Medical Writing and Editing
Medical writers analyze and interpret medical issues in order to present them as understandable and concise in publications such as newspaper health columns, journal articles, brochures, radio and television scripts, and instruction manuals. Medical writers are also called health writers and are often literary and artistic types of people that focus on medical communications, mental health information, and the reporting of other news in the medical field. Medical writing includes the promotion of medical advancements, health promotions, or medical training communications. Successful medical writers have a knowledge and understanding of medicine and science, the ability to write very well, and an aptitude for conducting research and accuracy. They must also take scientific and clinical information and make it understandable for a variety of different audiences.
Types of Medical Writers
There are different types of medical writing. Medical journalism is often written for magazines and newspaper read by a lay audience. Medical education is often written for doctors and patients, and medical marketing often deals with promotional literature directed toward healthcare professionals.
Medical writing can be classified into two types: scientific and non-scientific. Scientific medical writers work on communications projects for professional audiences, sometimes in very specialized areas. Many scientific medical writers also have degrees in a basic or clinical science area, often learning about writing by actually becoming a medical writer. Non-scientific medical writers work on communications projects with less technical content (like health articles for newspapers or magazines, patient education materials, or marketing products.) Non-scientific medical writers may write for either professional or lay audiences. Many of them have degrees in journalism, English, communications, or a related field, and they often learn about medicine by becoming a medical writer.
Scientific and non-scientific medical writing are often two distinct career paths, although some people do both types of medical writing. However, it is more common for more established medical writers to do both types of writing than it is for new medical writers.
Job Tasks/Responsibilities of a Medical Writer
There are many different aspects of the job of being a medical writer. While most of them do revolve around writing, medical writers must also meet and communicate with different people, including clients and physicians.
The tasks and responsibilities of a medical writer include:
Daily tasks vary greatly from job to job. According to the University of California at San Francisco, there are many tasks that need to be completed at any given time for a medical writer. An overall project requires the following tasks:
The job involves a great deal of interaction with colleagues, such as project managers, account managers, designers, and printers. So, writers need to be able to adapt to different situations and interact with a number of people. Medical writers work with journal editors in order to write and edit documents appropriately and meet deadlines. They must attend meetings, spend time with clients, and be involved with account managers in order to plan projects. Traveling to meetings and conferences is often part of the job in order to represent one’s company. Some of the most important conferences are held by the American Medical Writers Associations and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. More information about these conferences can be found on their websites:
The main responsibilities for medical editors include planning, coordinating, and editing content that they are given for publication purposes. In addition, they have to review drafts before they are submitted for final publications to correct any errors and make sure the material is coherent. Deciding the layouts, content, and revising the final work are all tasks that are up to a medical editor in most cases. They must also organize times to meet with authors to clarify information they are given, and make sure that all of their points are clear, concise, and correct. It is important for medical editors to plan and allot enough time to perform all of these tasks efficiently, meeting the necessary deadlines. All in all, an effective medical editor understands and implements guidelines, edits course content, checks for grammatical and spelling errors, train colleagues, work with experts, understands the editing requirements at various stages, and meets all of these expectations in a timely manner. This can take many years of experience and years of schooling, but all of the requirements and tasks vary by different companies.
What Types of Documents Does a Medical Writer Produce?
There are several different types of documents that a medical writer may be asked to produce. These documents can be put into two categories: Regulatory and Marketing/Other. Regulatory documents are used to fulfill requirements in products development and/or regulate the product at a stage in its development. Marketing products are used for marketing or other more general purposes.
Examples of regulatory documents include:
Examples of marketing documents include:
Other types of projects medical writers work on include:
Qualities/Desired Skills of a Medical Writer
"Since medical reporting...has become a distinct, progressive, and important science in itself, and since precise adaptability of stenographic writing to medical terminology has become a permanent necessity among medical men, in scientific debates, expert medical testimony, etc., it is quite evident that the position of the official medical stenographer is one of especial responsibility and dignity" (Gould).
As with any other career, being a medical writer requires a certain set of skills and qualities that allow for a better understanding and execution of the tasks you're given. Companies sometimes look for writers with experience in a specific area of the medical field, and although an advanced medical degree (i.e. MD, PhD, PharmD) in the field isn't required, it is advantageous. Companies may expect you to have a first degree in life science, and a basic understanding of human anatomy and physiology is important. Also, good negotiation skills are often required because multiple parties (medics and academics who have carried out research) will have an interest in a particular matter, and oftentimes their opinions will differ on how a write-up should be produced. Having excellent writing skills is an absolute must because of the reliance on the ability to write, edit, and publish well-written documents. There cannot be errors in the medical field due to the importance of the accuracy of the writing. An error can cause catastrophic problems as stated by medical writer Michelle Stofa. One of the most important skills required by a medical writer is to make information understandable to the type of audience for whom it is intended. Knowing how to evaluate different audiences is key.
Other skills and qualities a medical writer should possess include:
Education Needed for Medical Writing:
Dr. Tamara Ball, a medical doctor, writer and member of AMWA, suggested becoming a certified editor in the medical field first. In doing so, experience will be gained in the medical field. Dr. Ball stated that in order to become a certified medical editor, one should take the Board of Editors in Life Science exam. Passing the exam would grant certification as an editor utilizing the American Medical Associations’ style guide and regulations.
According to Education-Portal .com, most medical writers begin with a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s degree in journalism or English and begin to build their medical writing experience by contributing to science publications and association newsletters. Some universities offer medical writing courses and medical communication/writing degrees. Many of the schools that offer medical writing certificates are online schools/universities.
According to Dr. Suhasini Sharma there is no formal degree or certification course in medical writing. Training in this field usually involves:
In order to attain the necessary skills needed for medical writing/communication there are two elements that must be considered: self-study and courses offering formal training.
Dr. Tamara Ball is an active member of AMWA. Dr. Ball’s advice is to take medical or science courses that allow for new knowledge and growth. The American Medical Writers Association offers courses and workshops that assist in pursuing the medical writing career path. The workshops and courses help in gaining experience.
Education-Portal .com and Dr. Sharma both agree that Medical Writing is a growing field. There seems to be limited information on the subject as to a precise way to become involved in the field. The career is even described as being a “difficult” one to get into. There are some universities that offer courses in medical writing. The schools/universities that offer medical writing courses include but, are not limited to:
Technical writer and active member of Society for Technical Communication, Pam Sarantos and Dr. Tamara Ball both expressed the importance of networking as well as taking workshops through the Society for Technical Communication and the American Medical Writers Association. Becoming involved in freelance work for an organization will help in gaining experience.
The American Medical Writers Association offers a list serve for freelance medical writers. On this website prospective candidates can upload their credentials into the database. Establishments seeking freelance medical writers are able to find a candidate in the database.
Certain jobs require verbal skills because of the communication that is required between writers and medical staff. A medical editor needs to be able to understand the written content and then translate it into comprehensible material. This requires a significant amount of time because the medical editor must read research papers and talk to scientists and doctors in order to gather a large amount of information. They must be able to understand and translate material such as visual guides, manuscripts, posters, and abstracts.
Many medical writers advise potential writers to not be discouraged by the requirement of “suitable experience” when looking for a job. Although it is beneficial to have a degree in a life science, there are numerous medical writers that have backgrounds in very different fields. It is more important to be able to work in a group setting and have the ability to pay close attention to details and to be able to write accordingly.
Where Can Medical Writers Be Employed?
The list of potential places of employment for medical writers is extensive. Opportunities for employment lie not only in hospitals or medical offices, but also in other medical and communication companies.
Potential places of employment for a medical writer may include:
Many factors play a part in the overall salary of a medical writer, including gender, region, background, and education. Here is an example of the different levels of education for men and women and the reflecting average salaries:
Professional organizations such as the National Associations of Science Writers and the American Medical Writers Association are often good places to begin getting involved in the field. In addition, medical writing is an up and coming international field, with professional organizations for Canadian, European, Indian, and Australian medical writers. These organizations recommend both informal and formal training to learn about the field of medical writing. Some examples of informal training include but are not limited to: reading medical and pharmaceutical journals, keeping current with the Food and Drug Administration, developing computer skills, and becoming familiar with the FDA guidelines for regulatory documents. On the other hand, formal training in medical writing can include taking courses at an accredited University, completing a degree program at the University level, and attending workshops held by colleges and Universities.
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"Medical Writer: Job Info and Requirements for a Career as a Medical Writing Specialist."Education Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
This source provides information on the education that is needed for the medical writing and editing career field. It also describes the education that is needed to become a medical writer as well as the skills that are needed for this career field.
Sarantos, Pam. Society for Technical Communication. (2013).
Sharma, Dr Suhasini. "Abstract." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 30 June 0005. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.
This source provides insight into medical writing and editing. There is depth in the definition. The source goes into detail about the different specific types of medical writing. The requirements for becoming a medical writer are also described in detail.
The University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. "Online Certificate in Medical Writing and Editing." The University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. N.p., 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.
The University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies offer a Medical Writing and Editing program that allows the graduate student to earn a certificate online. This could help start your career path towards medical writing and editing.