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Breaking into Science and Medical Writing: Tips for Aspiring Science Communicators

Medical writing is one of those big umbrella terms with so many paths to success! It doesn’t just encompass the medical field, it includes a lot of career tracks that don’t have anything to do with it. We will briefly discuss some of the biggest career tracks within medical writing as well as how being a microbiologist already makes you perfect for this lucrative career.

In a nutshell, writing is really about communicating and expressing ideas in easily digestible quantities. Often, writing careers, especially today, extend beyond the written word and transcend into the world of audiovisual, web design, posters, creating powerpoints, and other forms of presentations.

What Is Medical Writing?

Medical or science writing is a form of science communication. Someone in this career may write to a variety of audiences including medical professionals, the general public, or to patients. This type of writing requires a deep understanding of the subject matter, as well as the ability to present complex concepts in a clear and concise manner. A good medical writer has a deep understanding of both writing and science, so an advanced degree in science, although not necessary, can be useful. This is why this can be a great career choice for microbiologists who often need a deep level of understanding in several fields like immunology and pathogen biology.

Medical and science writing can take many forms, including:

  • journal articles

  • research papers

  • grant proposals

  • clinical study reports

  • Web copy

  • Regulatory documents

  • Textbooks

  • Media script writing (podcast, YouTube, webinars etc.)

  • Patient education materials.

  • Creating online courses/modules

  • Marketing/Social media coordinator

The goal of medical writing is to disseminate accurate and useful information that advances scientific knowledge while not overloading the audience with too many complex and unnescessary details. Knowing how much and what kinds of jargon are appropriate for the various audiences is a must for medical writers and science writers alike.

Due to the vast array of writing forms, science and medical writers can work in an equally diverse work settings including:

  • Pharmaceutical companies

  • Biotech companies

  • Academic institutions

  • Healthcare organizations

  • Government agencies.

The most important thing for any writer is to understand their audience. A medical writer’s audience can include patients, the general public, physicians, nurses, regulators, or researchers. In the case of education, you may be creating a course for undergraduates that have taken basic biology, so using words like macrophage or leukocytes may be appropriate. On the other hand, someone writing a marketing piece for a pharmaceutical company would be writing for the general public and thus a more general word like ‘cell’ might be best.

Regulatory writing tends to be a lot more rigid than the other forms; here, you are writing often to get approval from some agency and more formal or legal terms are required. This might include: documentation on patient narratives, standard operating procedures (SOP), or good manufacturing practices (GMP) reports that require very detailed documentation.

Who Hires Medical Writers And What Are the Expected Salaries?

There are tons of places medical writers can be hired at all different levels and salary scales. Some medical writers work for companies as full-time employees, while others work as freelancers. Some of the most common companies medical writers work for are healthcare organizations, medical device companies, medical marketing, biotechnology companies, medical education, and of course pharmaceutical companies. So if you are interested in continuing to work from home this might be a great career path for you!

Infographic discussing the 3ps to a successful science writing career.

There are many factors that play into a medical writer’s expected salary including the level of education, area of work, years of experience, and whether they are freelancers or not. According to the American Medical Writers Association’s 2019 survey, medical writers can expect a salary between $75K - $203K. With the highest level of compensation being reported by experienced freelance medical writers in regulatory writing and the lowest being by those that work in medical research/grants or higher education.

There is also a large difference in salary for those that write vs. those that edit. In many medical writing positions, writing and editing are expected, but if you are hired primarily as an editor you can expect a lower annual income than someone who is hired primarily as a content writer. Finally, as with anything else, your geographical location will impact your income. However, in the age of freelancers and remote work, you can expect the geographical location of the contractor or employer to impact your salary more so than your physical location. In the US, the places that have a large biotech/pharma presence, such as California or Boston, can expect higher compensation.

There are many diverging career paths for medical writers, but generally, you will start as an associate or junior medical writer working your way up to a senior medical writer. If you so choose, you may also climb up the managerial ladder to become a department head or editorial manager/director. Alternatively, you can become the communication specialist and oversee all communications within a company. Or, as we mentioned before, you can be a freelancer or contract worker. In these instances, you are both your own boss and could have a dozen bosses at once depending on how many projects you end up juggling at one time. If you wish, you can turn your freelancing into a small business and hire other freelance writers, graphics designers, marketers, editors, and other employees to create your own enterprises.

What Are the Top Skills Needed To Become A Medical Writer?

  • Writing and Editing

  • Strong (and sometimes broad) science background

  • Project management

  • Research

  • Critical Thinking & Research

  • Attention To Detail

  • Excellent Communication

  • Knowing Multiple languages is a plus!

  • Epidemiology (especially for any pharmaceutical writing)

  • Time management

  • Bioethics (especially for regulatory and writing clinical reports)

  • Marketing & Advertising

  • Graphic Design is a plus for creating pamphlets, ppts, and patient-forward projects

  • Giving/Receiving Feedback (basically good for every career path yet seldom taught and nurtured)

  • Ability to write clearly, concisely, and for a variety of audiences

Day In The Life Of A Medical Writer

The great thing about medical writing is your day-to-day life can be very flexible. Freelancers may work from home, rent an office or even work from a coffee shop from time to time if that is your thing. They will meet with existing clients or have meetings with prospective clients. They may be creating pitches, reading up on current events, or working on multiple projects a day. The day-to-day of a medical writer is very dynamic and is different for everybody.

Quote from science writer and science journalist, Jennifer Welsh that says " There is so much out there that can help you on the journey...You don't have to go to grad don't have to write just about the topic you got your Ph.D. in...There's just so much flexibility in it and I feel like anybody can do it"

When they aren’t meeting and networking, medical writers are, of course, writing and editing. A single project could take anywhere from a few hours to months to complete depending on the depth of the project. In some instances, especially in any patient-facing project, the medical writer may collaborate with a graphic designer to connect their words with pictures to better tell the story. Medical writers may even play a role in helping to organize events and conferences which would dramatically change the day-to-day from writing to organizing and networking.

Traveling may or may not be a big part of the lifestyle. Often, medical writers will get opportunities to travel and attend conferences. Or as freelancers, a nomad lifestyle is a feasible option, you can move and travel the world all while completing jobs for clients.

In general, projects follow a similar timeline. Once a project is defined, the medical writer will collect the information needed to complete the project; this might entail a project brief, a document that outlines the goal and the expectations of the project. Medical writers often use project management tools like Monday, Trello, or AirTable, or perhaps a system on paper. The medical writer will then start the project, typically with an outline and timeline of events followed by a draft. It’s important to continuously meet with others on the project to ensure it is (A) what the client expects and (B) is done in a timely manner. How many drafts a project has will depend on the depth of the project, the number of people on the project, and the timeline of the project. After internal approval, the piece can be submitted. If it is a peer-reviewed journal or other regulatory affairs, feedback may require additional work or there may be no external reviewing process.

Medical writers can have a lot of variability in their day to day depending on where they are in their careers and what projects they are doing. This means they must be flexible when needed and able to juggle multiple projects and meetings on a given day.

The microbe moment podcast marketing an episode all about science communication,  medical writing and other science writing related careers

What Are Some Resources for People Looking to get into the Field? (Bullet Points)

Is this a career you are interested in or are you already a Medical/Science writer? Tell us in a comment below!

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