So you want to be a science writer?

A guide to being a medical or science writer in an agency

Disclaimer: all characters appearing or appearing to appear in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Any resemblance to existing bodies, agencies or organisation is also completely coincidental. In fact, I most certainly have no idea what I’m talking about and the few sentence I manage to successfully string together should, in the vast majority of cases, be discarded immediately and followed with a loud ‘harumph’ and ‘guffaw’. But enough of that.

You’ve decided that a life in the lab just isn’t for you. Or you’ve failed to make the cut for a job in the lab, despite your string of qualifications and clear inability to function in the real world. Maybe someone told you that the life of a writer was glamorous and exciting. And anyway, you’re just waiting for Science, Nature or New Scientist snap you up. Right?

Well, whatever decision, misfortune or delusion landed you here, you’ll likely find yourself working as a writer in some sort of agency at first. In all likelihood you’re in a marketing agency peddling someone else’s wares or in the murky realms of medical communications (or MedComms as they like to call it). Either way, you’ll now be writing for people too busy, lazy or incompetent to write their own material. You’ll also have to deal with a few surprises, challenges, and moral grey areas.

Fortunately for you, I have few pointers and truths to share that I’ve picked up during my four years in this weird industry. You’re super excited already, I can tell. By the end of this piece you can either rejoice or wig the hell out in the awesomeness/shattered illusions of your chosen profession.

1. Get (re)creative

Your first brief comes in: you have to highlight the benefits of product X based on a super succinct and conspicuously data-light data sheet. Oh, and turn it into four articles. This week. And each article needs to describe the essential ways the product has been pivotal in research. In fact, pivotal falls short: it’s causing a paradigm shift in the industry’s approach to just about everything. People are now leveraging stuff they never even knew could be leveraged without a lever!

But there are only so many ways that you can extol the groundbreaking and definitely not completely mundane benefits of product X. So, put on your creative cap: you’re going to need every shred of writing ingenuity you can muster.

Being able to reinvent a story over and over and over again can be challenging and actually takes some skill to do well. The trick is to find a new approach or a new audience, no matter how subtle or insignificant they may be. Do PhD students need it? Lab managers? Undergrads? People with long hair? People with no hair? Is it ‘user-friendly’ (whatever that means)? Does it do something novel? Is it actually better than anything else on the market? Does it have the unfortunate side effect of getting so hot it melts your samples? Does it make lasers shoot out of your nipples? Is it just a little quieter, shinier or more sleek-looking than the best alternative? Does it come with a brand-spanking new acronym?

Find your not-so-novel approach and run with it. Questions like these will form a core part of your daily activities, so now’s the time to get good at answering them.

2. Don’t overthink it

Science has done a great job of training your brain. It’s made you good at being critical and objective. Yet this may well be your downfall when writing for clients. You see, at some point you’ll come across evidence that doesn’t support your agenda. It might suggest that technique X is actually a little bit rubbish. Being an intelligent, critical thinker, you’re going to want to discuss that. Congratulations, your brain still works.

But it turns out that your client just so happens to bloody well love technique X. In fact, their whole product line makes extensive use of technique X. The smart scientist inside you will want to lay out its advantages and limitations. But I can assure you that your paying client will not. Instead, get ready to cherry pick your references or omit these little inconveniences altogether.

You may also hear that clients come to you (well, to your agency) for your intellect, your expertise, and your knowledge. Sadly that’s only partly true. They come to you for your ability to sound convincing and credible, and by extension, to make them sound convincing and credible. If that aligns with reality, awesome. If not, well… Sometimes it’s going to be beneficial to put side your critical brain.

3. You’re at the bottom of the shit chute

You may well be the driving force behind a client’s sales and marketing efforts; the brains behind some of the company’s best content; the source of a KOL’s best presentations at conferences, symposium and meetings; the thought in leader; and the writer behind some fantastic papers. But you are forever at the bottom of the chain. You are the service provider. You are working to make a profit for someone else. Shit travels downhill and I’m sorry to say, you’re at the bottom of it. If a client’s getting grief from their bosses, they’re going to pass that down to you — even though you’re the one working hard to make them look like informed experts.

This means that unreasonable deadlines will wing their way to you. Documents marked up with a flurry of question marks rather than useful feedback will burst into in your inbox flagged as ‘Urgent’. And you will at some point receive the cryptic email response of, ‘This isn’t what we were expecting’ even though you followed the brief word-for-word.

You’re just going to have to suck it up, put on your psychic hat, deduce what the client did want, and determine which animals you need to sacrifice at the Mystic Volcano of Copy this week to appease the fickle Client Gods.

4. Put ethics aside

Ghostwriting probably isn’t very cool. I’ve made no secret of my feelings about that. If you’re writing an article for someone else and that finished document lists someone else as the author, with no mention of you, then that’s wrong. You are misleading the reader. The person on the byline may indeed have the knowledge to have written the piece, but they didn’t write it, and they didn’t make a significant contribution to the writing process. You are lying to your audience. And that’s just plain old horseshit.

Now when it comes to medical writing for peer-reviewed journals, there are guidelines for ghostwriting. This means your glorious initials will reside in the acknowledgement section of a paper. They have to write, ‘We thank BH for his medical writing assistance’. Now, by ‘assistance’ they usually mean writing the whole bloody thing — from outline to final draft. Some clients will be more involved with the outline process than others, but when that journal article is published, it will at least provide some reference to the external writing fairies that did the work.

But this doesn’t always happen — particularly in online trade publications from non-medical writing agencies. In these instances, the client might send a brief, saying something like,

‘We want three 1,500 word articles and some answers for a Q&A based on this 200-word application note and some thoughts we scribbled down on a napkin at lunch. Put them in these publications. Make Drs John and Susan the authors — can you write their bios as well? We need to position our authors as thought-leaders. Thanks’.

You go ahead and craft their ‘expert’ opinions based on your own research and slap their names on the thing. You remain completely unacknowledged. The reader believes that those industry professionals wrote those articles and drew those conclusions. They did not. You did.

If this isn’t a problem for you, because you’re just helping out someone else too busy to write a blog, opinion piece, or peer-reviewed article, then you may well be in just the right job. But if this presents an ethical problem that you can’t resolve because you believe it’s wrong to mislead readers, you may have to start looking for new career options.

If you’d like to read more about the problems associated with ghostwriting in a scientific capacity, PLoS have an interesting collection that can be found on their site.

5. Get out

If you can’t resolve the dilemmas agency life throws at you, just get out. Find something else. Ultimately, this is a job and throw-away comments like, ‘That’s just agency life’ probably aren’t sufficient justification for being treated like a disposable content monkey.

So there you have it: truths from the horse’s mouth. Albeit a rather cranky and jaded horse, but honesty nonetheless. Have you survived agency life? Are you currently looking for an exit strategy that doesn’t involve burning the building down? Have you made a career from writing for other people? Are you that jammy git working for a science magazine doing proper journalism? Maybe you wised up and realised that life was actually better back in the lab! Let me know, as I’m always interested to hear tales from other writers and scientists.