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home >> Rules for medical writing

Rules for Writing

Before penning down their thoughts, ideas or any research work, authors should be aware of certain basic rules that have to be followed for a good piece of work. Best outcome can be achieved by following few simple rules, like

  • Selecting the target journal
  • Knowing the importance of reading "Instructions to authors" section
  • Reading and highlighting the necessary instructions of the target journal

Every author willing to publish his work should most importantly read the "Instructions to authors" section, which is given at the very beginning of every journal/magazine. Before starting to write, it is better to completely go through the set of instructions, even if the author has already published his work in other journals. Because every journal will have its own set of writing and publishing instructions, therefore, going through will save a lot of time and avoid frustration at the end when the author discovers that his writing was not accepted. Instructions produced by a specific scientific publication seem to be alike, therefore, many authors read the initial part and think this is very similar to the previous one and skip the remaining instructions. Moreover, authors are very excited about seeing their article in the journal as a result they start writing straight away without reading the instructions for which they have to pay later.

Now, after knowing the importance of reading the "Instructions to authors" section, select a journal that best suits your area of work. Take the journal and spend time in going through every section of the journal, read the previously published articles and become familiar with the style and format of writing that the target journal is following. Going through the journal should also convince the author that the journal chosen is perfect platform for displaying his work. No matter how unique and original the author's work is he has to write the manuscript according to the target journal's style and requirement. Some journals might include the section "Instructions to authors" in their every issue and some may publish it once annually and many have it permanently on their website. So irrespective of whether the instructions are published or not it is always better that the author has his own hard copy/photocopy/print out of the instructions so that he can refer to it anytime in the process of writing his manuscript.

Thirdly, with the hard copy of the instructions in hand the author has to read it thoroughly from beginning to end and know what they require? Going through doesn't mean just slipping through the instructions but understanding it completely. For better understanding, the author can highlight important instructions that suit his work. Now spend little more time focusing these highlighted points, this at times seems a tedious work and utter waste of time but the author will find that it was worth doing so when this makes his writing easy. Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that a well formatted article will have higher chance of acceptance than an unformatted article. With all these basic recipes in hand, now the author is almost ready to write his article.

Know your grammar

The above described basic instructions will help the author in writing a well formatted article that is written keeping in mind the instructions of the target journal. But another very important thing to be considered which will make the article even better and reduces the chance of rejection is - avoiding grammatical mistakes, which will give a fine finish to the article.

Importance of grammar

Every writer writes and wants to publish his work for the sole purpose of conveying his message or displaying his work to the world. The work must give a detailed description of the methodology, observation and interpretation without any ambiguity, and possibly minimum misinterpretation. The article should convey every step of the process in a simple and clear language such that if anyone in future wants to repeat the experiment they should be able to do it without much difficulty. Perfectly formulated sentence with less grammatical errors proves to be an effective tool for unambiguous communication. As scientific articles have readers throughout the world, therefore, the best language to be used will be English. If the article is written with proper grammar, then other scientific researchers will be able to follow the work easily, but if it is not clear, then the author might not be successful in conveying his work completely to the reader and the readers might face hard time figuring out what the author exactly wants to say.

Common Grammatical mistakes
Consistency in spelling

English might be an international language, spoken and understood globally but while writing one needs to take care of the spelling that he is using. There are two versions of spelling for few words - British and American version. For example the word "colour" and "color", "analyze" and "analyse", "sulphate" and "sulfate". There is nothing wrong in using either of these spellings but the author must take care that he consistently follows one version (either British version or American version) throughout his article. If the author is submitting his article to an American journal he should try to use American version of spellings. And if he is used only to British version of spelling and he is willing to send his article to an American journal, then he can check the instruction manual to see whether he can use British spellings. However, it doesn't matter whether the author uses American or British spellings unless he is consistent in following one version all through his article.

In some cases a single word has two alternative spellings, for example, "labeled" and "labelled", "focused" and "focussed". Even in this case, the author is free to use any spelling, provided he uses the same in his entire article. Consistency in spelling, units, and abbreviations are very important factor which at most of the times many authors ignore. Ultimately, the article should read like it was written by a single author and by a group of authors.

Choose Active over Passive

Always write the article in a very simple, straight-forward and declarative manner. Let the article deliver the point right away, never go round the topic and complicate the article. To write in simple language always choose Active version over the passive one. For example, it is better to say "I like you" than saying "You are liked by me". Similarly instead of saying "A baby girl was delivered by Mrs. Jones yesterday at 4:00 am" just simply use "Mrs. Jones delivered a baby girl yesterday at 4:00 am". Passive version of sentences is often considered confusing and less engaging to the readers. Currently all scientific writings are based on active sentences even if the author has to use "we" or "I", for example, "We performed a Two-way ANOVAs test" is simpler than to say "Two-way ANOVAs test was performed by us". Choosing to use active voice along with "I" or "We" show be followed with few guidelines

  • Never start a sentence with "I" or "We", this diverts the reader from the scientific topic.
  • The author should avoid using "I" or "We" in case if he is assuming or guessing things, as this might be more of a personal opinion than a logical scientific fact.
  • Avoid using "We" as though the reader is also included, this might not sound appealing to many readers who are contradicting the authors result.

Always remember that many nouns are derived from verb, as in case of "Preparation" which is derived from the verb "Prepare". This will help the author write "Aspirin was prepared from... " instead of writing "A preparation of Aspirin was made from... " if in case the author wants to write in active voice then he can write "We prepared Aspirin by... "

Relate the participle correctly

Use of unrelated participle may mislead the reader and fail to convey the exact essence of the article. Participles are nothing but verbs or adjectives ending with "ing", for example jumping, reading and walking. Always remember that the participle should relate grammatically to the functional subject of the sentence. As in example "A woman walked down the street wearing a red sari" in this sentence the "Woman" is the subject and the participle "Wearing" is related to the subject. Now look at a similar sentence "A woman walked down the street leading to the market", this sentence has an unrelated participle as the participle "Leading" refers to the street and not to the subject of the sentence. In this case the correct sentence would be "A woman walked down the street that led to the market".

In scientific writing, use of incorrect participle may be unpleasing. Sentences such as "The cells were cultured in XYZ medium containing colchicine" this sentence is incorrect as the participle "containing" refers to the medium and not to the subject "cells", the perfect sentence would be "The cells were grown in XYZ medium, which contained Colchicine". Another example to understand better "The cells were shown to have contaminant using compound microscope" this sentence does not relate its particle to the subject; there it can be better written as "Using compound microscope, we observed that the cells contained contaminants".

To write unambiguous sentence with correct participle always make sure that the participle refers to the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Know where to use "which" and "that"

While writing a sentence many would not have given importance as to where to use "which" and "that". Alternate use of "which" and "that" does not seem to alter the sentence but for sure it changes the inner essence of the sentence. "Which" can be used in a sentence where something is secondary and of less importance but "that" is used when something is very important. For example take the sentence "Cells were grown in an enriched medium that contained calcium ions" and compare it with "Cells were grown in an enriched medium, which contained calcium ions". The first sentence conveys that the cells were grown in a medium that contained calcium ions unlike other normal medium sans calcium ions, where as the second sentence says that the cells were grown in an enriched medium and added to this the sentence also gives the reader an extra information that the medium contained calcium ions. There is much difference between the two sentences, the first sentence says that use of calcium ion is important but the second sentence conveys that calcium ions were used in the medium as a supplement.

Use of "which" and "that" can be decided by asking the question "Whether the use of calcium ion is secondary or whether it is important". If the writer can insert "incidentally" without altering the meaning of the sentence, than he should use "which" and not "that" keeping this in mind if the presence of calcium ions was important than the sentence should be "The cells grew in the enriched medium that contained calcium ions." If the presence of calcium ions was incidental or secondary, the author should write, "The cells grew in the enriched medium, which contained calcium ions." Remember that the word "Which" should always be preceded by a comma.

Noun disguised as adjective

Scientific writings many a time are complicated that a common non-science background person finds it difficult to understand the concept. There are many examples where author uses noun as adjective, which results in ambiguous sentences. For instance consider this most commonly used endocrinological phrase "the thyroid hormone receptor antagonist" this sentence clearly refers to a molecule that binds to the receptor of thyroid hormone inhibiting the binding of thyroid hormone to its receptor. Now compare this with the next sentence "the cloned thyroid hormone receptor antagonist" this phrase might deliver its content to people with science background but when a author want to gain world-wide readers than he should take care that he minimizes mis-interpretation by the readers. This adjective "Cloned" in the second sentence causes little confusion, does the adjective "cloned" refer to - the thyroid hormone or to the thyroid hormone receptor or to the antagonist. Any person with research knowledge will shoot back saying that the adjective "cloned" refers to the entire word "the thyroid hormone receptor antagonist" but a lay man will be baffled initially, therefore, authors must take extra care while using such complicated phrases.

Inappropriate use of adjective in the second sentence may lead to the following mis-interpretation

  • "The antagonist directed against the cloned receptor for growth hormone;"
  • "The cloned antagonist directed against the growth hormone receptor;" and
  • "The antagonist directed against the receptor for cloned growth hormone."

With so many possible conclusions the author will not be successful in reaching the audience. Another complicated example for better understanding would be "mouse marrow-derived macrophage colony-stimulating factor- (MCSF-) dependent monocytes." This phrase with the noun "monocyte" simply conveys that the monocytes derived from mouse marrow and their growth is dependent on macrophage colony-stimulating factor. Instead of writing such a complicated sentence the author can simply say "The growth of monocytes derived from mouse marrow was dependent on macrophage colony-stimulating factor."

Therefore, when the author targets international readers and scientific group his article must be unambiguous and clear, this will help the scientific community to understand each other's work and share their opinion with each other.

"This" is often incorrect

Many times an author make a list of points or observations and finally becomes little lazy at the end and just simply writes "This is an important point" or "Based on this observation... " without clarifying the reader that which of the above said point is important or based on which observation he arrived to conclusion. Using such sentence replaces clarity by opacity and to make the sentence clear he needs to find the noun to which the word "This" was exactly referring to. For example take the above sentence, when I say this is an important point, the reader might be puzzled thinking what am I exactly pointing to when I say "important point". Am I referring to "replace clarity by opacity" or "make the sentence clear" or "finding the noun in the sentence" so to avoid such ambiguity the correct way to say would be "These issues are important".

Always remember that "This" is an adjective and it must always refer or alter the noun. Avoid using "This showed... " without stating which of the preceding observation showed. Be specific and say which observation was responsible for arriving at a conclusion. For example "The dividing cells grown in enriched medium were shown to change its color, which were visible only under ultra-violet light". This sentence conveys 4 observations to the readers

  • The cell were dividing
  • Grown in enriched medium
  • Change its colour
  • Visible under UV light

And for such a sentence if the author simply writes "This showed... " than it is obvious that the reader will not be clear which showed what.

Finally remember "This" is an adjective and can never stand alone

The correct use of "due to"

Another very common mistake that writers do is the use of "due to" in inappropriate places. The phrase "due to" should only be used to link two nouns and not as an adverb. "The formation of yellow clumps, in the cell colony, was due to the addition of an enzyme" this sentence is perfect as the phrase "due to" is linking both the noun "formation" and "addition". It would be incorrect if the author writes "Due to the addition of an enzyme we observed yellow clumps" as this does not link the nouns. Always remember to link the nouns in a sentence with "due to".

Another easy way to avoid mistakes with the use of "due to" is to remember that "Due to" means "Caused by" and not "because of". For example it is wrong to say "The match was postponed due to rain" here using "because of" will be appropriate "The match was postponed because of rain". If the author wants to use "due to" then he can write "The match postponement was due to rain". Precisely, use "due to" where ever you can substitute "caused by".

How and where to use "Types", "Kinds", and "classes"

Writers from all discipline make a very common mistake in the usage of "Types", "kinds" and "classes". Consider "one type of child; one kind of parent; one class of children. The author can use plurals if there are two of each, like - "two types of child; two kinds of parent; two classes of children. In case the author is writing a scientific article just remember "two types of cell," "two kinds of cell," and "two classes of cells"; and "many types of subatomic particle," "many kinds of subatomic particle," and "many classes of subatomic particles." Note that only for classes we should use "cells", "particles" and for "kinds" and "types" we use "cell", "particle".

Using "None"

"None" is not a plural word as used by many. It is a singular word and refers to zero. While using "none" the author should remember it as an abbreviation of "not one". For example the sentence "None of the horses in Mr. Jerry's field are able to run faster" is incorrect. As "none" is a singular word the correct version will be "None of the horses in Mr. Jerry's field is able to run faster". By remembering this many of the authors who wish to write will avoid mistakes.

Avoid using "It"

Never start a sentence with "It" until and unless the writer is clear what "it" refers to. "It" can be used only if the author has already clarified a single point in the previous sentence. For example, "I went to the market and missed my wallet. It could have been avoided". In this sentence there is confusion in understanding what exactly could have been avoided. Is it "going to the market" or "Missing the wallet". Therefore author should be clear with his usage of words.

Problems with using Hyphenation

Use of hyphenation is never given much importance. Writers who are not aware of the rules to use hyphens tend to use them anywhere in a sentence. Hyphens should be used for compound adjectives that are followed by a noun, well, ill, better, best, little and lesser. Example, ill-hearted, well-known person, but this applies only when the adjective is simple and is not modified further, like in case of "very well known person."

It's worth knowing that adjectival compound words with "fold" is written as single word, like "tenfold increase" but when used with figures they need to be hyphenated, like "10-fold increase".

And when a prefix stands alone it must be hyphenated, example exo- and endothermic reactions. Likewise hyphen should be used after first number in a phrase, "He is four-to five-day-old", "its seven-to eight-step reaction".

Hyphenation and abbreviation

Every article contains a list of abbreviations; if the author is planning to use abbreviation then he should make sure that for the first time he writes the abbreviation in full. But care should be taken if the full out abbreviation comes in between a hyphenated phrase. For example it is not correct to use "Fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)-conjugated antibodies" incorporating a hyphen in middle of a phrase is not correct, therefore it should be written as "Fluorescein isothiocyanate-conjugated (FITC-conjugated) antibodies.

Numbers versus Hyphens

Using numbers and writing numbers in words also has few simple basic rules to be followed. In normal writing it is a common practice to write numbers one to ten in words and numbers beyond that are written mostly in figures. But if the number is followed by an abbreviated unit it should be written in figures only. For example, it is incorrect to write five g/L, instead the author can write either 5g/L or Five grams per liter. If numbers are spelled out then it is correct to write the following units also in full form. And another basic rule is that never start a sentence with figures like, "5ml of hydrochloric acid was mixed with... ", if the author wants to write the numbers out in words then he can write "Five milliliter of Hydrochloric acid was mixed with... " writing "five milliliter" every time would be cumbersome therefore avoiding all these confusions the author can write "An aliquot of 5ml of hydrochloric acid was mixed with... " or in active voice "We mixed 5ml of HCl with..."

The common mistake is always in writing numbers with hyphenation like "two-year-old" or "10-fold". While using numbers with hyphenation there is possibility of two very common mistakes.

  • Missing hyphenation: Consider this sentence "Two year-old babies". This sentence says there were two babies both one year old.
  • With hyphenation: Read this "Two-year-old babies", this conveys there were unknown number of babies all were two-year-old.

If numbers greater than 10 are used it is always convenient that the author uses figures instead of words. For example, "16-year-old children" if the author here is referring to 16 children who are of one year old than he can say "16 year-old children"

In case of using range for distance, speed, period or age, for instance "12-to 15-year old children" "two-to five-year period" "100-to 500-ml of sulphuric acid" "80-to 90-km/hour" and many more but always be sure to use hyphen after the first number in cases like above. As already seen in case of "fold" it is correct to write "Five-eightfold increase" or "5-to 8-fold increase".

Lists and semicolons

Another very important punctuation that makes a sentence clear and distinct is semicolon, the super-comma. When the author is listing a number of items or chemicals or ingredients he needs to separate every item from the other, for this a semicolon is used. For example, if the author is writing about a cooking recipe while listing out the ingredients for baking biscuits, white flour, unbleached; wheat pastry flour or whole wheat flour, salt, sugar, crystalline or powdered; baking soda, baking powder, thyme leaves, dried or crumbled; butter, unsalted; sore milk or butter milk, this should be fresh. So in the above list various ingredients are separated by semicolons to clearly distinguish from other ingredients.

Likewise in scientific writing while writing the list of primers for a PCR reaction the author should write forward 1, ATTGCCATCCAG, and reverse 1, CGGATTAACGCC; forward 2, ACCGTTGCAAGT, and reverse 2, CCAGTTGACTGA; and forward 3, ACGACTGCATGC, and reverse 3, ACCAGTTGCAGT." As you can see, each pair of primers is separated from the next one by a semicolon. Another simple example would be "We visited Chicago, US; Tokyo, Japan; Agra, India. Mr. Jones sons date of birth are 2nd November, 1990; 25th August, 1993.

  • Use semicolon where a full stop can be used. Semicolon is much easier to use when the writer learns very simple rules to use it. - Semicolon is used when two complete sentences are combined together. Both the combined sentences give complete meaning in itself.
    For example, the work was started with 30 members; only 14 are remaining. Using comma instead of semicolon would be a blunder. But addition of "and" can allow the author to use comma, example "The work was started with 30 members, and only 14 are remaining".

Proper use of semicolon will allow the reader to understand the list of items without any confusion.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

There are few words in English that sounds similar and therefore is confused often.

Affect and effect

Both the words "affect" and "effect" sounds almost similar but doesn't mean the same. Remember "Affect" is a verb and "Effect is a noun.

Examples:
  • The medicine did not affect him.
  • The medicine has no side-effects.

But the author should also remember that "Effect" acts as a verb in cases where it want to bring out something, like "Some new rules has been effected by the principal".

Into and In to

Into is a single word meaning "from outside to inside". Into is a preposition where as "in to" is an adverb where "in" is followed by a preposition.

Example:
  • The soldiers jumped into the fire
  • The soldiers walked in to warn the villagers about flood.
Farther and further

"Farther" and "further" is two different words. "Farther" refers to something beyond, it refers t advancement in distance, where as "Further" refers to advancement in greater degree.

Example:
  • My farm is farther than David's farm
  • The soldiers decided to move ahead without any further delay.

All together and altogether

"All together" is a very common word, which means everyone in the group but "altogether" means "over all", "sum total", "completely".

Example:
  • Every morning students stand all together for prayer.
  • She was altogether wrong.

Just precisely remember that all together can be separated, we can write the above first sentence as "Every morning all the students stand together for prayer". And use altogether where ever completely can be substituted.

Till and until

Till and until are words that more or less conveys the same meaning. Therefore the author is free to use them interchangeably.

Verbal and oral

Many people misunderstand that verbal and oral means the same. The word "oral" means spoken words, whereas verbal means expressing through words, either orally or in written format.

Example:
  • Oral presentation, oral test meaning spoken test
  • Verbal communication meaning communication through words or "Verbal agreement" means an agreement in words, either written or spoken.
Envelop and envelope

"Envelop" is a verb, which means "to wrap up or cover up something". "Envelope" is a paper packet that is usually used for wrapping a letter or card.

Example:
  • In deep forest darkness envelops us in the evening.
  • He brought an envelope for the greeting card.
Disinterested and uninterested

There is always confusion as to where to use "disinterested" and "uninterested". Disinterested means "unbiased" or "impartial" it is actually a positive word whereas uninterested is a negative word that means "not interested".

Example:
    The dispute was smoothly settled by a disinterested leader He is uninterested in going for a trip.

By following these simple rules everyone who wishes to showcase their writing flair can now start without much difficulty. Go ahead and explore your writing skills.

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