Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

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.