The Real Poop
You’re an explorer in a jungle, bushwhacking through clinging vines and swarms of ravenous insects. Exhausted, you and your expedition crew reach a clearing, and yikes, you hear the click of rifles. Uh-oh. You’ve stumbled onto the locals, and they’re armed and scowling. All of you start jabbering. They’re unintelligible. You’re terrified. But your crew’s trusty translator pipes up and starts talking as if your lives depend on it.
A medical writer is kind of like our tropical friend, translating from one language to the other, but without the rumble-in-the-jungle drama and the insect bites. The medical writer translates scientific data into real-people talk (aka “the vernacular”) because, face it, laypeople, like the general public and many health professionals, need help. With all the groundbreaking discoveries in medicine, and significant advances in the health care industry, somebody’s got to corral technical mumbo-jumbo and transform it into something that resembles English so the rest of us can understand what all the fuss is about.
One big caveat: There’s not much poetic license lurking in medical writing. Truth be told, the only licenses you’ll find in this world are of the regulatory kind. In general, medical writing comes in two flavors: regulatory and marketing.
Regulatory writers work for pharmaceutical or biotech companies, and write up the reports needed to get a drug or medical device approved. For example, say Company X has put together a new pill that it wants to be approved so doctors can prescribe the pill. The company has spent a hefty chunk of change on the appropriate tests and trials, and has jumped through the hoops to meet regulatory requirements. But how does the company tell the regulators? It can’t just call them up, and say, “Dude, the drug is totally on the up and up. Trust us.”
Enter the medical writer. Even though the target audience is scientists, the writer must compile complex, mind-numbing numbers and clinical observations into more readable science in the guise of clinical study reports, study protocols and amendments, and the like. Medical writers also work for companies in their sales and marketing departments. They’ve got to understand how that mouse monoclonal antibody works and how it doesn’t, while persuading scientists that they need to put it in their shopping cart and crank out the numbers on the company credit card.
Some medical writers work for continuing medical education companies, where they cobble together educational slide shows to help doctors prepare for license renewals, whittling down the gobbledy-gook into actual human words and phrases. Hospitals hire medical writers to write up medical research. Large newspapers usually have a science and technology writer who keeps everyone up to date with articles on drug lawsuits and all things medical.
Want to guess what a medical writer does all day? If you guessed writing, you’re partially right, but that’s not the whole picture.
First, there’s the beginning of a project, which can range from compiling critical drug trial data to writing up a unique medical case. Right out the door, there’s a lot of research (and no, not the Wiki type) to be done. This involves reading the technical studies, talking to the professionals who authored them, and really figuring out the story behind the story.
Then comes the writing. After that, you hand off your work to editors. Depending on the project, all that could take a few hours to a few weeks. And then, you’ll need to rework the writing to make the editors happy, who have tweaked and massaged – and some say, ruined – it along the way.
About a third of medical writers are freelance: This is where you pitch story ideas to companies, or they seek you out, looking for someone to pen specific pieces. Freelancing may be nice if the din of “grande non-fat caramel latte!” at the local coffee shop gets your gears going. As a freelancer, you do get to pick the projects you work on and set your own the hours (as long as you meet your deadline), and you’ll do enjoy much more independence than your office-serf buddies. But freelancing comes with its share of headaches, too: no benefits and no steady paycheck, and you’ve got to be extremely self-motivated to stay afloat. Freelancing can offer you the freedom to fly as free as a bird, but if you’re not careful, you can end up crash landing or smacking into the side of a skyscraper. Think carefully before you leap into the freelance lifestyle.
If you don’t mind being wedded to one desk in exchange for a steady paycheck and, maybe, benefits, signing up to write for a company might be more your style. Pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies, and hospitals, are usually in the market for staff writers.
Most medical writers spend the bulk of their days at a desk, in front of their computer click-clacking away at the keyboard. Freelancers will usually work from home or the aforementioned coffee shop (as long as you actually buy a cup of coffee while you’re there – no freeloading!), while most companies prefer that their writers work in the office. The hours are pretty 9 to 5ish, except if you’ve been procrastinating, and, suddenly, the deadline for the five-page report is due tomorrow at 3 p.m. – guess who’s going to miss “American Idol” tonight? And if a big project pops up and needs to be done ASAP, say bye-bye to free evenings and weekends. Generally, though, medical writing is a flexible gig, with a good work-life balance and predictable hours.
Medical writers are an educated bunch. You can parlay a PhD in English into a medical writing gig if you learn from the best and have a couple of internships under your belt.
Medical writing isn’t all about using fancy, 5-dollar words -- a beefy Scrabble score will not guarantee you a career here. Instead, it’s really about taking loads of data on tough subjects and molding them into something much more concise and manageable. It’s taking the title from “Optogenetic control of hippocampal pyramidal neuron plasticity” to “Scientists use light to create memories.” Clarity is key.
Medical writers are also communicators and team players. Face it, writing stuff is a group effort. It’s best to be even-tempered, patient, and diplomatic, especially when dealing with editors.
A thick skin will come in handy, too. Since these are complicated matters, that first draft that you spent hours crafting may come back from the editor looking like it just spent the day sleeping on the beach, those pasty white pages coated in red ink. Because any writing job will revolve around the editing process, you’ve got to be able to take criticism well and incorporate other’s suggestions in your writing. The job isn’t just about putting words on paper though; it involves a lot of critical-thinking, research and project-management skills. Typically, medical writing departments are small, so independence and motivation are key elements to success. If you find yourself wandering onto Amazon.com or online shoe shopping when trying to write up a report, we’d suggest finding a different career.
While some medical writers specialize in one particular scientific area, like cardiovascular medical research, most aren’t so specialized and instead focus on a broader field, like biotech product marketing. That means the types of projects they can be assigned can be quite varied. So depending on where you want to work and what you want to write, there can be a wide range in the types of science you will research and write about. That means you’ll have to a nimble mind, which can leap from topic to complicated topic with ease.