Recently I attended a professional development session about medical writing tips for success, held as part of the Professional Writers Association of Canada’s annual conference in Montreal. The two presenters provided a thorough overview about what it takes to be successful in the field, and shared great ideas for places to consider selling health and medical writing.
Presenter Amanda Strong has been a medical freelance writer for over 10 years. She has developed courses for the American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA) and currently teaches medical writing with the School for Extended Learning at Concordia University. She covers medical conferences and advisory board meetings on a regular basis.
Giancarlo La Giorgia, is a medical freelancer who has written over 300 articles on health, technology, architecture, food and travel in a wide range of consumer magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the former editor of the Canadian Journal of Diagnosis and is currently a copywriter at pharma ad agency BOOM CDM.
Drug or Pokemon?
Drug names can be difficult to manage, so much so that there is a web game called “Drug or Pokemon?” to prove the point. Consult references carefully! The Merck Manual is available online in both a consumer and physician format. Another recommended reference is the Compendium of Pharmaceuticals, you know, that large blue text book your doctor refers to. It’s fairly expensive to purchase, so one idea is to ask your doctor for last year’s copy before it gets thrown out.
Many markets for medical writing
The three main market areas for selling medical writing: research and regulatory; journalism and publishing; and pharmaceutical and health information.
Research and regulatory – Doctors apparently can’t write well: ghostwriting for a researcher can be an effective way to get your foot in the door and lead to pharmaceutical or corporate writing gigs with device manufacturers.
Journalism and publishing – Consider the usual consumer publications but also the not-so obvious ones, e.g. askmen.com does carry some health content. Many associations for diseases or health issues have their own publications: Abilities, Birthing, Diabetes Dialogue, Moods, En Sante, etc. Universities with medical schools publish internal magazines and newsletters. Trade publications such as Pharmacy Practice, Drugstore Card, Optical Prism, Dental Practise Management. Trade publications may only pay 50 cents/word, but the whole job can work out okay on an hourly rate basis if they provide an interview source.
Pharmaceutical and health information – Pharmaceutical companies sometimes hire freelance writers to produce newsletters about conferences or technical materials to be distributed at the conferences. Academic publishers like Elsevier will hire freelancers to cover conferences, which can be intense or formulaic work if you can summarize what the speaker presented and insert some interview clips.
What if I don’t have a science background?
Both presenters agreed that you do not necessarily have to have a science background to be a successful medical writer. While it helps, the degree of technical understanding required will vary depending on which market you wish to write for.
Giancarlo mentioned the Certified National Pharmaceutical Representative course, usually taken by pharmaceutical company sales representatives that have no pharmacology or medical education. This certification could make you an attractive hire if you wish to write for the pharmaceutical industry and don’t have a science degree. The CNPR is a US-based online course that takes 200 hours to complete, and covers the basics of physiology and pharmaceuticals.
Amanda recommended specializing in a specific therapeutic class or disease area to make the most of your time investment understanding a specific subject area. Therapies, treatments and research are changing all the time. She said she would not feel comfortable writing about a medical area she has not written about for 2 years or more, as it would take too much time to come up to speed on the latest information. Sources of information for subject areas that change rapidly are Up to Date and clinicaltrials.gov , (which I agree is also good for finding expert sources!).
Note to PWACers – if you were at this session and I have missed something, please add your thoughts in the comments.