Manuscript Editing: Tools and Tips for Medical Communicators

    manuscript-editingEvery document improves with editing, and medical editors are key to the process of creating consistent, readable, and error-free manuscripts.

    What are the fundamentals of manuscript editing for medical communicators? What are editors looking for when they edit manuscripts? What tools are available when editors seek to create high-quality manuscripts?

    Ask the Editors

    In an article in the AMWA Journal, Christine Holzmueller, MS, reported on a session at the 2021 Medical Writing & Communication Conference titled “A Systematic Approach to Manuscript Editing” by speakers Kelly Schrank, MA, and Loretta Bohn, ELS. 

    These experienced manuscript editors expressed the belief that the goal of medical communicators is to “shine the best light” on the scientists and authors. The presenters reported on a survey they conducted where editors shared their priorities when examining each section of a manuscript and manuscripts as a whole. 

    The survey revealed that most editors evaluate the manuscript as a whole for the following elements.

    • Consistent terms and definitions
    • A coherent and logical flow of information
    • A research methodology that demonstrates good science
    • Adherence to the target journal’s requirements, such as word limit, reference formatting, and title page components

    In each section of the manuscript, the respondents said they edited manuscripts to

    • Meet editorial standards (grammar, punctuation, syntax, readability, and spelling)
    • Ensure the content addresses the purpose of that section
    • Include the components specified in the journal’s guidelines

    Using tools such as author instructions, style guides, and editing checklists demonstrates professionalism and ensures that every document reaches its full potential.

    Advice for Editors

    The open access journal Research has published some excellent guidelines for editors of Science Partner Journals on its website. These experts offer the following tips.

    • Be objective. If you have a conflict of interest or feel you can’t judge a manuscript impartially, do not accept an offer to edit the article.
    • Provide considerate and constructive feedback to authors. 
    • Work promptly. 
    • Maintain confidentiality. Editors working on submitted manuscripts need to take care not to share with others the content of manuscripts they are working on.
    • Know the journal’s editorial policies.

    Most journals will spell out the requirements for publication in their author instructions.

    Author Instructions

    Journals’ author instructions provide a wealth of information for editors. Author instructions will specify word count limits, preferred style for formatting references and figures, and other key information for editors. Author instructions often appear on a journal’s home page. These instructions are separate from submission instructions that cover the protocols for submitting manuscripts.

    Author instructions will specify, for example, the information that is required on the title page, subheadings for abstracts, and the format for acknowledging contributors, naming funding sources, and listing conflicts of interest.

    Style Guides

    One of the essential tools for medical communicators is a style guide, a reference for making decisions about grammar, abbreviations, punctuation, and word choice. Many journals, publishers, and organizations have created their own (house) style guides, or they have created supplements that deviate from major style guides such as the American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Seventh Edition (2020), or the Chicago Manual of Style

    Creating a house style guide takes effort, so some organizations create style sheets, which outline exceptions to style guides and usages for specific projects. 


    The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right, written by Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, revolutionized the medical field by making the case that all experts benefit from checklists to avoid “errors of ineptitude.” 

    Checklists are useful for creating consistency in terms, structure, and concepts. They also help boost productivity and provide a valuable document to share with authors.

    Checklists exist in many disciplines, and AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist is a tool that helps editors and writers ensure that documents have a consistent tone and meet publication guidelines. 

    AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist

    AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist is organized into three main sections: macroediting, microediting, and proofreading.

    1. Macroediting (big-picture questions). This is sometimes called substantive editing because it shapes the architecture of the document, focusing on the unity, congruence, and coherence to make sure the author’s intent is conveyed in the text. 

    2. Microediting (ground-level questions). At this stage, the editor looks at the function of the language below the paragraph level, improving grammar, syntax, style, tone, clarity, and credibility.

    3. Proofreading (final pass). Proofreading is an essential final step to make sure that every element of the document is as error-free as possible.

    Submitting an article for publication in a journal is a high-stakes endeavor. Journals reject manuscripts that do not meet quality standards. Errors harm the authors’ reputations and can lead to questions about the underlying data. 

    AMWA acknowledges the contributions of Loretta Bohn, ELS, for peer review in the development of this AMWA resource.


    March 11, 2024 at 9:00 AM

    American Medical Writers Association

    AMWA is the leading resource for medical communicators. The AMWA Blog is developed in partnership with community members who work every day to create clear communications that lead to better health and well-being.