Tips for new medical writers
By Amy Karon
Medical writing combines my passion for language, medicine, surgery, pathology, infectious diseases, and epidemiology. I’ve been a science, health, and medical writer for more than seven years and have run my own medical writing business since 2012. At this year’s AMWA Conference, I spent a lot of time advising people who are considering a medical writing career. This post lists a few tips I shared.
Consider your personality. Medical writing is a diverse field, comprising publications and educational, promotional, and regulatory writing. Each of these domains includes numerous sub-genres and a vast and ever-expanding range of therapeutic areas. Even so, successful medical writers share traits in common. These include a love of language, strong attention to detail, high ethical standards, the tenacity to see a project through, the desire to continually learn about science and medicine, the ability to gracefully receive and implement feedback, and the resilience and self-discipline to work for long hours in relative isolation.
You can develop and nurture these qualities in yourself. But the sparks need to be there. Medical writing is as intense and demanding as it is rewarding, and to succeed, you must be suited for it. Which leads me to tip #2…
Focus on your strengths. You can spend hundreds of hours and dollars improving your weaknesses — and in some cases, you should. But I endorse the advice to prioritize your strengths. As you explore careers in medical writing, evaluate not only your academic and professional skills, but also your ability to network, market yourself, creatively solve problems for clients and managers, and juggle complex schedules and projects. What unique strengths and traits can you offer clients and employers? How can you turn what you’re best at into a sustainable, rewarding career? Are you best suited for a salaried medical writing position, or will you relish the challenge, variety, and (in some cases) unpredictability of freelance work?
Join AMWA. I‘ve been part of many writing associations over the years, and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) is by far my favorite. Members are as warm as they are professional. They treat one another well, volunteer enthusiastically, welcome and guide newcomers, and take professional training very seriously. The AMWA annual conference sparks countless lasting friendships and professional relationships, and the presentations and workshops enhance my writing and small business skills. The regional chapters also are excellent for networking and skills building, and AMWA’s website includes online forums and many other resources. Volunteering is a great way to give back to AMWA – I help cover the annual conference (which I attend every year — it’s worth every penny) and edit articles for the AMWA Journal.
Join and stay active on LinkedIn and Twitter. Social media options abound, but I think LinkedIn and Twitter remain the most valuable online communities for professional writers. Use them to build a professional brand that highlights who you are and what you offer. Join LinkedIn groups and contribute relevant, professional insights and information. Use Twitter to converse, share news, and endorse others’ work.
Build your portfolio — and your website. Writing is a craft. Academic degrees, work experience, and references are assets, but prospective employers and clients want to see your work, and you need to showcase it. One of the best ways to do this is by creating your own website, which can be simple and need not cost a fortune. Your portfolio should include only your best work and the type(s) of writing you want to pursue. If your projects are subject to confidentiality agreements, you may need to create content specifically for your portfolio. Another option is to volunteer to write for local non-profit organizations. If you do this, be sure you have written permission to share the work (preferably online). If a byline matters to you, have a written conversation about that, too.
I have read and recommend the following resources on medical writing. Happy exploring!
Toolkit for New Medical Writers (AMWA – I started here, and suggest you do, too)
Working as a Medical Writer (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
Articles for Medical Writers (Hitt Medical Writing)
The Accidental Medical Writer (Brian Bass and Cynthia Kryder)
Careers in Medical Writing (Patrick Cullinan, especially for scientists considering a transition)