Last Updated: 27 January 2019
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The Types of Medical Writers
In general, there are two types of medical writers in this world: freelance and employed. Each path has its own unique set of pros and cons, and one may clearly be better for some than others. However, whichever you choose, there are common core skills you can develop to help set you apart from the crowd.
First, we’ll take a look at the skills every prospective medical writer should be able to demonstrate so they can get clients and start earning a living.
Without further ado, here are the six steps to take to get on your way to becoming a successful medical writer.
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1. Curate a Compelling Medical Writer Portfolio
Imagine you are a hospital administrator or member of the credentials committee. How comfortable would you feel approving a surgeon to perform complex operations without some evidence of competency? Unless you want to be defending yourself against the next Dr. Death podcast, the answer should be “not very.”
The same is true for anyone hiring another professional, from plumbers to surgeons to medical writers. Sure, you may say you are the best plumber in town, but if you do a poor (albeit expensive) job and sh*t hits the fan, someone is going to be upset with you. And before you ask; pun more than intended.
This is a point where many folks aspiring to become medical writers falter – or worse – acquiesce altogether. How do you create a compelling medical writer portfolio without ever having earning medical writing work?
Well, you might get lucky and land a project without any experience. In fact, your clinical background may be enough to earn you the job. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. Don’t plan for the exception.
Even if you’ve never been contracted to be a “real” medical writer, you have several options available to you. If you’ve written anything outside of the electronic medical record, add it to your portfolio as a sample of your style and skill. For example, I create cases for the free medical education app Figure1 on a regular basis. Be sure to follow us @BrainAndCo for ideas you can steal.
2. Build an Online Presence
If you have a personal website, be sure to let prospective clients know. Having a personal website describing your services is one of the most powerful ways to attract paying clients. And if you don’t have one, for the love of your career, make one already. It’s the smallest amount of money you can spend for such a great return on investment.
The common advice for individual medical writers is to use some variation of www.yourname.com or www.yournamemedicalwriting.com. Here’s a nifty tool from Bluehost to quickly check if your ideal domain name is available:
Let’s say you can’t spare the $2.99 per month for your own professional website. Perhaps you have privacy concerns or are worried you won’t have the time to learn how to set it up. There is still another way to build up an online presence without going through this.
One other option is to start guest posting in relevant places. This could mean platforms with a clinical or layperson audience, depending on your goals. Here are a few that are known to accept guest posts from clinician contributors. Some may not have any vacancies at the moment, but you can bookmark this page so you can check back later.
Potential Guest Posting Sites for Aspiring Medical Writers
Most of these are not paid, though they are a great place to start to earn bylines. If you have your own website, you can earn back links and traffic from your guest posts on larger platforms. Another great reason for starting your website now is to have somewhere to send your new fans and readers once you start publishing.
Occasionally, you may also come across paid guest posting opportunities. I encourage you to consider grabbing these every chance you get. The pay won’t be life-changing, but adding something to your portfolio and your bank account at the same time is just a win-win. But be sure you are doing it because you enjoy writing that provides value to readers, not for the few bucks you expect to be paid.
You can also start writing on sites like Medium right away. Your work there has the potential to earn an income if enough paying members read and enjoy it. Another option, if you have a lot of knowledge to share, is to create a course on Teachable.
3. Join Professional Medical Writer Organizations & Societies
As a healthcare professional, you probably already know the benefits of joining your society organizations. Networking, political advocacy, educational opportunities, and discounts on certain events conferences, are a few. From local organizations like this one to larger national organizations, they all need your support.
In the medical writing world, there is another benefit. Many of the societies also have freelance directories for members to join that can help with your landing your first projects.
The downside is that joining dozens of organizations can get pricey. However, the membership fee is typically tax-deductible in the United States, especially if you are a freelancer. Be sure to check in with your favorite accountant regarding your specific situation.
Additionally, rather than joining every single professional organization, choose the most relevant for your needs. For some, it may only be one or two, while others may find that belonging to several societies brings the most value. Here are some professional organizations for medical writers to consider joining even if you are in the early stages of exploring this career option.
4. Build a Pipeline of Projects
One of the realities of freelancing is that you are always looking for the next project. For most healthcare professionals looking to become a part-time medical writer, your clinical income shields you from the need to always have a project in the works. However, for the full-time entrepreneur or freelancer, it is.
That’s why you’ll want to make this an easy a process as possible, whichever path you choose. Start by reaching out to folks at the resources listed in this article for guest posts. Make a list of your favorite publications, apps, websites, CME resources, and other forms of media you find yourself regularly consuming or recommending.
Find out who is in charge of their editorial schedule and reach out to them with a good pitch. Which is another key step in building a relationship with the folks at these platforms who can help get your work published and in front of a larger audience.
5. Be Persistent when Seeking a Medical Writer Job
Changing careers is no small feat. If you have been a clinician for years and want to make the jump to medical writing, don’t expect the change to occur overnight.
Just like finding a clinical job can feel like a full-time job itself, finding and landing well-paying medical writing projects or a lucrative full-time role requires significant time and effort.
There are plenty of generic job boards to keep an eye on. However, many companies who need medical writers also post on specialized boards like ours. In fact, many of the top 100 companies with remote job opportunities are in the medical industry and probably need writers.
For freelance projects, your best bet is to start with your own network. After that, reach out to folks at some of the platforms listed above in this article. Freelance directories within your professional organizations are also a good place to invest some time.
It can be hit or miss on generic freelance sites. They can create a difficult environment for freelance writers, even if some have taken steps to inhibit the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ mentality that exists in some sectors. Sign up on your own accord and be sure to hold out for the diamond projects floating among a sea of mediocrity.
6. Learn from Professional Medical Writers a Step or Two Ahead of You
Writing is scary. Publishing is terrifying. Fear of criticism, especially of writing, does not abate when you become a clinician. This is especially true when you are publishing literary work. Wound-opening, humanity-focused writing that leaves you vulnerable can be the hardest to publish.
However, you aren’t the first person to feel this way, nor will you be the last. That’s why finding a community, and especially mentors, is so important in this line of work. You may want to reach out to Stephen King right away, but we would encourage you to defer that email for now.
In the beginning of your career as a medical writer, joining discussion boards and forums with other medical writers can help you make those important professional connections. Some of the major societies listed above have robust and healthy discussion boards for members. If you are looking for a particular one, we recommend joining AMWA for theirs.
Some people there will be on your level, some a few steps ahead, and some will seem like the medical writing equivalent of yoda to you. Get to know the yodas, sure. But also take the advice of those a few steps ahead because they are likely to remember what it’s really like being in your position.
7. Get the Right Medical Writing Education
Not everyone needs to take a course to become a successful medical writer. For example, if you already have excellent writing skills, clarity of your message, and confidence to publish, you are already on your way.
However, not all of us feel this way, especially when we’re new. If that’s the case, you may consider a course or two to focus your efforts or refine your skills.
How do you know the courses that are best for you? First, decide on what you want to achieve by taking them. Part of that may include a financial return, but that’s not necessary if you are writing for pure love of writing. For the rest of us, cost will be a factor.
Next, look at the organization offering the course. Is it reputable? Well-known in the industry? Do they offer a certificate to prove I’ve successfully completed the work?
Furthermore, if you are thinking of going freelance, you’ll want to brush up on basic website and business skills. As a clinician, these may not be your ‘walking around’ skills.
To help answer some of these questions, we’ve compiled this short list of courses and reference materials where you can comfortably start. They are all offered by well-known, reputable educators and institutions, and the courses all offer a certificate of completion to help set you apart.
So there you have it. The seven key skills to master to become a successful medical writer, even if you don’t have any prior experience. Transition from healthcare provider to a nonclinical role by considering medical writing, a job for which you may already be more qualified than you think.
There is a lot to digest in this piece, so come back often to really get the information to sink in. Start by curating a compelling portfolio and building an online presence. Next, join your preferred professional organization to help you further your goals.
Once you get off and running, ensure you always have work by developing a pipeline of projects and work ahead. And like anything worth doing in life, continue to network to improve your business connections, and never stop learning.