What’s the first thing you do when you experience an unusual symptom? If you’re like most people, you search Google and find yourself reading article after article, some that are comforting and others that make you want to call your doctor ASAP! In those moments, have you ever paused to think about who wrote that article you’re reading?
The people who create the medical content on the internet are called medical writers. And if you’re a writer with a mind for science and a heart for health education, it could be a great career path for you.
What is medical writing? Is it right for you?
Medical writing focuses on healthcare content. It’s meaningful work that supports healthcare providers and organizations. That means your writing could educate patients and consumers, communicating critical information to help them understand their health and make better decisions. It’s also a smart career move: Medical writing has good earning potential, and the demand for medical writers is projected to grow by several percentage points in the coming decade.
Medical writing has two key audiences: Physicians and the public.
Physician-facing medical writing
Physician-facing medical writing is typically more technical and is often for education. It’s also referred to as clinical medical writing. Examples of this type of writing include:
- Abstracts and research papers
- Articles for medical journals
- Research proposals
- Regulatory documents
- Study reports
If you have a background in science, physician-facing medical writing could be a great path for you. It’s an ideal career for writers who are fascinated by medicine and have sharp attention to detail.
Public-facing medical writing
Public-facing medical writing is plain-language communication about medical conditions, treatments and other health information for patients, their families and others. Examples of this type of writing include:
- Articles for magazines and newspapers
- Blogs for hospital or healthcare websites
- Brochures and pamphlets to educate patients
- Patient stories to encourage and inspire
- Press releases to generate news coverage
- Promotional marketing materials to drive appointments and referrals
- Website copy for healthcare organizations
If you have a background in journalism, communications or marketing, along with a passion for educating people about health, public-facing medical writing could be a good fit for you.
Should you pursue a career in medical writing?
Medical writers are skilled communicators with a desire to learn and bridge the gap between medical advances and people. Whichever path you choose within medical writing — whether you’d like to write for a physician or consumer audience — curiosity is key. Wondering if it could be a good career path for you?
To enjoy and have success with the work, you’ll need to have a specific set of skills. Medical writers enjoy researching and interviewing subject matter experts, and they’ve mastered the art of asking good questions. Happy medical writers are passionate about healthcare and have an understanding of medicine and how the healthcare system works. They also have a knack for turning complex data into easy-to-understand content. If this sounds like you, medical writing could be a great path forward!
Medical writer qualifications
If you think you like to might become a medical writer, don’t disqualify yourself for not having an MD or a degree in biology. You don’t necessarily need these! While most clinical medical writers do have some science background, medical copywriters often just have a good understanding of communication and how to articulate complex concepts clearly.
Whichever branch of medical writing interests you, a bachelor’s or associate degree in writing, science or communications is a good starting place. You’ll also want to have a writing portfolio that showcases your work.
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Beginning your medical writing career
Wondering how to become a health writer? Breaking into medical writing can feel like a catch-22. How do you get experience if every job listing says you have to have experience as a medical writer? Our best advice is to create experience for yourself. Write a couple of sample articles about medical conditions or craft copy for an imaginary hospital webpage to use in your portfolio. Don’t shy away from sharing other types of writing with potential employers or clients, especially if they’re science-related or journalistic.
We also recommend completing a certification or training program to boost your competency as a medical writer. The University of Chicago offers a Medical Writing and Editing certificate program for those new to the field. There are courses for novice medical writers you can take through platforms like Udemy or Coursera. Once you have two years of experience under your belt, you can earn a Medical Writer Certified credential through the American Medical Writers Association.
Like most writing career paths, becoming familiar with the kind of content you want to create is also a great way to begin. Subscribe to newsletters from the healthcare network where you receive care. Listen to healthcare podcasts. Read up on blogs put out by respected hospitals.
Once you’re fully immersed in the world of healthcare content, start reaching out. Do you have any LinkedIn connections who work in marketing or communications for a healthcare network? Do you know someone who is a freelance writer with experience with medical writing? Ask them if they’d be willing to hop on a 15-minute Zoom call to share how they got started. If you don’t have any direct connections, start making them! Join a LinkedIn or Facebook Group for medical writers or send connection requests to people with job descriptions that sound interesting to you. People are more generous and willing to share how they got started than you’d think.
Zero in on your ideal workplace
So you know you want to pursue a career in medical writing — but where do you find work? There are many avenues in which medical writers work, including:
- Agencies that create healthcare content for clients (Hey, that sounds familiar! Check out WriterGirl.)
- Government agencies
- Healthcare networks
- Healthcare societies
- Teaching hospitals
- Medical journals
- Magazines and newspapers
- Pharmaceutical companies
While some health writers are employed full-time, others are freelancers who are contracted by agencies or hospitals to write content. They may work for a variety of clients, but their niche in healthcare writing makes them a trusted resource in the medical industry.
Navigating freelance versus full-time medical writing roles
As you’re discerning whether to apply for full-time roles or freelance projects, consider what you value. Do you like having a reliable paycheck, a team of coworkers and consistent hours? Or do you prefer having freedom, total flexibility and unlimited earning potential? Some medical writers begin by freelancing and then find a full-time role that they love or even vice versa. Remember that you’re not locked into the path you choose first.
Role of a medical writer
A medical writer’s role breaks down into three categories: Ideation, research, interviewing, writing and editing.
If you’re doing clinical medical writing for physicians, you’ll likely have clear direction from your client. If you’re doing marketing medical writing for patients and consumers, especially if you’re creating blogs, it may be up to you to keep a pulse on what kinds of questions people are Googling. We love using Answer the Public or Google Keyword Planner to generate ideas. You’ll also want to pay attention to awareness months for certain diseases or health conditions that tend to be seasonal.
While more research is generally involved with clinical medical writing rather than consumer health content, getting the right facts from reputable sources is essential. Using trusted sources and providing accurate information can quite literally be a matter of life and death. We recommend starting with information from government organizations such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). PubMed is also a great resource for finding information from medical journals, books and biomedical literature.
Often, the best way to get the information you need as a medical writer is to interview a subject matter expert (SME). Medical SMEs are often physicians or researchers with specific expertise. It can feel intimidating to interview a doctor on a topic that you’re not familiar with and then write about it, but your fresh perspective will ultimately serve your readers. If you don’t know anything about the topic, that can work to your advantage, especially if you’re writing for patients. The questions you have are likely the questions other people have, too!
Medical writers may feel like they’re spending more time researching and interviewing than they spend writing. That’s normal! It just means that you are doing your due diligence to ensure your content is accurate. But once you get to the writing stage, you’ll need to keep in mind a few things that set medical writing apart from other types of writing.
When you’re doing medical writing for the general public, writing in plain language is best. Plain language means writing at a 6th-8th grade reading level. Use short sentences. Avoid big words. When trying to understand a medical condition, a new diagnosis or how to treat an injury, confusing information is last thing people need. There’s a high likelihood that people aren’t feeling well when they’re reading your content. It’s your job as a medical writer to use accessible language.
In this field, an empathetic tone is as important as accessible content. People reading medical articles may have received a scary medical diagnosis for themselves or a loved one. The best medical writers present the facts clearly and plainly, without over-dramatizing a diagnosis or pointing to worst-case scenarios. Make it your goal to ease people’s minds rather than adding more stress.
Finally, because accuracy matters so much for medical writing, you’ll need to get comfortable with feedback. In addition to having an editor or project manager give feedback, you’ll also likely have your work reviewed by physicians who are the experts. Several people may proofread your content, which is ultimately a good thing because it prevents misinformation.
While in most cases, other people will be editing your writing, the best medical writers self-edit as they write and have a robust understanding of grammar, mechanics and style. Medical writers may also be asked to edit the work of experts to make it more readable for those with low health literacy.
Ready, set, write!
The field of medical writing is growing, and now is the best time for you to start your medical writing career. Writing healthcare content may feel like just sitting at your computer, but it’s so much more than that. You’re improving lives by educating people about everything from disease prevention to finding a primary care physician. The more factual health content that’s available, the healthier we’ll all be.
Interested in joining our roster of writers? At WriterGirl, we’re always looking for new writers to create content for our clients. Join us!