheet, which outlines exceptions to a major style guide such as APA. A style sheet can serve as a quick reference for editorial decisions, references, common abbreviations, and often-used terms.
Other Helpful Resources
For medical communicators seeking consistency and clarity in writing, a checklist is an essential tool. AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist is a tool editors and writers use to ensure that a document has a consistent tone and meets publication guidelines.
Medical Writing: A Professional’s Guide to Advancing Your Career explores style and usage, plain language principles, and other resources for medical communicators.
AMWA ENGAGE is an online community and discussion platform for members with lively discussions on style guides and practical guidance for advancing a career.