Last Updated: 26 June 2019
By Jordan G. Roberts, PA-C
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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.’
Neither is a bad thing.
I think we can agree that it takes a certain type of person to be a writer. Your having a medical degree does not confer you the skills, nor interest, to write about it, or anything else.
However, for the rare combination of the healer and the poet, there is a world of opportunity waiting for you.
For healers aspiring for technical, scientific, or even poetic greatness, this post will give you an overview of how to achieve your medical writing goals. We’ll link to various helpful resources throughout the article when appropriate.
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.
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
We’ll show you a simple way to answer these questions by the end of the post, so stay tuned for these valuable resources. And don’t miss our follow up post on the seven actionable steps to take to become a successful medical writer.
Since Modern MedEd has been in existence, several clinicians have expressed to us their interest in this topic. We also maintain a list of freelancers for our medical writing panel and periodically send out requests when we land new contracts. Or, if you’d like to publish something with us, check out our guest post guidelines for more information on that.
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.
In today’s post, we’ll get down to the basics. First, we’ll explore what may feel like the single 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.
Before We Get Into It...
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.
The normal price is $399 per year and comes with a 14-day money-back guarantee.
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.
It goes both ways. Medical writing, at times, may not feel like science writing.
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.
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 usually technical in nature and often serves business to business (B2B) needs.
Like medical communications, we can break this down into three major subcategories.
Within the medical writing world, the three sub-specialties we’ll discuss here 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 and 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 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 or 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 themselves many times over. 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 more information, here is an even more detailed look.
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.
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.
The good news is that no marketer or copywriter is good enough to get people to buy things they don’t want. And neither are you. Sure, you can be misleading in your copy. However, in this (and every other) industry, people won’t buy what they don’t want. Thankfully, you and I are in the same boat here. See? That doesn’t mean promotional medical writing isn’t for you!
Promotional Medical Education 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 prep guides, disease monographs, 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.
Clinicians with an interest in teaching can write for their favorite CME companies, join a medical podcast, or become a coach or tutor to students. You can also act as a subject matter expert for the writers who are not experts themselves in this field.
Like many of the entries on this list, you can bet there are a ton of agencies specializing in the area. It’s a different beast, but may be more your style if looking to make this a full-time gig.
The possibilities are nearly endless because every type of communication starts with writers. And the CME industry has plenty of room for more contributors.
Not sure where to look to get started? Hey, here’s a list of every CME provider in existence. Reach out to one of them. I’m sure many of them are looking for medical experts to write for them.
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.
Today, we also have (mostly free) access to high-quality medical education in every format you can name. There’s video (Online MedEd), audio/podcast (HIPPO Education or Audio Digest), mobile learning apps for students (Prognosis: Your Diagnosis), and mobile learning apps for the student, clinician, and the public (Figure1). These are all unique and growing platforms where medical education thrives.
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?
On the other hand, if you never had the chance to have written anything, 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 actually ‘publishing’ it. The key is to have something worthwhile to show off.
For an example of our case-based medical education published via non-traditional means, follow @BrainAndCo on Figure1.
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. As a medical writer, you should have a web presence if you ever want to be noticed. Having a blog on your website is a tried-and-true technique that can generate traffic and additional income.
And learning to start your own website as a medical writer has never been easier. Sure, you’ll have to get hosting, a domain name, and learn how to maintain a website without breaking it forever. Additionally, it takes some hard work upfront to reap the rewards down the road.
This can be a steep learning curve if you are coming from medicine. However, you’ll find a plethora of free and paid online courses that will teach you how to do it right.
Website Hosting and Logistics
Fortunately, there are also web hosting companies that are making this process easier than ever.
For website hosting, our domain, and more, we started with Bluehost. 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 have since moved over to DreamHost as our needs changed. Both are great. 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.
A lot of folks recommend you use www.yourname.com or some variation for your medical writing website domain name. I am not a fan of this approach, but to each their own. 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.
You can even start writing on Medium, LinkedIn, or other free platforms, as we have, too.
4. Make Those Professional Leaps
People do business with those they know, like, and trust. Get to know, like, and trust your colleagues in a professional environment, even if you are otherwise half-way across the world.
That means joining professional medical writing organizations and networking with 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 someone mentioned in the comments, once you join AMWA, you can think about earning their Medical Writer – Certified credential. Or for something a bit less involved, new members can start with the essential skills kit. We have a similar listing of medical writing resources here.
You might also consider a professional CV or resume review. After all, you’ll be uploading your resume all over the web, a process that can take hours.
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 the Right 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 with Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD storage.
For Mac fans, the Apple MacBook Pro is the way to go. Of course, you’ll want the 2.6GHz 6-Core Intel i7, 16GB RAM and 512 GB SSD to ensure you optimize your productivity.
Don’t forget a good voice to text dictation product (software and hardware) like Nuance and Dragon with Medical Practice Edition.
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.