Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Medical writing careers

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 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.