Member Spotlight - Lesley Cunliffe
‘My Journey to Medical Writing’
Where can we find you online?
What do you do?
I am a freelance Medical Copywriter and Creative Director. Yes, apparently, that’s a bit different to what people normally think of as a
Medical Writer. I work mainly in the ‘pharmaceutical advertising’ space and can turn my hand to pretty much anything folk can come up with
along the lines of ‘content creation’ that requires a biomedical background to do it. As a part of this, I have decades of experience in
coming up with concepts and creative ideas for medical-related advertising campaigns (you know, almost like the biomedical version of Don
Draper. Only nerdier. And a girl.).
What led you to become a medical writer?
Towards the end of my PhD, when thoughts naturally turn to ‘what’s next?’, I realised that just about every post-doc I knew was either miserable, or fighting tooth and nail for grant money (or both). This didn’t seem like a fun prospect. It had also come to my attention during group presentations, and the actual thesis writing task itself, that I really enjoyed communicating science to others. So, I made it my mission to use this skill and applied to just about every science journal you can think of to try and get a foot in the door as a journal editor – because that was the only ‘science writing’ profession I really knew about at the time. Luckily for me, I landed at job at Nature Reviews Molecular Biology as a Copy Editor, and received just about the most thorough and thoughtful introduction to science writing and editing that you could dream up. After a couple more years in Associate Editor positions at different Nature Reviews journals, I was lured away into the world of advertising by a recruiter, and have never looked back. Over the years, I’ve worked at various healthcare advertising agencies in London and Sydney before deciding I wanted more say over how I spend my time and made the leap to being freelance.
What do you enjoy most about being a medical writer?
I get to work on an enormous variety of projects, from editing videos and podcasts, to writing animation and video scripts, to the more in-depth, data-focussed stuff such as slide decks, newsletters, clinical reports etc. A lot of what I do, I think, is a bit akin to solving a puzzle: how do we make this complicated data and 50-odd clinical papers make sense to someone who’s either a lay-person (e.g. a patient), or someone who has approx. 30 seconds to process it (e.g. a busy doctor), while making sure that we’re still accurately – and clearly – representing the facts.
What has been one of your career highlights as a medical writer and why?
I’ve won an award here and there for work that I’ve done, and had some really fabulous times working in the often-manic world of advertising agencies. But I think the main highlight has to be having made my own freelance business really work. It’s given me the freedom to live and work wherever I want. I’d also want to be able to say ‘whenever’ I want too, but I’m still rubbish at saying ‘no’ to people; and still often working on weekends. But at least it’s now my own fault and not anyone else’s!
What has been one of the greatest challenges for you as a medical writer and how have you addressed this?
See above – re. saying ‘no’! Managing one’s own time as a freelancer is tricky. Whether you’re hunting for new clients, working frantically on your existing ones, or deciding whether or not to turn down, or take up, incoming project offers. This part is hard! And is something I’m still working on getting better at. I expect I’ll get really good at it just before I retire.
What advice would you give fellow writers or people considering a career in medical writing?
‘Medical writing’ is not just one thing. There is an enormous range of careers and specialist niches within this space. Most ‘Medical Writers’ I know are more than capable of doing any one of the widely varying types of writing that that our profession offers; but many people have a distinct preference for some types of writing over others. Consider what your preferences are (long form vs shorter form writing; creative writing; technical writing; working alone or within a team of writers/contributors etc); then focus on those kinds of roles. I believe there is a lot of truth to the concept of ‘Jack of all trades master of none’ in the field of writing generally, and medical writing especially. Taking some time to decide on your preferred overall speciality and making sure you’re damn good at that before you branch out across different styles/roles will serve you well. So, when starting out, get as much directly relevant professional experience and expert training as you can; preferably as an employee (at least at first, because this is where the best network building really happens). And work your butt off to network like crazy. Oh, and if you’re reading that last sentence and thinking ‘huh, call yourself a writer, you can’t start a sentence with and’; please get yourself a copy of ‘Harts rules’ (or similar). And read it.
What led you to join the AMWA exec committee?
Although I know quite a few (admittedly not many) medical writers who would think of themselves as a ‘creative’ writer and/or who have an advertising agency background; I don’t know that many who have joined AMWA. I think it’s a fun area of medical writing to be in, and more people should know more about it.