Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Earn extra money from medical writing

If you've ever published any medical writing, don't miss out on an easy source of extra income.

Be sure to register with the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS), which pays out secondary royalties for uses such as photocopying and digital reproduction.

The ALCS pays writers, editors, translators and some other contributors who have worked on:

  • books (including chapters)
  • journal articles
  • magazine articles
  • scripts.

There are also payments for qualifying photos, illustrations and diagrams.

Medicine is one of the top areas for ALCS payments, so if you have published anything in this field, see if you qualify. If you've published material in a medical book, they might even be holding backdated fees for you.

The first step is to join the ALCS. Then register your works on the website and wait for the next distribution date. Payments vary and you might not get anything - or you might get a lot.

The non-profit ALCS takes a commission on your payment and deducts a small, one-off membership fee, but the payoff is definitely worth it.

Also, membership is free if you belong to the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Authors or the Writer’s Guild, so that's another good reason to join these organisations for writers.

Blogging tips for doctors

I meet many doctors who want to write, but they are held up because they don’t know how to get their work published.

Blogging is an option to consider, especially if you want to venture beyond the limits of traditional academic publishing. It's easy to get started, and the flexible format allows your writing style to shine through.

Think about your goals - why do you want to write? Blogging might get you where you want to go, especially if:

1. You want to further your career. Whether you are interested in medical politics, clinical leadership, or a higher profile in your specialty, blogs will make you more visible and set you up as an expert.

2. You want to help patients. There’s a lot of junk on the internet. Giving patients reliable information is more important than ever.

3. You want to help your colleagues. Maybe you have advice to share, or you want to advance the goals of an organisation that’s important to you.

4. You must tell the world about a burning issue. Forces in society shape our health, and your message can be very effective because doctors are so well respected. Before you plunge in, pause and take a note from Ibsen because campaigning can be a hard road.

5. You are getting bored. Writing offers a new intellectual challenge and keeps you mentally sharp.

6. You want to make a career change or expand your areas of work. If you are moving into a new field, researching your blog will help you learn the landscape. You’ll make new contacts and raise your profile.

7. You love writing. Some people simply love words, language, and ideas. The wonderful thing about writing is the absence of barriers. There is nothing to stop you. If you love writing, do it.

How to go about it

If you’ve decided to have a go at blogging, here are the steps.

Cover yourself. Publishing has its potential downsides. Make sure you understand and minimize the risks from the start. Get insurance. Check the GMC guidance on social media.

Plot your content plan. This is the fun part. Decide who your audience is. Think about the topics you want to cover, and list them out in order. Plan a calendar for publication and try to stick to it.

Decide where to publish. There are so many possible outlets. What about the website for your hospital, clinic, Royal College or Faculty, or favourite charity? Ask the person in charge of communications for the organization. Getting published on a news or journal website gives you great exposure and you might get paid. Approach the editor. If you want to self-publish, here is a helpful introduction to some of the technical options. Or hire a professional website designer to set it up for you.

Do your research. Readers expect a lot of value from blogs these days. They are not interested in random wanderings (unless you are amusing, a rare gift). They want facts and useful information. Your blog needs to have substance, so start digging. I like these content guidelines from Google.

Write your blog. There are many ways to approach a writing project but at the end of the day, you just have to sit down and get the words out. Write as many drafts as you need to.

Have someone review your work. If your blog is being reviewed by an editor before publication, that’s ideal. Otherwise, have someone you trust check it over for spelling, grammar and general readability. Ask for their honest comments on the style, tone and content.

Take a deep breath and post your blog!

How to hire a medical writer

The stakes are high when you’re looking for help with a medical writing project. You need to know the work will be accurate, honest and effective. So how do you go about finding and working with the best writer for your project?

Do I need a medical writer?
There are some excellent reasons to involve an editorial professional. The obvious one is time. Even if you have great writers on your team - or you’re a pretty good writer yourself - you might simply need an extra pair of hands to get the job done because everyone is really busy.

Other times, a professional medical writer can fill a skills gap, or bring in extra knowledge. Maybe you need a writer with a particular style, someone who can get the words just right for your audience.

A medical writer is one way to go but keep an open mind. Hiring a freelance to carry out specific parts of the task might be more cost-effective. Maybe what you really need is a good researcher to trawl and assess the literature. Sometimes it is faster to have a member of your team write the bare bones, and then ask a freelance editor to flesh it out. It’s always a good idea to have an independent proofreader give your work a final check.

In the longer term, consider investing in some training so your team can take future jobs all the way from start to finish, allowing you to keep full control of the job in-house.

How do I find a good freelance writer?
First of all, look for someone who matches your brief. A mastery of the subject area is nice to have but not essential. Most medical writers will get up to speed quickly on most topics. Their experience with your format, platform and audience might be more important.

The ideal approach is to ask for recommendations. If your contacts can help, a referral from someone you trust is by far the best way to recruit a medical writer.

But what if this is not an option?

Recruit through a talent agent and you have an instant friend in the business. They should provide a list of candidates who have already been vetted, and the agent should be able to match you up with a writer who suits your needs. They can also give you lots of advice and support on the admin side. Sometimes I book work through my own agent, George Buckland - he does all this and more, and he does it brilliantly.

If you can’t pay an agent’s fees, your next option is a DIY search. Most professional organisations for medical writers have a directory of members, and this can be a great way to find the right person for your assignment.

There’s an element of built-in quality control, because every member will have gone through an application process. This typically involves showing examples of published work, being approved by officials in the group, and providing recommendations. These are all reputable organisations with member directories:

Guild of Health Writers (contact the administrator)

Medical Journalists Association (complete their query form)

European Medical Writers Association

Association of British Science Writers

Society of Authors (has a medical writers section).

When you’ve found a writer you like, don’t stop there. Ask for writing samples and a couple of references from recent clients or employers.

Once you’ve ticked all these boxes, congratulations! You are ready to talk terms.

How much does it cost?
You might find that your chosen writer is reluctant to quote a rate immediately. This is more reasonable than it might seem. The fee depends on the nature of the project: not only how much time it will take but also how much responsibility is involved, what level of education or knowledge is required, whether it’s a rush job and how much support you can provide.

Most medical writers charge by the hour and will supply a time sheet with each invoice. Fees vary widely but it’s reasonable to expect a range of £320 to £500 per day. Some highly qualified or in-demand medical writers will charge more.

It’s less common than it should be, but you could also ask about a fixed fee for the project. That way you are paying for a result rather than time, and it’s easier to stick to your budget.

What about the admin?
You absolutely need a contract with your medical writer. This is important to assign copyright, for example. If your organisation does not have a standard contract for medical writers, a well-organised professional will have their own version for your consideration.

Having professional indemnity insurance is another mark of a serious partner for your project.

How can I make sure the job is done right?
The results you get will only be as good as the brief you give, so it’s worth putting in the effort to get this right from the very beginning. If your initial ideas are a bit vague that’s OK. A good medical writer will jump at the chance to develop the brief with you side-by-side. This can save you loads of time and it means you get extra value from your writer’s knowledge and experience.

Clear communication is essential, so stay in touch. Don’t just leave your writer to get on with the job alone.

At the end of the project, give your freelance some feedback and a debrief. It should be a two-way process, so why not ask your writer how it went from their point of view? And if the project results in an award or other kudos, please let your writer know. We’re only human and we like to share the glow of success.

How to become a medical writer

Medical writing is a rewarding career, where you really get to help people. Once you have worked your way up, the rates of pay can be excellent. If you’re interested in becoming a medical writer, here are some FAQs to get you started.

What qualifications do I need to become a medical writer?
Generally, you need a degree in a biomedical science or a clinical qualification. Many roles in pharmaceuticals require a PhD. Of course, you also need to be a good writer. Ask someone you respect to comment on a sample of your work. If you need to build your basic writing skills, there are some excellent university courses online, and they are free. Have a look at the choices, from grammar through to writing a scientific paper.

How do I find a medical writing job?
If you want a full-time career in medical writing, I think it’s essential to start out with a staff job, not as a freelance. This is how you learn the trade and make contacts. For the pharmaceuticals sector, Medcomms Networking is is a great resource. Pharma is not the only game in town, either. Universities, publishers and charities also hire medical journalists, editors and writers. If you’re a recent graduate, think about a paid internship.

How do I get freelance writing assignments?
If you’re a clinician and you want to do some writing in your spare time, it’s different. You could start with publications you already know well. Do you belong to a Royal College or Society? The website editor might be looking for bloggers, or the membership magazine might want features or opinion pieces. There are also loads of weekly publications in the health sector. Sometimes it’s more realistic to start out with the lower-profile magazines, websites and journals. You'll find listings in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook.

How do I make contacts?
You have to be brave. Decide who you want to work for, learn all about them, then get out there and meet them. Call people who could commission work, and have your CV and writing samples ready to send immediately afterwards. Learn where your employers or commissioning editors are likely to hang out, and go there. This means attending seminars, conferences and exhibitions. Join a professional writing group as soon as you qualify: the Guild of Health Writers, the Medical Journalists Association and the European Medical Writers Association all offer networking opportunities.

Do you hire medical writers?
I do work with some associate writers, experienced people I know well, but I am not accepting new applications at this time.

Can you give me more advice on becoming a medical writer?
If you are interested in future workshops, mentoring, e-learning, or subscribing to a free newsletter, please send me an email and I will keep you up-to-date.

Is medical writing a worthwhile career option?
Absolutely! Every day is interesting and different. You meet some great people - it’s not always a solitary job by any means - and there are many ways in if you have the ability and determination.

Rules for writing patient information

When someone is sick or hurt, they’re scared. They don’t know what will happen next but they probably have some terrible ideas about the possibilities. That’s why good patient information should build confidence as well as knowledge. Follow these rules to get that balance just right.

1. Know their concerns. Learn about your audience. Find out what they care about, what they worry about, and what they want to know. Talk to people with firsthand experience, and check the research literature. Healthtalk Online is a great resource for this.

2. Be kind. Start gently. Choose your words carefully. Acknowledge some of the feelings your audience may be having. Encourage them to get one-to-one support and explain where to find it. The Helplines Partnership has comprehensive listings.

3. Be honest. You have to tell the truth but take your audience there one step at a time, without overwhelming them. Let them know there is sad news coming up and give them a chance to look away if they want to.

4. Be accurate. People are trusting you, so take the utmost care with your facts. Before you get too far into your desk research, start by talking to some experts. This saves a lot of time and gives you focus. If you are an expert yourself, then talk to your peers. You will always learn something and it’s useful to challenge your assumptions. The Science Media Centre can put you in touch.

5. Be fair. You know the old saying that medicine is both an art and a science. Sometimes I think this just means ‘it’s messy’. Often, there is disagreement among the experts. Maybe you disagree with the experts. The evidence may be incomplete, conflicting, or proven wrong sometime in the future. People deserve to know about these issues when they are making decisions about their health. By all means keep it simple and clear but where there is uncertainty, say so.

6. Make it easy. Health information must be digestible. Don’t heap everything on one big plate. Instead, serve small bites on elegant little dishes. Use shorter words. Use images. Present information in chunks, one idea at a time. For many people, this buffet will be enough. Others will be hungry for more, and you can offer them the additional option of deeper detail or send them to other reliable sources.

7. Offer hope. When you’re writing health information, it’s easy to end up with pages and pages of misery. But we all need hope and motivation. If you’re talking about prevention, don’t forget to mention that people will feel great when they follow your advice. If there is a cure for the condition you are writing about, or most people recover, explain this. Even if the outlook is not good, your information can offer ways to feel better.

10 steps to proofread your medical writing

Careful proofreading is like minding your manners: it gets you noticed for the right reasons and shows consideration for your reader.

It also helps you avoid embarrassing - and possibly expensive - mistakes. Your instincts might tell you to read the piece straight through, but it's better to scan for errors first. Try this 10-step checklist to get it right every time.

1. Start with the big stuff. Check the main headline for typos. Then look at anything else where the typeface stands out, like sub-headings and captions.

2. Check the spelling on all names. People are offended when you get this wrong. Make sure titles and organisations are correct.

3. Check the bottom of every page. Is the footer correct? Are the page numbers right? Check the copyright statement, job number or any other publishing information.

4. Check numbers. This is especially important for medical writing. Compare any numbers to your approved manuscript. Sometimes it's smart to check your numbers against the original data source, too.

5. Confirm consistency. If it’s a longer piece, do the headings match the table of contents? Are the citations and figures (illustrations) numbered correctly? Are the citations laid out in a consistent style?

6. Look for the lonely ones. Do you have short lines of copy dangling at the top or bottom of the page? If you are forced to use hyphens across a line break (and here I shudder), are they landing in the correct part of the word?

7. Look up tricky words. Check drug names and medical terms. If you’re unsure about any spelling, look it up.

8. Start reading
. Now you can get stuck in and begin to read through the copy.

9. Tackle punctuation and grammar. If you find yourself tripping over an awkward bit of copy, you probably need to fix the punctuation or grammar. Revise the wording so it's easy to read and the meaning is clear.

10. Come back to it. This step is essential. Take a break from the material, walk around or work on something else for a while, and then come back to it. Read it through once more. There is always time for this, even when you are on a tight deadline. In fact, it’s especially important when you are under time pressure, because that’s when mistakes are most likely to happen.

Good proofreading smooths the way for your readers and it gives you some extra confidence in the tough business of publishing. Once it has been checked properly, your work is ready to show its best face to the world.

How to use the Harvard referencing style

There are different ways to present your sources in medical writing, so they meet house style and accepted academic standards.

If you haven’t already seen it, please do have a look at my earlier post on using the Vancouver style for references, which kicked off this mini-series.

Now we are moving on to Harvard, which is another common choice. This is my own favourite because you don’t have to number the references within the article – always a headache when you come to second drafts and beyond. There is also something nice and traditional about it.

A citation for a journal article with more than two authors would look like this:

McAlpine, L. et al. 2014. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clinical Medicine. 14(5), pp. 500-505.

Within the text, you would cite the reference like this. (McAlpine et al, 2014)

Simple! You’ll need more details if you are working on a live manuscript. I think the University of Leeds has a great resource. You can also bookmark this page and come back to it the next time you are referencing up your own healthcare writing project.

How to use the Vancouver referencing style

If you're an experienced medical writer, you'll already know that documenting your sources is a crucial part of the job. There are different formats for presenting your citations. Sometimes, this is set out in house style guidelines. Other times, the choice is up to you.

The Vancouver style of referencing is favoured by many medical journals. The references are numbered throughout the text, and the citations are listed in this numbered order at the end of your piece.

As an example, a journal article would look like this:

McAlpine L, Selamaj E, Shannon C, Chis L, Dacre J, Elder A. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clin Med. 2014;14(5):500-5.

So in general that's:

First six authors (surname, first initial) followed by 'et al' if there are more authors. Title of paper. Title of journal with approved abbreviation. Year; volume (issue number): page numbers.

You can bookmark this page and come back to it any time you need a reminder. This is only a very general guide and you will need more details for your medical writing project. For further information, and rules on citing other types of source material, see the guidelines from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

Searching the evidence

A literature search has always been a part of good medical writing, but tighter regulations and schemes like the Department of Health’s Information Standard mean this process is increasingly formalised.
When you're up against a deadline, it's tempting to leap right in and Google everything on your topic. But starting with a plan is ultimately faster and it helps you remain objective.

The main steps are:

• Write a clear research question.
• Set limits for your question, such as a time period.
• Brainstorm a list of key words for your question.
• At this point you are ready to search. If you don't get enough results - or if you get too many - you can try with another question.

Our brains don't always follow these rules, though. One fascinating study found that strict searching protocols are not the only effective method. (Greenhalgh et al 2005) Researchers also got good results by asking their contacts, using their own knowledge, and tracking down references cited in other papers.

Great interviews

A good interview can lift any piece of writing. It’s essential to add human interest and even when you are researching a really dry piece, if you ask the right questions you may end up following a new and exciting path.

In advance
An interview is a brief opportunity so good preparation means you can make the most of it:

• Before the interview, agree how the quotes and information will be used.
• Send the questions in advance. People will be more open and have more facts.
• Do your homework. Learn about your topic and identify any potential sensitivities.

Ask the right questions
Ask closed questions (that could be answered with a “yes” or “no”) when you want to confirm facts. If you are fishing for something more interesting, ask open questions that will require a lengthier answer. Opinions are just as important as facts because they can reveal issues you were unaware of. Finish off by asking whether there is anything else they’d like to mention. Allow some time for this as it’s often the best part of the interview.

And of course, always remember to follow up with your thanks.