How to Become a Medical Writer
Depending on your experience with this topic, it may surprise you to learn that not all medical writers have any sort of medical degree. Furthermore, not all clinicians who write identify as ‘medical writers.’
When I first published this article in 2018, I made a few inaccurate assumptions. I assumed you are a healthcare professional from the United States, either early to mid career or approaching retirement. I was spot on with some of you (you know who you are) but I soon learned that entry-level medical writing is a far-reaching interest, globally and otherwise.
I think we can agree that it takes a certain type of person to be a writer. Or to be an anything, really.
Your having earned a medical degree does not inherently confer you the skills, nor interest or obligation, to write about medicine. On a similar note, obtaining a medical degree is not a pre-requisite to medical writing. It may open more doors, but a lack thereof won’t close them.
So for those rare combinations of healer and poet, there is a world of opportunity awaiting you.
If you aspire for technical, scientific, or even poetic greatness (or even mediocrity), this post will give you an overview of what you’ll need to know before starting this journey in medical writing.
Individuals new to any field, particularly a subspecialty like medical writing, usually want to learn a few major concepts before applying for a medical writing job.
Your questions, extrapolated from experience
A word of warning: this is a long article. You may not finish it in one sitting, and that’s okay.
It is also fairly link-heavy, which is because we’ve tried to include as many helpful resources as possible.
Bookmark it so you can easily return and find the resources you want.
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Getting Started as a Medical Writer
When I was a fledgling clinician fresh out of medical training, I fell into medical writing both by accident and necessity. I experienced (and to an extent, still experience) the same barriers, concerns, and doubt that many brand-new or aspiring medical writers face.
Here’s to hoping this post helps you overcome those challenges.
We’ll first get down to the basics here. We’ll start by exploring what may feel like the single biggest and most basic question about medical writing.
What is medical writing, exactly?
Of course, this opens a veritable Pandora’s box of less-than-obvious answers.
What is Medical Writing, Exactly?
Before we even get to medical writing, let’s take it a step back. In the broadest sense, we can create three categories of medical communications; medical writing, health writing, and scientific communications.
The distinction may seem arbitrary, and depending on who you ask, it is.
Admittedly, this classification is subjective, and like all language and communication, ever-evolving, changing; its meaning influenced by myriad outside factors. Or is it, ‘a myriad of‘ outside factors? See what I mean.
In any case, we’ll do our best to explain the differences here.
Online Course Resources
We’ll make references to some online courses we think are helpful for learning the actual skills needed in this line of work.
If you decide you want to take more than one course, we recommend signing up for Coursera Plus, as it’ll get you access to more than 3,000 courses, specializations, and professional certificate programs.
You won’t need all 3,000 courses, it’ll just feel like you do.
The normal price is $399 per year and comes with a 14-day money-back guarantee. Keep your receipts for when you get a good CPA. I know you don’t think you need one now, but you will!
Scientific communications mostly involves academic publications, science journalism, and other forms of technical writing.
It can be medical, but it is more than that. Scientific writing covers engineering, basic science, social science, industry research, and more.
Where Science Writers Work
Acknowledging the absolute shortcoming these sections are destined to become, let’s give it a shot. Here’s a brief list of companies/industries/verticals that produce scientific or technical content and immediately come to mind.
Someone has to write all that. And get paid for it.
Spend some time going through the products, especially the technical and medical content of the companies that interest you.
It doesn’t have to be one of these, and a frustrating amount may be inaccessible to you depending on your background, degree type, etc.
(patient facing materials)
The idea of health writing generally refers to the articles, educational material, and other content authored by individuals or corporations that is subsequently directed at patients or consumers.
Some clinicians have made successful businesses out of blogging to a lay audience by writing about the health issues about which they are passionate. Blogging is not easy work, but if you have what it takes, it can be a nice source of income for a good (consistent) writer.
If you don’t think you have what it takes, you can always learn.
Like any of these entries, there is potential for a variety of work arrangements, including freelance, employed, or even volunteer.
Where Health Writers Work
Here’s another brief list of entities that immediately come to mind when thinking of the business need to produce patient education materials.
Someone has to write all that. And get paid for it.
- VisualDx (clinical & patient edu)
- Merck Manual (Patient Version)
- Up To Date (patient version)
- Wolters Kluwer, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Spend some time going through the products, especially the technical and medical content that you’d expect to meet a patient.
Don’t limit yourself to these companies, there are many more out there to consider.
Also, try not to be discouraged when you face the challenge of economically prohibitive paywalls that a new business owner in the pre-revenue phase can’t justify.
Ladies and gentlemen, the main event.
Medical writing, in a sense, lives directly across from health writing and is related to scientific communications. Medical writing is a part of scientific communications, health writing, and some other categories.
Often technical innature, medical writing commonly serves business to business (B2B) needs. Like medical communications, we can subdivide medical writing into three major subgroups. Being somewhat amorphous, you’ll find other taxonomies of medcomms of a different nature out in the wild if you look.
Within the medical writing world, and the three sub-specialties we’ll discuss consider are regulatory writing, promotional writing, and medical education.
Here is a brief overview of each one, with links to more resources. Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg and not a one-size-fits-all categorization.
1. Regulatory Medical Writing
Regulatory medical writers work with contract research organizations, biotech firms, pharmaceutical or medical device companies, and government agencies. They are often scientists, clinicians, or attorneys because of the high-stakes technical nature of the documents they produce.
Regulatory medical writers communicate important information to government agencies, heads of compliance departments, and other stakeholders.
Examples of their work include summarizing complex scientific and statistical data for FDA reviewers of a new drug application (NDA).
The work regulatory medical writers perform is vital to companies going through the inordinately expensive process of drug or device discovery, development, and commercialization. This means that failure to follow specific processes, omission of, or inaccurately relayed information can cost the would-be manufacturer a pretty penny.
By ensuring these submissions are timely and correct, regulatory medical writers pay for their often generous salaries themselves many times over. Likewise, learning the basics of healthcare compliance could pay for itself several times over by launching your career as a regulatory medical writer.
Regulatory Medical Writing Skills & Background
A clinical, scientific, or legal background doesn’t hurt. However, this is not an absolute requirement for all regulatory roles.
In the day of the internet, there are many courses designed to help you learn the basics if you are interested. Like all things on the internet, do your own research on the educator before paying for any of them.
Some reputable organizations, like the American Medical Writers Association, offer their own courses. Their regulatory writing course will run you $300 if you are a member and is $400 for non-members.
Because of the inherent difficulty and high financial stakes of this work, it can be quite lucrative for those who can prove their value. For those who are serious about getting into this field, here is a more detailed book.
2. Promotional Medical Writing
Promotional medical writing, sometimes called Promotional MedEd, is educational material made for a specific brand or product. It’s essentially ‘content marketing’ for the healthcare industry.
Though the amount of nuance I missed with that statement shows how little experience I have in this particular area.
Before you turn your nose up at the ‘promotional’ and ‘marketing’ part, we should establish that marketing is not synonymous with lying.
In fact, we should recognize and accept the importance of this work.
Many of us dread interacting with the ‘used-car’ salesperson-type who tries to rip-off unsuspecting folks with every sale. Even worse, imagine becoming that ‘used-car’ salesperson person. After all, we clinicians aren’t supposed to sell out or push commercial interests, right?
But that’s not what this is about. As customers, patients, or readers, what we really dread is our feeling like we were duped. And as clinicians, most of us just don’t have it in us to to that to others. However, we do have it in us to influence patients to commit to the medical treatments that help them the most. This is what’s known as a transferable skill.
Promotional Medical Writing Skills & Background
It’s true there may have been a time when more unscrupulous players lurked in the promotional MedEd world. Today, however, promotional medical writing is highly regulated and has given its image a well-deserved makeover.
If you are still not convinced, that’s all the more reason to give it another look. Good, honest clinicians in this line of work will never go out of style.
Promotional medical writing can involve creating and reviewing sales training materials, drug monographs, advertising copy, or other products designed to move the reader to action. To be a good promotional medical writer, it doesn’t hurt to have good copywriting skills or a background in public relations.
3. Continuing Medical Education
Medical education includes most of the writing that clinicians are accustomed to seeing. You find your continuing medical education (CME) companies, board-review programs, medical app developers, disease monographs, CME conference organizers, and other educational writing opportunities in this space.
The information intends to educate readers without hinting of bias for or against any specific brand or product. Just the facts, man. For a good example, check out any of the CME on this website. The vast majority here is independent medical education that never takes industry money.
You can also act as a subject matter expert for the writers who are not experts themselves in your medical field.
Not sure where to look to get started with CME writing?
Hey, here’s a list of every CME provider in existence. A lot of them need item writers literally all the time.
A side note on item writing (board-style clinical vignettes), there is a very structured way to approach it, and it’s all documented in the NBME Item Writing Guidelines already.
CME Medical Writing Skills & Background
Medical education is our specialty here. It’s a reasonably attainable way for clinicians to get into medical writing for a number of reasons.
First, we show up with the experience and knowledge needed to do the job. That means the barriers to entry are low for us.
Further, clinicians tend to want to learn from their colleagues who have the battlefield experience. For example, a page about concussions has more credibility when you know the author has practical experience in that area.
It also helps if you can relay information in an engaging, dynamic style. Even better if you can keep an audience awake. Read more about writing for medical education in our first article about non-clinical careers.
There is also more to medical writing than only, well, ‘writing.’ The written word is the lifeblood of our communications; however, that’s not the only way we learn from each other. Transcripts of interviews, video scripting, CME podcasting, all starts with words on paper. Or a screen. Either works.
Successful writers of medical education copy may want to get a handle on the basics of curriculum development first.
Steps to Become a Medical Writer
To be a good writer, medical or otherwise, you’ll first have to build two good habits.
You probably have the first point down pretty well, seeing as you’ve made it all the way here. The second step is where people struggle. Here are a few ways to overcome this perceived barrier even if you have no experience as a medical writer.
1. Compile a Portfolio
A portfolio is one of the most important assets you will have as a medical writer. It’s a collection of your best work that demonstrates to potential clients and employers that you are the right choice for them.
If you’ve never written anything before, can you blame clients when they are hesitant to hire you? Would you hire a home builder who had never built a home before?
On the other hand, if you never had the chance to have any of your writing published, how can you have a portfolio?
This is a common question we get, so we have an answer for you. Our best advice is to write an article, post, or medical education case that can be self-published or added to your portfolio without the formal ‘publishing’ process. The key is to have something worthwhile to show off. For writing platform inspiration, check out our ‘featured media’ tab at the bottom of the sidebar.
2. You Need Your Own Website
Learning How to Start a Website
A good way to get your foot in the door, even if you don’t yet have clients, is to start your own platform where your work can be published.
As a medical writer, it’s never a bad idea to have a web presence to get noticed. Having a blog on your website is a tried-and-true technique that can generate traffic and additional income. You don’t have to learn to become a web developer (and marketer, and tax attorney, and…).
Either start with a simple content management system like Wix, WordPress, or hire someone to do the basic setup and make sure you can access the word processor.
If the budget is tight (been there), you can learn to build your own medical writer website with a reasonable amount of effort.
There are some uniquely technical skills required, however, which can be a challenge to some of us coming from the clinical world.
If you are like me and plan to overanalyze the entire process, then…you’re in good company? I mean eventually, you’ll start hearing the same information over and over from any reputable source. Really takes you back to the days of learning medicine from a firehose.
That said, there is no shortage of both free and paid online courses that will teach you how to build a website correctly if you want to learn.
Technotes: Website Hosting and Logistics
Websites can’t survive without a host. Sound vaguely familiar?
Their services normally start at for $7.99 per month. However, if you sign up here, you’ll save almost 50% and pay just $3.95 a month. We’ll also get a few dollars for your trouble. If you plan to have a low-traffic, predictable bandwidth usage website, you’ll be fine.
Upgrading is a little pricey, so we’ve actually moved to a different host. We have since moved over to DreamHost as our needs from basic start-up website to a more interactive address on the internet.
A website has been one of the best investments in my business I think I ever could have made.
Once you’re signed up, most hosting companies have education, resources, and support to get your website up and running ASAP. If you have no prior experience building websites, you can learn the basics of web design from places like Coursera.
I’ve noticed medical writers commonly recommend using www.yourname.com or some variation for your medical writing website domain name.
I am not a fan of this approach, because I worry it can inhibit brand-building if that becomes neessary (it is for us). I’m sure there are good reasons for that approach.
Check to see if the name you want is available with this nifty tool from Bluehost below.
3. Contribute to Your Industry
If you aren’t ready to start your own website, you can always find existing platforms to pitch your work.
We publish work from outside contributors occasionally. Other sites directed at healthcare professionals, including Clinician Today and Doximity are great places to get started. You can find several of our articles on these platforms.
4. Just Don't Call it 'Networking'
It’s a truism that people do business with those they know, like, and trust. It’s also a truism that nobody likes networking. Words matter to a writer, so call it something else and maybe hate it less.
Get to know, like, and trust your colleagues in a professional environment, even if you are otherwise half-way across the world. Remote collaboration is a part of a medical writer’s skillset.
Consider joining professional medical writing organizations and introtucing yourself to your fellow members.
The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) has a professional forum for medical writers to share and learn from one another, as well as a host of other benefits for their paying members.
As an AMWA member, you can become eligible to earn a Medical Writer – Certified credential.
That’ll take some time, but new members can start with the essential skills kit for free. We have a similar listing of medical writing resources, no membership required.
5. Take Online Medical Writing Courses
To further develop your skills and expertise in medical writing, you can find a variety of courses online. The benefit is they are all self-paced and give you exactly what you need based on your stage in the process.
They are generally inexpensive, but several courses can add up. However, even taking three or four courses will end up paying for themselves with your first medical writing project.
Here’s an overview of freelance medical writing on Udemy. The cost is normally $29.99, but it goes on sale from time to time.
For help getting started developing scientific writing skills, this ridiculously affordable course from Stanford is a must. You can get the full course, plus a certificate of completion, for only $79.
And if that’s not enough for you, Coursera has hundreds of additional courses in the life sciences, professional development, entrepreneurship, and more practical skills from top-rated universities at prices that can only be described as ‘stupidly affordable.’
6. Get Familliar with Medical Writing Tools
We’ll discuss this more in a future article, but the right equipment is key to performing any job well.
You don’t go into the operating room with cut-rate instruments, nor do you start a clinic without a reliable, high-quality stethoscope.
Likewise, you wouldn’t start a medical writing project without the right hardware, which starts with your computer. You don’t want to skimp on the memory and storage, either. For Windows users, I can’t tell you how much I love the Microsoft Surface Book 2 with Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD storage. It was born in 2017 and is still a workhorse.
For Mac fans, the Apple MacBook Pro is the way to go.
Don’t forget a good voice to text dictation product (software and hardware) like Nuance and Dragon with Medical Practice Edition. I also hear that Microsoft Word or Google Docs does a decent job at a lower cost.
Where to Develop Medical Writing Skills
As we mentioned, you probably already have what it takes to get off and running. However, some people prefer to develop a game plan or learn more fundamental skills before jumping in.
One tactic could be to search online job boards for ‘medical writer’ positions in your area. Once you get a feel for the commonly desired skills and qualifications, spend some time developing those strengths.
For example, to get writing experience, you have to write. Why not make a side hustle out of it and spin that into a new role?
Some clinicians choose to broaden their education with affordable, self-paced online courses. True beginners often say getting a background in scientific writing is immensely beneficial when starting their search for a high-paying medical writing role.
Visit our medical writing archives for some useful books and offers for those who are new to medical writing.
For those wondering if this can be a viable career, here’s a link to a book that shows you just how lucrative even freelance medical writing can be.
The author, Emma Nichols, is well-known in the medical writing world. She teaches other scientists and clinicians how to make a living from freelance medical writing after finding success herself.
She offers a six-week freelance medical writing course for anywhere from $195 to $2,495. Unfortunately, it is frequently booked solid and we hear you’ll be lucky to even get on the wait-list.