A primer in medical writing: Advice from the experts

By Vicky Kanta, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Biomedical Informatics

Writing is an important part of every scientist’s career. Being able to effectively communicate our science to diverse audiences is a crucial skill in a variety of written works, from grant applications to publications. Most scientists love writing; the act of putting complex thoughts and concepts down and turning them into a compelling narrative can be fascinating. In fact, many scientists discover during their training that they prefer writing over doing bench work. Luckily, there is a career path that allows such PhD-level scientists to pursue their passion – medical writing.

From PhD to medical writing

A few months ago, the Southeast Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) hosted an event here in Atlanta for scientists interested in pursuing a medical writing career. Postdocs from local schools along with other biomedical professionals participated in the event, hoping to learn more about the medical writing field from a panel of established medical writers.

The speakers were Dr. Ashley Bohn from E Squared Communications and Dr. Monica Fernandez from MedErgy/Cello Health. Dr. Bohn and Dr. Fernandez described their career paths and how they led them to where they are now. They earned their doctorates in different biomedical disciplines and discovered their passion for writing during grad school. While both gained significant writing experience with grant applications and publications, they didn’t stop there. Participation in extracurricular activities allowed them to further develop their science communication skills through various internships and volunteering positions. This demonstrated experience is what gave them the opportunity to break into medical writing: Dr. Bohn secured her first entry-level writer appointment straight out of her PhD, while Dr. Fernandez became a medical writer after her postdoc.

Drs. Bohn and Fernandez work for medical communications agencies, which are companies that create promotional and educational material for pharmaceutical companies launching new products. This material can target a wide range of audiences, from patients to medical professionals. Medical writers might work on multiple projects at any given time, usually involving different drugs and therapeutic areas.

A day in the life of a medical writer

Let’s go through an example of what a medical writer’s job might look like. A pharmaceutical company is planning to launch a new cancer drug and they want to present it at the next oncology conference. An example task for a medical writer would be to create the presentation slide decks, explaining the clinical trial results and comparing the new drug to other existing alternatives. At the same time, the company needs to educate medical professionals on how the drug works. The medical writer will then create brief documents or presentations containing all the essential educational information. Importantly, patients should also be informed on how this new drug works and how it can potentially help them. Different audiences require different writing styles: material geared towards medical doctors should contain details about the mechanism of action and the clinical trial endpoints, whereas material for patients should be written in a lay language while still maintaining scientific integrity.  For instance, the brochures you see at doctor’s offices are written by medical writers.

How to break into the field of medical writing

Our speakers described how they landed their first job and emphasized the importance of networking. Knowing someone who works in a medical communications agency can help you land an initial screening interview, but it doesn’t end there. Most companies have a writing test as part of their interview process, where applicants are usually tasked with summarizing a publication for different audiences. Good performance in this test is key to help applicants move forward; you have to pay attention to detail. After this test, there is an in-person interview where hiring managers assess your ‘soft skills’ or ‘people skills’: your communication style, your leadership skills and project management approach. Venues for scientists to develop these soft skills can include conferences, symposia, or even lab meetings. This is what can distinguish a great candidate from a group of good writers.

At the end of the event, we all felt more comfortable describing what a medical writer is and how to better prepare ourselves to become one. Dr. Bohn and Dr. Fernandez gave us insights into successful medical writing careers and guided us through the process of landing that first job. Their advice resonated with everyone and will definitely help us get closer to our dream careers!

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