Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Medical writing

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.