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Whether you're getting ready to publish your own medical findings, translating someone else's, or reporting on something, keeping things in terms others can understand can be truly challenging. Here are some tips for improving your writing:
1. Understand your readership. Most of the time, we falsely believe writing is about us, what WE found, what WE wish to say, the way WE think is best for conveying a certain message. But it’s not; it's all about the topic and the readership. What THEY want to know, how THEY understand certain messages, what word choice or grammar structures THEY are used to seeing.
2. Become your readership. A great way to understand your readership is to become the readership yourself. Read what they're used to reading, and pay attention to how good writers go about it, look closely at the way they structure their articles or abstracts, their word usage, grammar, tone, etc. Some great examples of good English writing in medicine and genetics can be found in the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Human Genetics.
3. Watch your word choice. If English is not your mother tongue, you are likely to fall into the temptation of using certain words and expressions that might technically be correct, but are not commonly used in the language. For example, a native Spanish speaker may be tempted to use brain trunk in English, while a native English speaker is more used to calling the same thing a brain stem; technically there’s nothing wrong with brain trunk, it’s simply not idiomatic. If English IS your first language, you may be tempted to use complicated or archaic terms to which your readership may not be accustomed.
4. Keep it simple. Whether your readers are doctors and scientists, patients, or the general public they want to understand what you are trying to express. The more complex the topic, the simpler and clearer your writing should be.
5. Keep it organized. Brainstorm what you want to say before you begin writing. Jot down phrases you would like to use. Make a list of words you want to include. If you're a more auditory person than a visual one, record your ideas on tape and then listen to them before you begin writing.
6. Look out for acronyms. It’s true that most people who read anything on medicine and genetics are familiar with the most common acronyms in the field such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), but keep in mind that certain acronyms can mean different things in other countries, or may not exist at all in some places (DNA, for example, is ADN in Spanish speaking countries). So, when using acronyms, don't assume your reader knows what they stand for. It won’t cost you anything to clarify what it means in parenthesis the way I did the first time I wrote DNA in this paragraph, and if your readers didn't already know, you'll save them the time of looking it up.
7. Stay away from slang and collocations. One of the main principals of good writing is register. It's perfectly O.K. to use an informal, friendly style when writing a how-to article like this one. But, some matters deserve greater seriousness and respect. If what you're writing demands formal register, slang and collocations are completely out of the question. If you're not a native English speaker, no matter how good your English is, you might end up using it in the wrong context, which will make you loose credibility. If you are a native English speaker, keep in mind that English slang and collocations are not easy to understand for non-native speakers. So show consideration to your readership by using terms and expressions everyone can comprehend.
8. Don't forget to punctuate. Incorrect punctuation can completely change the meaning of what you are trying to express, or make your entire statement sound a little off. For instance:
The department offers minors in both genetics and zoology. B.S./M.S. programs are now available, here a student, with proper planning, can complete the requirements for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years.
The department offers minors in both. Genetics and zoology B.S./M.S. programs are now available. Here a student with proper planning can complete the requirements for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years.
See my point? There are rules for punctuating, and it might be a good idea to follow them.
9. Check your spelling. Cun you reed sumtheng thatz nat spelled ryte? Bad spelling can be confusing and misleading. Make sure you always check your spelling and grammar.
10. Check with your fellow pros. Have someone else read your work before publishing it or delivering it to your client. Anyone who is used to writing will be able to give you great feedback and useful tips. Remember, feedback isn’t always easy to accept, but if it’s constructive it only make you better at what you do.
No matter what you do for a living, or what has brought you to the world of writing and/or translating, following some basic principals of good writing will help you convey your message more effectively and feel more confident while doing so. Remember the 5 C's and you can't go wrong: Consistency (tone, grammar, style), Courtesy (spelling, punctuation, acronyms), Clarity (keeping it simple), Correctness (slang, collocations), and Conciseness (effective, readable content).