What Are You Trying to Say?

In his chapter, “An Approach to Style” in The Elements of Style, E. B. White states, “A careful and honest writer does not have to worry about style.” This statement guides me as an editor, and as a writer, when I become too mired in the frustrations of dangling modifiers, passive sentences, imperfect words. I try to remember, the point of any writing is to communicate. When I ask myself what I am communicating, and get back to the simplest idea of my purpose for an assignment, the editing becomes easier, and the intricacies of style seem less of an obstacle and more of a tool.

But what happens when an editor isn’t sure what he or she is communicating? Medicine is complex, full of specialized words and obscure concepts. What happens when we don’t realize that a word is being used incorrectly, because our understanding of the concept being communicated is limited? This is perhaps the most difficult challenge I face as an editor of medical journals, and the reason we track our changes when sending them to authors. What if my streamlining of a complex sentence detrimentally affects its meaning? It’s always my fear that, in attempting to improve a statement, I will cause the meaning to be changed.

This is why I’m grateful for the author-assisted editing process. Each author who carefully sorts through my myriad comments and questions, who assesses the edits I make and comments on them, is my ally in making sure any reader, regardless of their experience with English or level of medical expertise, can use our journals in their work. Physicians are busy people, and editing is not their job. Yet, this partnership allows us to make our journal as useful and far-reaching as possible. As a microbiology student, I regularly used medical journals in my research and school assignments. Reading these studies was challenging at best, and occasionally baffling. It’s this experience that I go back to—remembering that it’s not just myself and the author who will need to understand this work, that it affects all levels of medicine—and remembering my purpose, I turn the elements of style into my tools.—Roya Khatiblou, MA

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