How To Become a Medical Writer
Do you like medicine, biology, and science? Do you like to write? Congratulations, you could be a medical writer!
You don’t need an advanced degree to be a medical writer. I want to clear that up right away because it’s a misassumption that keeps a lot of potentially great medical writers out of the field.
In fact, I’m a medical writer and I do not hold any college degree. All you need is curiosity, the ability to learn on the fly, and a solid understanding of how to write well.
I won’t spend time here on my background and how I came into this field (I’ve covered that elsewhere), but I do just want to make clear that I am qualified to write about this topic. I am a Certified Medical Writer (MWC) and a Board-Certified Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS) — more on these credentials later. I learned enough on my own that I was able to produce a 1,406-page integrative medicine textbook, nearly 100,000 copies of which have been distributed to date.
Medicine isn’t something mystical. It’s very empirical. Experiments identify what works, then doctors apply the successful interventions to human patients. Anyone willing to dedicate the time to learn about medicine — either through self-teaching or structured formal education — can learn to write about medicine.
So, enough background. Let’s get into just what a medical writer is and does.
Lots of different kinds of writing is “medical writing”
Many people unfamiliar with the medical writing field assume it entails mostly doctors writing about mostly doctor stuff. While this is indeed part of the field, there are numerous other types of writing that fall under the umbrella of medical writing. I’ll cover some of the more common categories here.
Regulatory writing. Regulatory writing is the branch of medical writing that deals with governing bodies relevant to medicine and bioscience. Documentation that pharma companies have to submit to the Food and Drug Administration to begin marketing a new drug is an example of regulatory writing.
Other types of regulatory writing include the documents associated with clinical trials — and there are a lot of them. For instance, protocols for the clinical trial procedure, clinical study reports, documentation for institutional review boards, and the list goes on.
You definitely don’t need to have an advanced biomedical degree to do some types regulatory writing. Attention to detail and resistance to document fatigue are the chief skills necessary here. A lot of the content in the regulatory writing arena is very structured, and precise accuracy with details in crucial.
Patient education. People diagnosed with a disease need information about their condition that is accurate and that they can understand. There’s an entire industry of writers who spend their days developing content to be used in doctors offices or on patient-facing websites that helps patients understand their disease.
Here’s a link to a library of literature focused on patient education for some examples.
Writers focused on patient education need to have a good understanding of the topics they are writing about. Translating information from highly technical language for doctors and scientists into prose a construction worker will understand is very hard.
Biomedical journalism. This category of medical writing is likely the most appealing to the general writer or journalist. A medical journalist covers new clinical trial results, interesting lab findings about disease mechanisms, conference proceedings, and company or university press releases.
The goal in biomedical journalis is to accurately convey new developments about science and medicine to the public. Unfortunately, many medical journalists use ethically sketchy tactics to get views on their content. These include reporting relative risks instead of absolute risks, and failing to contextualize new evidence.
There is a desperate need for more medical journalists who can properly interpret statistics and who will write truthfully about medicine (instead of using hyperbole to get views).
A wesbite called Health News Review provides an awesome toolkit for health and medicine journalists that covers ways to avoid falling into the trap of bad journalism in this field.
Manuscript writing. “Manuscripts” here refers to articles that will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals. Many bioscientists and doctors discover some amazing stuff but don’t have the time or the skills to put it into words so it can get out to the broader academic audience. Manuscript writers help bridge this gap.
A manuscript writer will work closely with a scientists or doctor to develop a compelling journal article for submission. In many cases, articles are “ghost-written,” which is a practice of questionable ethics but that is nonetheless pervasive. In many cases, it’s reasonable for manuscript writers to be listed in the “Acknowledgements” section of the final manuscript that goes to the journal.
To be a good manuscript writer, you’ll generally need to work in a relatively focused area of medical science because you’ll need to be well versed enough to make sure the author’s ideas make sense given what’s already out there in the area.
Medical fiction. Yup — fiction can be medical writing too! Write a cool story with accurate medical science in it, and viola! You’re a medical writer.
The mixed-bag. This is the most common type of medical writer — those who do a little bit of everything in the field. I consider myself among this category.
Resources for getting into medical writing
If you’re a writer and you’re interested in exploring the medical writing field further, here are links to some great resources (and feel free to reach out to me with additional questions and I’ll help if I can).
AMWA is the leading organization in the medical writing field. They have amazing educational materials and offer the Certified Medical Writer (MWC) credential that I mentioned earlier.
The AMWA annual conference is worth attending for anyone interested in breaking into the medical writing field.
BELS is geared more toward medical editors, but has some great networking and education resources as well. They offer the ELS credential I mentioned above.
You’ll find pretty much everything you need to break into regulatory medical writing on the RAPS website.
Many medical writers work as freelances, and the EFA provides a lot of helpful info for freelance writers of any type.
5. The University of Chicago Graham School offers an online medical writing and editing certificate program.
NASW is geared more toward journalism, and offers excellent resources for biomedical journalists.
Medical writing is a dynamic and intriguing field. There are many people out there who’ve made careers of medical writing, and most of them are more than happy to help newbies explore the filed.
If medical writing interests you, explore some the resources I mentioned above or feel free to reach out to me.