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How To Become a Medical Writer

Woman looks at computer with hands foldedFor as long as people have been reading about health and medicine, there have been medical writers writing about it. Medical writers communicate important knowledge about diseases and treatments to a variety of stakeholder audiences ranging from healthcare professionals and regulatory authorities to sales representatives, payers, patients and caregivers, and more. Medical writers clarify the complex, make scientific information accessible for the intended audiences, and empower people across the spectrum of healthcare to make informed decisions. Before you can even begin thinking about a career in medical writing, you need to know what medical writers do, where they work, and the variety of documents they produce.

But where do medical writers come from?

The first time you thought about what you might like to be when you grow up, you probably didn’t say “I want to be a medical writer.” Medical writing is more of an acquired taste. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who already knows you love both science and writing. One day you discover you can put them together and make a great career of it. Maybe you love one of the two and don’t even think about the other until the opportunity presents itself. Few people know medical writing is even a thing until they discover it—often accidentally.

So medical writers are made, not born. If you’re thinking about becoming a medical writer, you’re already on your way because you know the career exists. The most important thing for you to know next is this: regardless of your starting point, you can do it!

If you’re a scientist, you can become a medical writer

Many people come to medical writing from the sciences. This includes people with degrees in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, molecular biology, genetics—the list goes on. If you can get a BS, MS, or PhD in it, you can become a medical writer. Being a healthcare professional is also a great entrée into medical writing. Physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, radiologists, nutritionists, and others also transition to medical writing.

You don’t have to be an MD, a PhD, or a healthcare professional, to become a medical writer. It’s certainly helpful, but it’s not a requirement. There are many successful medical writers with bachelor's and master's degrees in the sciences. Here are a few other tips for leveraging your science background to become a medical writer:
  • Knowing science isn’t enough. You need to also be good at writing.
  • No matter how good a writer you think you are, training in the essential skills of writing will make you better.
  • Take courses, or a refresher in the fundamentals, including grammar, usage, punctuation, and sentence structure.
  • No matter how much experience you have as a scientist, your medical writing career will benefit greatly from a refresher in the skills medical writers use every day, like medical terminology, statistics, ethics, and creating tables and graphs.
  • Make sure you know how to use the tools of the medical writing profession, including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Adobe Acrobat.

The key to transitioning from being a scientist to being a medical writer is that you have to be able to prove you can write clearly, concisely, and compellingly about the science.

If you’re a writer, you can become a medical writer

Many people also come to medical writing from the humanities, including people with degrees in English, communications, journalism, literature, sociology, psychology, and more. An advanced degree in one of these areas can be helpful, although it’s not necessary.

The expectation for a writer who wants to break into medical writing is that you know, and/or are able to quickly learn and understand, the medical science. But there’s so much more a medical writer needs to know about writing compared to writers in other professions, particularly what’s specific to the field of medicine and the regulatory environment. Here are a few tips for leveraging your writing background to become a medical writer:

  • Being a good writer isn’t enough. You need to know the science.
  • No matter how good a writer you think you are, training in the essential skills of writing will make you better.
  • Take courses, or a refresher in the fundamentals, including grammar, usage, punctuation, and sentence structure.
  • Make sure you have the knowledge and skills medical writers use every day, including medical terminology, statistics, ethics, and creating tables and graphs.
  • Learn, or refresh yourself, about the basic sciences including such things as cell biology, chemistry, pharmacology, and epidemiology.
  • Make sure you know how to use the tools of the medical writing profession, including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Adobe Acrobat.

The key to transitioning from being a writer to being a medical writer is that you have to be able to prove you understand the science behind what you’re writing.

If you’re a recent graduate, you can become a medical writer

There are job opportunities in medical writing for freshly minted graduates. But like most worthy professions, it can be tough to get that first job without experience and to get the necessary experience without first getting the job. What’s a graduate to do?

For starters, you can begin building your skills by participating in medical writing-specific online learning programs and webinars, and by attending in-person educational events. Engage in the profession you want to be a part of, which you can do even before you graduate. The more you can demonstrate to potential employers that you know about the medical writing field you’re seeking to break into, the better. And since who you know can often be as important and valuable to your career as what you know, take every chance you can get to network.

The key to transitioning from being a student to getting your first medical writing job is demonstrating you have the necessary skills as well as knowledge of the field of medical communications.

What skills and qualifications do I need to be a medical writer?

The medical writing field is open to scientists and non-scientists alike. If you’re a scientist, you need to prove you can write. If you’re not a scientist, you need to prove you know science. A college degree is necessary. An advanced degree is desirable. There are certificate programs you can enroll in both to expose yourself to the field of medical writing and to gain the necessary skills. Once you have at least 2 years of full-time, professional medical writing experience under your belt, you can look into becoming a certified medical writer.

There’s a lot to learn and a lot to know to become a medical writer. But the foundational knowledge, skills, and abilities you need can be boiled down into these 5 categories:
  • Gathering the information you need
  • Evaluating the information you’ve gathered
  • Organizing the information you’ve deemed relevant and valuable
  • Interpreting the information to craft a meaningful message
  • Presenting that message effectively to your intended audience

If you have what it takes, there’s a lot of opportunity for medical writers.

The medical writing industry is healthy

According to the industry association Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), there are currently almost 7,000 medicines in development. Within the past decade, pharmaceutical companies have invested more than $600 billion in research. And in the first 4 months of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 41 new medicines in 19 therapeutic categories.

Every medicine in development needs medical writers to prepare clinical trial documents and report research results. Once approved, these new medicines need medical writers to help educate healthcare professionals, train sales representatives, and market and promote the product. For nearly every medicine that’s already been approved, medical writers are needed for ongoing education and communication activities.

Now that you know how to become a medical writer, what’s next?

Whether you’ve recently graduated and are looking to launch your career, or you’re thinking about making a career change, take it from this author—medical writing is an awesome career choice! Every day I find myself challenged to learn new things, stimulated by the work I’m doing, and satisfied to know my work is an important part of a bigger effort to make the world a healthier place.

So what are you waiting for?

Whenever you’re making a change, the challenge is taking that first step. For me it was a big step. I had been working as a copywriter in the advertising field for about 7 years when I discovered medical writing. Having not majored in the sciences I was afraid I didn’t have what it takes. What’s the biggest lesson I learned? Confidence. When you’re committed to what you’re doing, and to doing your very best, the only thing that can stand in the way of achieving your goals is yourself. I urge you to get out of your own way and go for it!

If you're looking for a comprehensive resource becoming a medical writer, check out our Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Medical Writer.

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June 4, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Topics: Insider, Core knowledge and skills

Brian Bass

Brian Bass, MWC is an award-winning medical writer. He is President of Bass Global, Inc., which was founded in 1989 and provides medical writing solutions in the areas of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, devices, and diagnostics for healthcare professional, consumer, and business audiences in a wide range of therapeutic areas and media. Brian is also co-author of The Accidental Medical Writer® Series of books, resources, information, and inspiration for freelance medical writers. Brian is a past president of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), an AMWA fellow, and 2017 recipient of the Swanberg Distinguished Service Award for his contribution to the field of medical communication.